Schools are not a fast buck enterprise

5th March 2004 at 00:00
Doolally ideas about a nation of young capitalists should be firmly resisted, says Michael Russell

onsider the following sentence from a supposedly authoritative article on "Children, young people and money" in an edition of the Children in Scotland newsletter: "It is sad that the education our children get in school tends to perpetuate the norm of their separation from the world of money so that, unlike peasants and the urban poor, their full involvement in economic life is postponed indefinitely."

The author of that extraordinary statement is one Keith Hart, a senior research fellow at the Arkelton Centre for Rural Research in Aberdeen University. The editors of the newsletter must have thought that it had particular resonance, because it is used not just in the body of the text, but promoted as the summary.

Yet it means nothing at all. Education does not postpone anything indefinitely because education is not eternal, or at least school education is not. Peasants and the urban poor (though what they have to do with it defeats me) are not fully involved in economic life by definition.

Far from it being sad that schools endeavour to consider topics other than simply money, the very nature of what education actually is demands a wider view. And instead of separation from the issues of contemporary capitalism, schools are now being dragged into them, with the enormous encouragement of pound;40 million worth of Scottish Executive funding. In short, the statement is elegant but confused mince.

People in education who are otherwise of perfectly sound mind and capable of rational judgments on a whole range of matters seem to go a bit doolally when confronted with what is called "enterprise education". At one time, such things were rejected entirely: now it seems they are welcomed not just with open arms but with what is beginning to be a passion. There is a love-in taking place that involves commerce, politicians and educators and one has to wonder if it will not end in tears.

The politicians are - as ever - behind the whole thing. Jack McConnell and his ministers, Iain Gray and Cathy Jamieson, promoted it in the last Scottish Parliament, lending their names to the official launch of Determined to Succeed, the Scottish Executive's plan for ensuring that all young people take the route to "a more enterprising Scotland, where all our people understand the contribution they can make as citizens, both to society and the economy".

Determined to Succeed lays down in tablets of stone, or at least glossy Executive paper, that every pupil from P1 to S6 "must have" an entitlement to enterprise activities. It has been followed up by the disbursement of oodles of cash, announced by the new Enterprise Minister in a parliamentary debate last October, during which he insisted that there was "an urgent need to look at how we prepare our young people for working lives as employees, employers and entrepreneurs".

The Hunter Foundation has joined in, adding more money and recently Royal Bank of Scotland announced "help" for young people in learning about managing finances. The Scottish economy has failed, the argument goes, because not enough of our young people are keen on business. Ensure that business gets a good press early enough, and all will be well.

Rather in contrast to this desire to stuff more into what is becoming a massively overcrowded and nationally directed curriculum for the long-term purpose of achieving a political goal (a move resisted elsewhere in the world when attempted by governments), Wendy Alexander, the former Lifelong Learning Minister, in another recent parliamentary speech on education made a much more sensible point about ensuring that education was tailored not to the demands of society, but to the demands of the individual pupil.

Were one to doubt the effectiveness of that approach, the recent evaluation of the "new directions" project at Reid Kerr College in Paisley (TESS, February 13), shows that attention to individual need, ability and aptitude, particularly for pupils with difficulties in accepting conventional schooling, produces astonishingly successful results.

Yet the "one size fits all" philosophy continues to dominate and nowhere more clearly than in the matter of enterprise education. There are gold, silver and bronze awards for schools that teach the subject: there are conferences galore and there are even, in some areas, specific ring-fenced budget allocations for enterprise activity down to primary school level.

Everybody is to do it, because they are told to do it, and they are told - moreover - that it will eventually be good for all of us.

There is absolutely no evidence that the specific teaching of enterprise in schools has any beneficial effect (after all, Scotland was at its most enterprising a century and a half ago when rote learning was the norm and higher education was still more concerned with Latin than with any living language).

There is also a strong philosophical objection to seeing education as being so deterministic that the good activities involved in teaching children how to think for themselves are driven out by the much more questionable and much narrower ones of teaching them to think a certain way.

It is perfectly possible to accept that the route to a more thriving Scottish economy lies through our classrooms, while still believing that this route will be much more direct and have much more success if it creates or develops enquiring minds and a passion for individual and community progress, rather than if schools merely ape fashion and unthinkingly accept government directives.

There is certainly a case for ensuring that "business education" and an understanding of the workplace enter into the later secondary stages. In most places that already happens. But to shoehorn it into our youngest children, in schools which already have difficulty enough in guaranteeing the time and space to acquire basic skills, is arrogant, insensitive and wrong-headed. It will make our national prospects not better, but worse.

Michael Russell is a writer and commentator.

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