Why progressive education should be looking back

31st July 2015 at 01:00
Use 19th-century ideas to boost attainment, councils urged

The way to dramatically improve educational attainment in modern Scotland is to apply lessons from a 19th-century visionary, a major gathering of council chiefs has been told.

Robert Owen, the Welsh social reformer who famously established the world's first workplace nursery in Scotland, demonstrated that educational performance could be boosted only if you improved all aspects of a child's life, said North Ayrshire education boss John Butcher.

The executive director for education and youth employment told local authority colleagues from all over Scotland that Owen's methods offered a blueprint for improving attainment, an issue now at the forefront of Scottish politics after first minister Nicola Sturgeon made it one of her priorities.

"This is not just education's issue, it's about families and communities - and therefore that should be our focus," Mr Butcher told an Edinburgh event on attainment, organised by local authorities body Cosla.

He pointed to successful innovations by Owen - whose New Lanark mill and village is preserved as a Unesco world heritage site. The reformer not only took children out of the workplace to be educated, but also improved their lot by paying workers enough to live on, improving workplace safety, charging low rents, introducing rest days and encouraging the pursuit of sport and arts.

Owen showed that education should not be improved in a vacuum, Mr Butcher said. He added that this lesson from the early 19th century was more pertinent than ever, with many families relying on food banks and the educational performance of young Scots tightly linked to where they lived.

"It's absolutely, explicitly clear - if you are poor, you do not achieve in Scotland," Mr Butcher said.

He added that teachers alone could not bridge the persistent attainment gap identified by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as the most glaring failure of the Scottish system. They would, for example, have to work closely with the NHS on improving children's mental health.

Schools, meanwhile, could only get so far with children's literacy, which recent evidence suggests has deteriorated; other services needed to help parents read and write so they could work with their children at home, Mr Butcher said.

`Untapped potential'

The University of Glasgow launched the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change in 2013. Centre director Chris Chapman also spoke at the Cosla gathering.

Local initiatives were not enough to make big improvements to attainment, he said, adding that good ideas had to be shared nationally and collaborated on across council borders.

"It seems to me, having moved to Scotland quite recently, that there is a massive untapped potential within the Scottish system, but only if we could join it up and release it - we really would reach for the sky," Professor Chapman said.

Outgoing Cosla education spokesman Douglas Chapman, who has stepped down to concentrate on his duties as a newly elected SNP MP, said attainment was "perhaps the most important issue for the future of Scotland".

North Ayrshire was announced recently as one of seven authorities to benefit from the first batch of funding from the government's pound;100 million Scottish Attainment Challenge, which is targeting poorer areas. The other councils to receive a share of pound;11 million are Glasgow, Dundee, Inverclyde, West Dunbartonshire, Clackmannanshire and North Lanarkshire.

Robert Owen fact file

Born in Wales in 1771.

Manager at a Manchester mill before turning 20, where he was in charge of 500 workers and attempted to improve conditions.

Formed a partnership to buy his father-in-law's New Lanark mills in 1799, using profits from cotton-spinning to improve the "moral fibre" of workers.

Opened a village shop and redirected the profits to education - a forerunner of the cooperative movement.

Ruled that no child under 10 could work in the mills, believing that all children had a right to education.

Opened the world's first workplace nursery.

Placed an emphasis in New Lanark's infant school (for ages 3-6) on sharing and being kind to each other.

Banned corporal punishment in the junior school.

Encouraged a broad curriculum including nature study, music and dancing; students wore a toga-like uniform designed to make physical activity easier.

Provided evening classes for older children and adults.

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