A vision for Scotland in 2020 is the theme of today's Edinburgh Conference, organised by The TESS and Edinburgh City Council. We invited 16- to 18-year-olds across the country to send in their ideas for a motivated, inclusive society. These are the two winning essays
Alison Sneddon, 16 James Gillespie's High, Edinburgh
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English defines education as "a development of character or mental powers". We are told that a young person is conditioned by their environment and the different influences surrounding them, and education therefore plays a major role in forming and developing the people who become a part of society. This makes it necessary for us to know what kind of society we want to live in, and who we want to share it with.
An ideal society should be inclusive, with social justice prevailing over our way of life and with all citizens equal to each other, regardless of ethnic origin, religion, sexuality, physical and mental disability or social background.
In order to achieve this equality, prejudices and misconceptions which impair our relationships within our community need to be addressed and dealt with from as early a stage as possible.
In today's society, although racist and sexist attitudes are no longer tolerated, these attitudes do exist to an alarming extent, the most notable being the recent revelation that more than half of Scots admit to being racist.
These kinds of prejudices are formed from an early age and can become ingrained in our psyche. The only way to eliminate them from our community is to teach children about the diverse mix of people with whom they share their environment.
Prejudices stem from fear, caused by misconceptions and a lack of knowledge and awareness of things that are different to what we are used to.
Providing children with factual information about their immediate and wider surroundings that was unavailable to previous generations should discourage similar attitudes from being formed, preventing these all too familiar divisions in society.
However, once children have been provided with this information and taught what it means to be a tolerant and involved member of an integrated community, they need to know how and why to use this information.
Schools should be able to provide an environment where children are able to formulate their own opinions and ideals about the world surrounding them, locally, nationally and internationally, and learn how to express them while simultaneously respecting opposing views. In this way, not only will children learn about others, they will also learn about themselves and how to be communicative individuals who are able to understand their community and how they are a part of it.
In theory, it seems obvious that children should be taught about their role in society and how to interact with each other on different levels, but in practice it can be difficult to know how to implement this. In order for children to learn how to respect each other, they should be able to get to know their classmates as individuals rather than representatives of an ethnic minority or alternative way of life. Treating children as specimens in a jar can only be demoralising, and while all differences in culture, religion and identity should be recognised and appreciated as part of a diverse system, we need to be wary of forcing young people into stereotypes.
In terms of learning how to contribute to their community, children would ideally be provided with the opportunity of voluntary work in the same way that we are provided with work experience. Not only would this be practical in giving some help to charity organisations, pupils would be able to see the difference that their contribution, and the work of others, makes to their fellow citizens and how important it is to be an active member of society.
It is also important for young people to be aware of what is going on in the world around them. Involving students in discussions about current events would allow them to learn about various situations in the international community and also become used to expressing their views and listening to the views of others. Correspondence with overseas contemporaries is a useful way of interacting with other young people in different situations; personal contact brings situations into a personal perspective and helps to realise the importance of world events and how they affect ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
Ultimately, if education is to provide children with an environment where they are able to learn about themselves, each other and their role in society, they need to be taught why it is important and how it relates to them as individuals. Apathy is something which unfortunately is the root cause of so many of the problems in our society today, from litter to poverty; most people simply don't realise why these issues should affect them and why they should have to do anything about it.
Involving young people in their community and making them a valued part of it will instil a sense of purpose and usefulness in young people and encourage them to want to be a part of society and the world in which they live.