Scotland is at the vanguard of innovation

14th September 2012 at 01:00
Employers want free thinkers, says education adviser to Blair government

Scottish teachers should forget about international league tables - because Scotland is at the vanguard of educational innovation demanded by some of the world's most successful companies.

That was the view of Richard Gerver, a former education adviser to Tony Blair's government, who argued that handwringing about the apparently superior performance of pupils in countries such as China missed the point.

Mr Gerver, who spoke at the East Lothian Learning Festival in Musselburgh, has been working with Google - a company that, he reported, was worried about the difficulty of finding employees with suitable skills.

Despite top graduates from around the world clamouring to work at Google, many lacked the enterprise to go alongside their technical skills, said Mr Gerver.

There was a similar tale at Zee, an Indian media company that promotes the huge Bollywood film industry.

It was looking to grow globally but struggling to find people in India with the ability to innovate. Zee had opened 165 of its own schools, and aimed to open another 600-700, to educate people capable of working in organisations like theirs.

The rote learning still favoured in many countries was anathema to employers who encouraged free thinking, underlined Mr Gerver, who won a national award recognising his success as a primary head in Derbyshire in 2005. "In China, if you ask a 16-year-old what they think, they look at you and panic," he said. More and more countries, Scotland among them, had "jettisoned" the content-driven systems of old.

That was more important, he said, than positions in league tables using data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. OECD statistics, in fact, showed that "ultra-competitive, content-driven curricula don't work".

He encouraged delegates at last week's two-day event to examine the Global Entrepreneurship and Development Index, which rates the UK 13th out of 79 countries. Mr Gerver suggested that Scotland would do ever better if assessed independently.

"Learning has to feel for children that it's for living life in the moment," said Mr Gerver. Children were demotivated by learning that seemed remote and abstract.

He pointed to researchers Catherine Burke and Ian Grosvenor, who canvassed young people's views and published The School I'd Like.

For him, the most memorable response came from a 16-year-old girl in a deprived part of England: "In my ideal school you will no longer treat us like a herd of identical animals waiting to be civilised for the outside world."

Mr Gerver advised teachers to ask, "How much of what we do in school is because it's what is best for the students?"

He proposed a "daily self-audit" for teachers: "Did I change these students' view of the world forever?"

Countries like Singapore were increasingly looking to less prescriptive educational approaches in countries like Scotland, according to Don Ledingham, executive director of services for people (East Lothian) and director of education and children's services (Midlothian).

Delegates were "incredibly fortunate to be in Scotland" where there was a growing recognition that "performance and improvement comes from within", he said.


There are no world-class schools in the British Isles, delegates heard.

"I think because of the nature of how we assess and how we test, that's the tail that wags the dog and inhibits us from becoming world-class," said Alistair Smith, author of High Performers: The Secrets of Successful Schools and learning consultant for the English Football Association.

Mr Smith, who is Scottish but said most of his experience was in English schools, added: "There's no one getting on a plane in Singapore, Seattle or Sydney to come and look at how we teach Highers, in truth."

He cited the sporting success of British cyclists in recent years, which involved a "brutal honesty" about shortcomings.

Original headline: Scotland is at the vanguard of educational innovation

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