Start with yourself, minister

10th March 2006 at 00:00
Scottish Executive chiefs could be one of the main threats to their own cherished policy of lifelong learning, according to a hard-hitting report issued this week.

It argues that those who expect others to take part in learning and to upgrade their skills should be prepared to do the same themselves. The analysis, set out in a report written by Graham Leicester, director of the International Futures Forum, suggests there is little evidence of this "policy learning" at present.

In his study, released at the annual conference of Learndirect Scotland in Glasgow on Monday, Mr Leicester says the opposite is true - plenty of constraints on learning. "So long as we ignore, deny or wish away these constraints, the full potential of the shift towards a learning society will remain unfulfilled."

Mr Leicester, a former diplomat, had particularly cutting observations to make of the "pressure to conform" in the traditional civil service.

He observed: "If government walked into Careers Scotland today, any competent counsellor would advise a crash course in reskilling for the modern world."

His report suggested it was a mistake for civil servants to rely on "technical rationality over reflection in action". They had a natural bent towards problem-solving rather than problem-setting, rigour rather than relevance and social engineering rather than societal learning.

Mr Leicester called on officials "to start to notice how their anxieties on behalf of their ministerial masters can inhibit not only their own learning but the learning of groups in which they participate".

He added: "It is often the case that officials are far more zealous in shoring up a minister's certainty and 'knowing best' than the minister would be in person."

He acknowledged that these attitudes were understandable since it was how the civil service had operated for generations. But he goes on to argue that "in an era of radical uncertainty, it is no longer productive, and has the effect of closing down conversations that might otherwise stimulate much needed new learning".

Frank Pignatelli, chief executive of Learndirect Scotland, admitted it had hesitated before deciding to publish the report because of its biting criticisms. But Mr Pignatelli said his organisation had been encouraged by ministers to "push out the boundaries, change the way things have been done and try new approaches".

Allan Wilson, Deputy Lifelong Learning Minister, who addressed the conference, gave further encouragement when he said it would only be possible to engage new learners - the theme of the conference - if people were prepared to think "out of the box" and become more "learning intensive". That applied to government as much as it did to anyone else.

But Mr Leicester warned in his report: "It will not wash to send people out across the boundary with a mission to explore new territory, challenge conventional wisdom and think the unthinkable, if there is no explicit place for such activity in the home organisation."

The report did not reserve its barbed observations purely for the policy-makers. Universities and the school system were also found wanting as learning organisations. Mr Leicester cited the view of one participant at a recent seminar who observed that "trying to introduce change in a university is like trying to move a cemetery: you can expect no help from the people inside".

The report also pointed to schools as agents of conformity, noting the claims of Sir Ken Robinson, the leading expert on innovation and creativity, that young people's capacity to come up with fresh thinking declines from 98 per cent among three to five-year-olds to just 2 per cent at the age of 25, as they progress through the education system.

"We teach conformity," Mr Leicester suggested. "And then we hire the most successful pupils to teach others, or to develop policy for radical education reform. It is not a promising formula."

The report said that an estimated 50 per cent of young people had been turned off learning by the time they left school. A quarter are disappointed by the experience, 15 per cent are disaffected and 10 per cent disappear - the so-called "3Ds".

It pointed to the "allergic" attitude of young people in France to institutions of learning and noted that, during riots in the Paris suburbs last year it was schools that were burnt down first.

Mr Leicester argued that placing an emphasis on the formal system would not help. "There is a tendency to fool ourselves that we can simply put our faith in a new generation of professionals. It may well be an opportunity that up to 50 per cent of Scotland's teachers are due to retire in the next five years. But that does not excuse them from the need to keep learning.

"If the older group do not develop, then they could easily frustrate change. Putting faith in the next generation of professionals has always been an inadequate strategy in every field of endeavour: we know that innovative new teachers will be rapidly acculturated into the old system."

The need for learning was system-wide, Mr Leicester concluded, and the challenge was a simple one: "How can the learning system learn?"

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