Why do kids disengage?

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
The difficulty for all schools is to ensure that lessons stimulate and challenge children. Scotland has pioneered many excellent motivational practices but does not have all the answers. This is the third of five discussionsmarking the 40th anniversary of the TESS

This is an edited transcript of the proceedings held in Inverness in late October, part of the series of five education conversations to mark the 40th anniversary of The TES Scotland.

Participants discussed the third theme of the Scottish Executive's Ambitious, Excellent Schools blueprint: "choice and opportunity for young people to help each of them realise their own potential".

We hope these discussions will challenge received wisdom about what should be going on in schools and stimulate fresh thinking.


Peter Peacock

Education Minister

I want to start by putting Scotland in an international context. If you look at that picture, Scotland sits in the top bracket of countries of the world in terms of its performance.

One particular study looks at all the OECD countries, at 15-year-olds. In the three measures that are looked at - maths, literacy and science - there are only three countries in each of those categories that significantly out-perform Scotland. In some aspects of maths, we actually lead the world.

If you look at aspects of policy, our exam system, how we structure inspections, things we're doing about enterprise education, things we're now doing about probationers entering the profession and so on, Scotland is right at the leading edge of what happens in the world.

People come from all over the world to find out what Scotland is doing. You wouldn't believe that if you read some Scottish newspapers.

If you look at Scotland, we've seen huge investment in the learning environment. We're also seeing growing numbers of teachers coming into our schools, giving us the capacity to reduce class sizes. Pupil:teacher ratios are improving. We've got very structured continuing professional development. We induct our new teachers into the profession in entirely new ways - much more supportive than it ever used to be - and that's adding strength.

If you look at our exam system, you'll see in our 5-14 test results steady progression. There are problem areas still but there is steady progression ,which is the important thing. If you look at our Standard grade and Higher results, you'll see steady progression. And if you look at other indicators, more than 50 per cent of young people in Scotland move on into tertiary education.

However, it would be wrong to allow that to disguise what are also potential and significant challenges. If we can overcome those challenges successfully, and that's what Ambitious, Excellent Schools is about, then not only would we have a stronger system internationally and domestically, but actually in terms of individuals.

We know there are significant areas where we can improve. We know there's a long tail of under-performance in our school system. Attainment by the bottom 20 per cent of our pupils has remained very static for a long number of years. That means that the opportunity gap between those who are attaining and those who are at the bottom is widening. Our objective is to narrow that gap.

The bottom 20 per cent has a very high concentration in Scotland's most deprived communities. There's a very clear correlation between deprivation, multiple deprivation, severe deprivation and attainment.

Teachers and young people tell us that significant numbers of young people are disengaging from learning in the early years of secondary school, with some evidence that's now happening in the later years of primary school.

Something happens when kids go to secondary school. They leave primary school often well motivated, keen to learn; at the end of second year, something has happened to them and they're no longer keen to learn and they begin to disengage from the learning process. Within that group of kids, a very significant number, but by no means the majority, are looked after children. Their educational outcomes are extraordinarily poor. And those are the young people who, in turn, will have all sorts of difficulties in the rest of their lives in terms of economic prospects, health outcomes, housing outcomes and all the range of other factors.

Why are kids beginning to disengage? Well, for a lot of kids, school doesn't challenge them, it doesn't stimulate them, they don't see relevance, they're not motivated to learn. The pace of learning for some kids is too slow, particularly in the early years of secondary, and that's when you begin to lose them.

We also know that, when young people leave school, a lot of them are not ready for the workplace in a number of the soft skills that are required: communication, problem-solving, how to relate to others in the workplace.

We also know that if Scotland as a modern Western economy is going to compete successfully in a very changing, increasingly global world, our young people in the future will have to compete for jobs internationally, not just nationally or locally.

If we don't address these issues, then there's a huge waste of human potential and huge social and economic consequences.

We'll talk today about opening up choice and flexibility to try to improve motivation and improve engagement, improve the stimulus for young people who want to keep learning.

In a sense, education in Scotland is still a production-based system. If I can characterise it this way: there's a train from Inverness to Wick.

That's the journey and there's no branch line off that. At age 5 or perhaps earlier, you join the train at Inverness and, by age 16 or 18, you're leaving the train in Wick, or you might get off at a destination short of that. But it's a predetermined journey. In the course of that journey, the broad expectation has been that, while you might need to go between carriages, you would gain all the attributes you require to make a success of yourself to move on to university or further education or into the workplace.

Yet, we've learned a lot in the last few decades about how young people learn. They've got different learning styles. We know that they've got different aspirations. We know that they have different ambitions in life, different enthusiasms in life. They've also got different abilities. We also know they've all got core needs. They've got to be literate and numerate and have strong foundations, otherwise they won't be able to branch out into other forms of learning.

But, despite our knowledge of the diversity of young people, the system is still largely determined in the kind of way I've described. It's partly in recognition of that that we actually changed the law, with the 2000 Standards in Scotland's Schools Act describing young people as having individual rights to be educated to meet their full potential.

That's a profound change in legal terms but it is also a signal of things to come, preparing the ground for the way in which things should operate in the future, recognising the diversity of young people and increasingly personalising learning experiences around their aspirations, their needs, their individual requirements and their ambitions in life.

The current round of changes is not about imposing new things from the centre. It's actually trying to lift impositions off teaching and provide much more freedom and flexibility and choice about how things are done at a local level.

So that's why we're doing a whole range of things about trying to widen choice for young people, as well as trying to effect the pace at which learning can take place in schools.

We're increasing the links between schools and colleges to allow some young people to move to college earlier if that is suitable for them, to allow much more connection between schools and colleges. This is not about presenting kids at a particular point in time with a hard choice: you now become vocational or you become academic. It's about allowing much more choice, but doing so in a way where you can do vocational things and also be in the academic stream.

We're also looking at ways of recognising the wider achievements of young people and not just through the current exam system, giving proper recognition to things like the leadership that young people show in their school, their involvement in their community, their activities in sport. We don't provide sufficient ways of recognising achievement as well as attainment.

We've just abolished age and stage regulations to allow teachers and young people to have much more choice about when they sit their exams and what exams they sit, which has implications about when you make course choices.

We're beginning to question the fixed periods of the past to allow more flexibility and choice about what pupils study, when they make their course choices and when they sit their exams.

We've also abolished the 1956 schools code which prevented primary teachers teaching in secondary schools.

The major drive of change is the review of the curriculum. For the first time, we've clarified precisely what it is we see as being the outcome we're seeking from all our efforts in education. Those are four very simple things: creating responsible citizens, successful learners (not just in school but for the rest of their lives), effective contributors to society and confident individuals able to take the opportunities that are presented to them.

We need to look at the whole of our curriculum and decide what it is we teach young people that contributes to those outcomes. If it doesn't contribute, we need to question what we're going to do about that. That's going to give us the opportunity to do a whole range of things, potentially, about thinning out the demands on teachers about what they must teach, giving more space to those things that they may want to teach and that young people may want to learn.

I support personal learning planning because we want to see teachers and young people and parents engaged in a conversation about their learning journey.

This will mean, also, that we've got to make sure we move to a position where we are assessing what kids are learning and not teaching kids what they're about to be assessed on. At present, it could be argued that the exam system itself determines the learning path for young people, rather than examining what young people are taught or are required to be taught or what suits their lifestyle and their ambitions.

Our agenda is choice within schools. It is not about choice between schools. We don't favour a policy of choice between schools which could be a substitute for universal excellence in our system.

There are principled reasons, philosophical reasons, but also geographic reasons why we've got to pursue a very particular agenda in Scotland. We're absolutely committed to first-class, quality schools in every community, so you don't have to exercise choice to get a good education. You should get that wherever you are. That's our commitment.


Eleanor Scott

Green Party

Highland list MSP

I absolutely agree with what the Minister is saying about choice being within schools and not between schools. It's quite a long journey to get to that stage though.

My recollection of schools as a parent is that choice is necessarily restricted, just because of physical, logistical reasons. You choose from columns when you're choosing subject options and, if the two you want are in the one column, then tough.

There's an awful lot of practical constraints to delivering that and, while it sounds very admirable, I can imagine it being actually very difficult to deliver in schools.


Bruce Robertson

Director of education

Highland Council

We need to start with the word opportunity. We've got a massive school investment programme on just now, where we're going to have more teachers by 2007 than we've ever had before and with opportunities we've heard about to rethink our approach to the curriculum. We shouldn't underestimate all this. It's important to step back and ask what's the best direction to go in.

I think what you've just said, Eleanor, and what the Minister has said in terms of the rigidity of current practice, is absolutely right.

A teacher's life, certainly in secondary, is so highly structured from the start of school until the day finishes, and that's the case for the young folk as well. But here we have an opportunity to reflect and ask whether we are travelling in the right direction.

Can we get a bit of flexibility into the curriculum, a bit more flexibility into the lives of teachers and use some of the real opportunities that the new technologies give us to provide choice for young folk?

With new technologies and some of the new freedoms you've heard about, I think that, particularly in secondary, things could be somewhat different.


Catherine Macaslan


Aberdeen University

What we've been doing over the last five to six years is generating the evidence on which we base change and that's an important plank for us. That evidence is not just research in the universities; it's HMIE evidence, it's evidence from schools and forums such as this. And we need to keep generating that evidence on which we base changes.

We also need to engage the teachers who are delivering and living these changes as well. They have to be part of this whole thing and be enabled to discuss and interpret these kinds of visions in their own context.


Sandy Mackenzie


Tulloch Construction

Education always seems to be evolving. There will come a time when there's going to have to be a revolution. To continue to change slowly, slowly but surely, will not solve problems.

From a business point of view, the choice and opportunity for young people to realise their own potential shouldn't be confined purely to academic education. I was glad that the point was made about vocational education and attaining your own level of academic success. Academia could be a master craftsman joiner, which is a high standard.

We have to get away from teaching 13-year-old boys French when they struggle to grasp English. Until we change, things are going to be exactly the same.

We always talk about university number one, college number two, the workplace number three. It's wrong and it has to change.

We have a challenge for the Highland economy, the Scottish economy, the UK economy: we have to increase our wealth. We've got pensions to fund in the future; we've got health services to fund. We have to grow our economy and we're not going to do that if our aim continues to be to send people to university, because we will not send all the right people.

Learning has to be a lifelong process, but that doesn't necessarily have to be in an institutional environment.

The Minister made the point about people leaving school and not being ready for the workplace. That is equally true, if not more true, where people leave college and university and are not ready for the workplace.

One of the things we should be doing is challenging companies to become more involved and to accept their responsibilities. At Tulloch's, we have a training academy now. Our first graduates are only nine in number but, over the next three years, we will be up to 140. That will be 10 per cent of our workforce. It's a start. But every company should be doing that.


Lindsay Paterson

Professor of educational policy

Edinburgh University

Firstly, I think there's too much emphasis on choice. In many ways, the last 100 years in Scotland, and in many other developed countries, have been about widening choice.

A lot of the political rhetoric that Peter referred to earlier on is, in fact, premised on denying the claim that choice has to take a definite form, rather than a form that we've actually achieved over the 100 years. It is really an enormous distortion of history.

Peter referred to numeracy and literacy at certain basic standards, but there's no single and easy definition of what a necessary minimum of numeracy and literacy looks like.

It may have been adequate 100 years ago to say that people could have a given level of literacy which nowadays is roughly embodied in level C or level D of 5-14; in other words, a reasonable expectation of a child who had maybe ended primary. Also, that literacy could be defined mainly in terms of technical competences, for example the capacity to write simple messages and to read the Bible.

But that's actually no longer what we require.

It seems to me that not only do we need higher levels of capacity to express ourselves in various ways, but we also need a form of cultural accomplishment which is way beyond what we would have wanted 150, or even 30, years ago.

Yet, we haven't had that debate at all. We don't know what that basic cultural literacy should be.

What would a reasonable citizen of Scotland be expected to know and be able to do today?

Historically, compulsion has been one of the main ways of widening opportunity and of equalising opportunity. The compulsory raising of the school leaving age to 15, then 16, was probably the single biggest important educational advance. We know from research that it didn't just mean that people got more schooling; it meant that they were more likely to want more schooling subsequent to that.

Then we created something like a broad compulsory curriculum at Standard grade, and that too broadened and deepened access to the curriculum as never before. One of the reasons why we have more girls doing the sciences is simply because of the compulsory broadening of the curriculum that accompanied Standard grade.

The breadth that was traditional in the Scottish university curriculum may not have been of mass significance until quite recently, but it was extremely important in shaping the kinds of professionals that lead our education system. The reason we have the kind of quality of teaching course we have in Scotland is that most of these professionals passed through the university experience which required you to study things that weren't vocationally focussed. They weren't learning to be teachers from day one; they were learning to be educated citizens.

Despite all the very well made points in the document about the importance of skills and the importance of being able to do things rather than know things, there is nevertheless an irreducible minimum knowledge that one has to have.

It's actually not possible to exercise skills without having knowledge. You can't learn without having something to think about. You can't learn to be an effective citizen without knowing something about the structures of power.

If we have a merely skills-based curriculum, we actually do a dis-service to people and we narrow opportunity. If we make sure that that knowledge is extended to everyone, then we will have a more democratic approach to it.


Eleanor Scott

I think there's been a danger that the people who Sandy is talking about, who have particular aptitudes and skills that are not academic, end up with an inferior version of what the academic people are doing.

When we're talking about this bottom 20 per cent, should we be trying to squeeze them into the mould of the other 80 per cent or should we be meeting their needs in a separate way?

Are there people even within that 80 per cent whose needs could be better met in a separate way?


Sunny Moodie

Dingwall Academy pupil and a member of Highland Youth Voice

I want to comment on what Eleanor was saying about vocational skills.

They're incredibly important, but one of the main problems with teaching vocational skills is the stigma attached to them.

Sandy, you talked about getting the economy behind vocational skills. I know of one boy who has gone on to work with Tulloch's and that's fantastic for him. He's earning a lot of money and he's doing better than a lot of people who I know who are forced into a university trap just because that's what's easier for them. He had the courage to step out and say: "No, I don't think it's demeaning for me."

So, I think you need to break the stigma and bring in businesses to give it not quite glamour, but a kind of status within school and colleges so it's not the third option.


Bruce Robertson

I want to pick up on Lindsay's point. I agree with his analysis that, to a certain extent, compulsion does help choice. But our educational leaders and policy-makers fell into a massive trap in the 1970s, believing that school education had to be so highly structured.

The Munn and Dunning reports (on the curriculum and assessment), and subsequently the 5-14 reforms, made Scottish education probably a more structured school system than anywhere else in Europe. That really has been a major issue for us over the last 20 to 30 years.

What I think we're about now, I hope, is trying to get that happy balance between knowledge and skills and recognising achievement in young folk, which isn't just about Standard grades, but is helping to prepare the citizens of tomorrow.

Can we get that happy balance? Could we introduce things like the Duke of Edinburgh's Award scheme for all? That would help combine achievement and citizenship.

The point is, if we are going to take opportunities from Ambitious, Excellent Schools, we need to free up the system.


Michael Gregson

Nairn Academy

Iwelcome the document in lots of ways as a practising teacher and I would endorse the analysis that the structure we have is both a strength and a weakness. In some ways, schools are the prisoners of the subjects that we teach.

We can bolt on all kinds of out-of-school hours opportunities but maybe, if we're talking about the modern world, people need to have opportunities to find their own kinds of fulfilment and satisfaction in life. That may well be partnership with employers; it may be working as a volunteer in the primary school they used to go to. And this doesn't need to be delayed until they're 16.

I've tried to work in as democratic a way as I can alongside pupils and parents and my colleagues. That's the challenge: to forget the leadership model we've all got and grown up with and the subject structure of the school that we work in. Instead we need to think more flexibly and creatively, because that's what employers are needing.

The thing I most look forward to is the new framework of qualifications and assessment, which might recognise the ways in which people can achieve and the things people can aspire to for themselves.


Sandy Mackenzie

Can I go back to Eleanor's point about allowing opportunity for all? I still think it's seen in certain circles of academia, and throughout education indeed, that the vocational life is just about choice for some.

Yet, it's a career path for all that could be right for some of the most academically gifted children.

They may decide the life of university or college is not for them; they may want to go and start employment at the age of 16; they may want to continue with lifelong learning but to do so in a working environment.

I know of a teenager at 16 who did extremely well in his Standard grades and was offered a job. The school tried to talk him out of the job. But he's going to do his apprenticeship as a mechanic, because he has a business plan and wants to get involved in industry. He's going to open a car showroom. He has a career path; he has money.

The fact that he had been doing little deals, buying and selling cars since he was 13 years old through his father's yard, the fact that he's an entrepreneur, was never discussed at school. It never even entered the conversation. The thinking was that, because you're academically gifted, you're not going down that path.

That's the kind of thinking that has got to change.

Peter talked about how, on the journey to Wick, there are no spurs. Well, actually, there are spurs for all of us and they are all equally valuable because they all contribute to our economy.


Mairi Robertson

Grantown Primary

Can I go back to Bruce's point. The key words were balance of the curriculum. I've got to manage change in a primary school. Over the last year, we've been looking at raising attainment all the time, rather than the broader area of raising achievement.

I think our timetables are overloaded and welcome the plans for decluttering the curriculum. We have had to timetable P1s in discrete subjects, which is a nonsense.

It's great that this document is looking at the transition from nursery to Primary 1. That's key. Children don't think in a complex, compartmentalised way at Primary 1, Primary 2, Primary 3.

This change has got to happen over a long time, training teachers in managing the changes and training headteachers in managing the changes.


Hilary Lawson

Workers' Educational Association

Irepresent the adults, many of whom are the less engaged. And I would just put in a plea, in looking at the 20 per cent of low achievers, to remember that they've got parents too. We've got to draw those parents into the discussions, particularly in personal learning planning. It will seem an alien world.

We've got to look at innovative, creative approaches which in no way patronise the position of parents but engage them. Through engaging them, we know there are ripple effects which help students. Many of them at the moment feel quite apart from school.

Some of the adults I'm talking about are still in the position where they aren't involved in the digital revolution. There are still folk who aren't computer literate. It means we've got to continue to develop community-school links and blur the edges.

Our communities are becoming far more ethnically diverse and the more we can involve new migrants to the area in school life and make bridges between school and community life, the better off we'll all be.


Jane Kennedy

policy officer

Convention of Scottish Local Authorities

A lot of folk were concentrating on curriculum choice. That really addresses the needs of 80 per cent of kids that are going to achieve something at the moment.

If anyone is aware of the work of Professor James J. Heckman, who's an economist at the University of Chicago, he talks about the key to successful skills being successful families.

Really, making choices in the curriculum for some children means nothing.

That's not going to make them go to school. What's going to make them go to school is parents seeing some value in it.

Until we actually start to concentrate on deprivation and start to link that into education, the 20 per cent who are underachieving are not going to be sorted out by what we do in schools. It's going to be sorted out by what we do with families and in communities.

That's the real challenge, especially as we move into an economy where our workforce is declining and we have 35,000 children between 16 and 19 who are not in education, employment or training. If we could get them in, it would probably fill some of the gaps and then start to regenerate some of the poverty.


Drew Millar

Education vice-chairman

Highland Council I don't particularly like this 20 per cent expression. I know a lot of people in my part of the world who are probably in that 20 per cent.

There seems to be more opportunity nowadays, especially in the last five or six years when unemployment has dropped because of the industry that Sandy's involved with. There's huge potential now for people to earn a good living that wasn't the case maybe 15-20 years ago. So I'd like to see more choice perhaps in the way Sandy was talking about, encouraging people to look at a career not a set of choices.

I remember having a conversation with the head of a secondary school. He was very clear that children should be very much thought of as individuals.

If somebody was clever enough to sit their Standard grades in the second year, then they should do that; they should have choice. There should then also be choice for other people who know what their potential could be. If it isn't to be learning French or Spanish or Latin or whatever, they should then be encouraged to look at leaving school when they can to become employed.

I think we have to look at how we encourage people to go down the lifelong learning route, while finding them employment in their own local areas.


Eleanor Scott

Picking up on what Drew was saying about seeing pupils as individuals, there's a kind of cultural change that will have to happen in secondary schools, and it will be very difficult because of sheer pupil numbers.

Primary teachers know their pupils; they know their family backgrounds. Secondary teachers don't. That's partly because of the way that teachers come into secondary. They've studied their subject and they want to teach the subject, whereas people go into primary because they want to teach the children. That's the essential difference.

I believe some of the primary ethos has to move to the secondary before anything is going to be delivered for the individual pupil.


Hilary Lawson

Isn't the role of personal learning planning to look at the whole child and their interests beyond the academic? Hopefully, that will be a new mechanism for gathering and capturing those interests and enthusiasms.


Michael Gregson

On knowledge of the individual young person, it's kind of a challenge now.

But we've got all these chartered teachers with their enhanced pay and conditions and this is an opportunity to engage more with the pupils.

It is one of the most fulfilling aspects of working in a school, to see a child when they're most fulfilled and when they manage to achieve their personal best. But it's not always within the classroom that they will achieve their best. On the other side of a school's life, the wider definition of a school in its community, that's where the greatest opportunities are.

I think a lot of teachers are simply missing out by holding to their current or historical practice of "these are my working hours and I'll just do those".


Lindsay Paterson

I would like to widen the definition of what we mean by choice. There's at least two kinds of choice that we might find awkward. One is the choice of young people to leave, to defy authorities, to be anti-social in the current legislated jargon. Now why is that choice disapproved of when all the other choices are approved of enthusiastically and consensually?

The other is about political choices and it has to do with the inevitably political dimension of citizenship. We've got some very effective ideas on citizenship education, certainly consistent with the best practice internationally. But we haven't thought through citizenship being more than just doing volunteering in the community, however important that may be.

It's also about taking part in democracy; it's about taking part in an event like today's. It's also, in the end, about challenging political power, which might concentrate the minds of our politicians.

Three things about that. First, we know from good research that specific programmes of preparation for citizenship are not very good at turning people into good citizens. One of the valid outcomes of schooling is a political awareness, which engages people with their local society and with their national and global societies. That gives them an understanding of why sometimes acting together is the only way to achieve things. Choice can sometimes be thought of as simply an individual thing.

The second point is that, if we're talking about celebrating non-academic achievement, then could we not be doing more to celebrate that kind of achievement?

I've noticed that the newspapers which tend to deride Scottish education didn't really do very much to celebrate the enormous effect of citizen intervention by the children from Drumchapel High over the Vucaj family (protesting about their forced deportation to Kosovo). They went to the Scottish Parliament, talked to the relevant ministers and got the attention of at least those bits of the media which take these things seriously.

That was one of the most impressive achievements of a non-academic sort that I've seen Scottish schoolchildren do for a very long time. But it was not celebrated in public debate. It was highly politically and very controversial and it was all the braver for being so.

Final point about choice, and maybe even more controversial. When the Conservatives were in power, we were wary of the notion of self-governing schools, as they called them. I think that was good because the motive behind the policy was actually to undermine a lot of the things we've already agreed this morning are very valuable. But why is it that we accept that people should be more politically active? Why is it that we accept that schools should have more autonomy? And why is that we accept that headteachers, in particular, should be community leaders? Yet, at the same time, why do we not accept that communities themselves should be politically empowered to have some real effective say in what their schools are like and the direction in which they are going?

If the community of the school is to have that say, what other form can it take than some sort of governing council of the school?

This isn't, by the way, a point about the legislation of school boards; it's about whatever form we choose to involve parents and the community in the school.

Of course, there would have to be balances and constraints. We cannot allow people to just do what they want. There would have to be national standards, there would have to be national entitlements to opportunities.

We don't want to go the way of the US where the richest communities fund the richest schools. But I think there is scope for a great deal more local political empowerment in relation to schools without undermining what we all value.


Ben Hunter

Young people who want to become politically aware are trying to engage with politicians, but they often feel disenfranchised because politicians will come along to young people's events and go "Oh yes, that's very nice. Young people are the future of tomorrow. You're going be the leaders of tomorrow", then get in their car, leave and forget everything. We've got to remember that young people aren't just tomorrow's leaders; we're actually here today. Something needs to be done now about young people and not just leave it to the future. When will the future start?


Sunny Moodie

In an ideal society, in an ideal world, every schoolchild, because they are all individuals, would have an education tailored to them to realise their full potential. Now that is impossible. But why I really like this document, Ambitious, Excellent Schools, is because it deals with opportunity and choice, building individuals and learning.

Building individuals through choice and opportunity and learning is what education is all about in the first place.


Chris Oughton

Millburn Academy, Inverness

I feel the choice I was offered was very broad. I think the choice has definitely helped me. I haven't shut any doors. I think the structure in our curriculum helps us, step by step, until we get our results and it gives us a sense of achievement. It wouldn't be as structured if there was more choice. Flexibility would encourage choice, but it reduces the structure.


Peter Peacock

This has been a very high quality discussion and all credit to The TESS for doing this. One of the things that doesn't happen often enough in Scottish education, and in public policy generally, is exactly this kind of discussion. I really very much enjoyed it.

When we asked people around the table earlier about what they did at school and what they enjoyed, they remembered the school trip, scoring a try, the annual play or whatever. Very rarely did people refer to the academic side of things.

One of the objectives of trying to declutter the curriculum, trying to create more space, is actually to give more time and opportunity for creating exactly these conditions in our schools, because we know they can be creative, they can be motivating and, if you get the chance of being good at sport or music or drama, you may well stick at all the other things as well.

One of the things that Lindsay first highlighted, but others also referred to, was about citizenship and the debate about educational outcomes. That's exactly what the curriculum review process is about. We've really opened the door and we need to have much more dialogue and debate.

Lindsay made a very good point about what standard of literacy and numeracy we should actually be looking for. How do we articulate that? Do we define it as a very precise standard or as a variety of qualitative indicators? I don't have the answer to that but I want to see the debate take place.

The other big discussion was about the nature of citizenship. What is it to be a modern Scot? What does that say about multi-culturalism; what does it say about inclusion? What does it say about participation in society and the knowledge required for participation, as well as the opportunities for participation?

Lindsay's point about compulsion is a good one. There are limitations to the freedoms as well as opportunities from the freedoms. We've got to try to find that happy balance, that Bruce and others talked about, between compulsion and freedom in choice, and we've got to do that maturely and sensibly within a system where there is a broad consensus about what works.

I want to pick up some of the points that Sandy made about lifelong learning and where that takes place and how it takes place. You very sensibly said that where society's changing, you've got to change those opportunities, and I was very pleased to hear what you said about industry itself having to take a responsibility in that.

Sandy also had a very good point about why we are forcing kids to learn things that they hate, which they know they hate and we know they hate.

That's partly why we're challenging the conventions about choice.

Why is it we're talking about columns? Why do you have to do history or geography? Why can't you do both?

Making choices early doesn't mean you're closing doors. That's the point Chris made. You might be closing doors in S1 and S2, but they may and they should open for you again. If you sat your Standard grade exams early, you've got two years to do your Highers, so choice isn't necessarily limited by that.

The other point Sandy made, which echoed through a number of other comments, is about vocational programmes and the status of vocational learning. Sandy made the point that the school system to some extent acts against people wanting to work and does not legitimise the vocational option.

Vocational learning is something we've got badly wrong in the last 20 years. It provides legitimate choices and we need to raise the status of vocational learning.

Eleanor made the very good point that teachers in primary schools teach children and secondary teachers teach subjects. In the future, I think you're going to see much more themed learning around the outcomes from the curriculum.

I was asked by a history teacher recently whether I was making history a thing of the past (laughter); he was referring to the profession of teaching history. I said absolutely not; everybody's got to have some sense of understanding of place, of how we got here and what lessons are to be learned about how we got here.

But whether you teach history as a subject in that way, in your own classroom, in your own allocated time, is questionable. It may be part of another part of learning that we connect to mathematics or to English or to a language or to whatever.

We're going to see a broad movement of learning through themes, rather than just subjects.

There's a big institutional change required in that. There are implications for how you train people, implications for the expectations you have. But it seems that the consumers of our service, whether that's young people themselves or industry or parents, are asking us to do much more of that.

Finally, I took the point about Heckman and what he said when he was in Scotland last year about the importance of family, the importance of investing early and building on early investment in young people and not trying to use remedial methods later on in school life because you don't get anything like the returns.

But one of the things we increasingly need to recognise is that our school system is also based to a significant extent upon expectations of family life which no longer exist.

When I went to school, if I came across a single parent, it was very unusual, as it was to come across both parents who were working. Kids going home at lunchtime was very common. So the parental structure and the extended family was much stronger. There was less drug and alcohol abuse in our communities; there were less intense neglect problems.

Today, in many primary schools more than 50 per cent of the kids are from single parent households; where there are two parents, the majority are both working. That's got implications for what we wrap around our school system - breakfast clubs, after-school clubs, homework support, lunchtime activities - to try to help give the kind of structure and balance back to families which is important.

Hilary was making the point about the importance of families and communities in all of this as well, how we involve parents of low achievers more. That's also a major challenge for us.

Some of the things I'm seeing in schools about home-school link work are very sophisticated and it brings enormous differences to the individual kids in the system, but also to their parents and getting them back into learning.

Future TESS education conversations

Today Support for learning (Glasgow)

January 20 Tough, intelligent accountabilities (Edinburgh)

All the conversations are chaired by Ewan Aitken, TESS columnist and education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.We are grateful for support from Learning and Teaching Scotland, Standard Life, Edinburgh City Council's e-team and (for the Inverness seminar) Highland Council

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