Peacock snub for London reforms
Peter Peacock told the seminar in Inverness: "Our agenda is choice within schools, not choice between schools.
"Choice between schools could be seen to be a substitute for universal excellence. We are committed to excellence for every school and community in Scotland, so that you don't have to exercise choice to get a good education."
The white paper for England signals greater parent choice through the establishment of new trust schools. These would be free from local authority control and run by businesses, churches, parents and other groups. Commentators say it spells the death of community schools, an outcome which would strike at the heart of education policy in Scotland.
The TESS seminar focused on choice and opportunity for young people, the third strand of the Scottish Executive's Ambitious, Excellent Schools agenda. Mr Peacock said that schools had to move from the present "production-based system", which he likened to the rail line from Inverness to Wick with no spurs off, to one that recognised the diverse ways in which pupils learn.
This meant personalising the learning experience pupils received - "undoubtedly a major challenge for any education system". It must be accompanied by a culture in schools that was less rigid and gave teachers back their professionalism.
The minister found agreement and disagreement. Bruce Robertson, Highland's director of education, accepted that a teacher's life was too rigid and structured, particularly in secondary schools, and that pupils had to be given greater choice. New technologies should make that possible.
But Mr Peacock found his own educational opposition in Lindsay Paterson of Moray House School of Education at Edinburgh University, who felt there was too much preoccupation with choice. Compulsion, Professor Paterson believed, has historically been one of the ways in which opportunities have been equalised.
Research into the effects of raising the leaving age to 16 in the 1970s had shown that it made pupils more likely to extend their studies, Professor Paterson commented. The broad compulsory curriculum ushered in with Standard grade had led, among other things, to more girls taking science and girls overtaking boys in attainment - Higher Still was showing similar signs of broadening access to the curriculum.
Professor Paterson also cautioned against a skills-based curriculum without any underpinning knowledge. "You can't think if you don't have the knowledge of what to think about," he said.
Mr Robertson said there had to be "a happy balance between knowledge and skills". As chair of the Scottish committee for the Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme, he not unsurprisingly suggested that that should be part of pupils' school experience.
Other participants called for less academic bias and more effort to detach the stigma from vocational studies, a view that united Sandy Mackenzie of Tulloch Construction and Ross Watson, a member of the Scottish Youth Parliament from Inverness-shire.
Michael Gregson, a teacher at Nairn Academy, suggested that "schools are the prisoners of the subjects we teach". Other avenues should be explored, such as working with employers or the community or other schools.
Eleanor Scott, Green Party list MSP for the Highlands and Islands, said that "some of the primary ethos has to rub off on secondaries", so that all teachers have an interest in teaching children not just their subject.
Mairi Robertson, headteacher of Grantown primary, said the key word in providing greater choice was "balance". She also strongly supported the "decluttering" aim of the curricular reforms. "We have pupils in P1 who are expected to learn six subjects which is ridiculous," Miss Robertson said.
"They don't think in compartments."
Professor Paterson further extended the debate by highlighting the elements of greater choice that would be uncomfortable for those in authority. He cited political and citizenship choices, which would encourage young people to take part in democratic activity and challenge political power.
This is a collective view of choice, which has traditionally been seen as an individual thing, Professor Paterson said. He referred to the recent lobbying by pupils from Drumchapel High in Glasgow on behalf of the Vucaj family, since forcibly deported to Kosovo. This had been "one of the most powerful expressions of educational activity by young people in Scotland in recent times".
Concluding, Mr Peacock said the impetus behind greater choice in schools and for schools was not to bring about a laissez-faire system, without any national standards. Compulsion was therefore important. "But we do have to find that happy balance between freedom and compulsion in a sensible and mature way in a system where there is consensus about what works."
He added, however: "We have got to question why we force young people to study subjects they hate, which they know they hate and which we know they hate."
The minister also defended moves to allow pupils earlier choices in what they want to study. "This doesn't mean doors close to you," he said. "The doors may close in S1 or S2 but they will, and they should, open up later on."
Mr Peacock suggested future learning would be structured around agreed outcomes for the curriculum. "I was recently asked by a teacher of history if I wanted to make history a thing of the past," he commented. "I said, absolutely not. But perhaps we will not be teaching it in the same way in a timetabled slot marked history, but as a contributor to broader forms of learning."
That, he acknowledged, would pose "major challenges to traditional approaches".