Youngsters are experts too

8th February 2008 at 00:00
In our series on professionals who have a close involvement with education, Ewan Aitken talks to Louise Macdonald.

she might be only a short while into her new role as chief executive of Young Scot, the national youth information (and now citizenship) charity, but Louise Macdonald is clearly at home in her surroundings - and that's not just because she has been working with the organisation for four years. Already, the office feels like her place and her passion for the task ahead is infectious.

Her dislike of hypocrisy and her understanding of injustice were evident from an early age. She recalls being hit over the hands by the sewing teacher at her primary school, because she was left-handed. This teacher was the minister's wife and she remembers thinking: "You are the minister's wife; you shouldn't be doing that!" She remains determinedly left-handed.

Ms Macdonald's time at Musselburgh Grammar nurtured her social concern, inspired by Mr Smith, her modern studies teacher, and Mr Macdonald, the classics teacher. She credits Mr Smith with having "the amazing ability to let you feel your views mattered". It was he who encouraged her to become involved in anti-apartheid and other political campaigns.

Mr Macdonald was responsible for her love of the classics. "I was there because I wanted to be, while others mocked the subject". She even sat an A-level in it, despite having to go to Loretto, the fee-paying school in Musselburgh, to take the exam.

Yet, although she wanted to go on to university, she couldn't - because no one told her she needed a language: "It was my first experience of a lack of information being a barrier to the choices I wanted to make". That experience is one that drives her today. "If Young Scot is about anything, it is about how we get the information young people need to them in a way that they will be able to access on their terms", she says.

Ms Macdonald says schools need to play their part in that effort as well. Young Scot, which has 340,000 cardholders with access to special discounts and services in 1,800 shops and services and a further 200,000 in Europe, are not "experts on schools". But she believes that, by working with teachers to provide the information young people need about all aspects of their lives, her organisation can help schools better serve young people.

If Young Scot became what she describes as "mainstreamed" in schools, they could provide models for teachers to be able to create better and stronger relationships with young people. But she is quick to offer the caveat that the kinds of pressures facing teachers mean that such thinking may be unsustainable.

So what are "better relationships"? Ms Macdonald is in little doubt: "Seeing young people as experts, seeing young people as partners in the education process". She gives an example of going on a residential with no programme, because the young people were going to design it. On the first day, the teacher accompanying them asked with some agitation: "But what exactly are we going to be doing?" By day two, after the young people had shaped the programme, the teacher said: "This is great".

Ms Macdonald is keen to emphasise that this view is not a criticism of schools, but she does not shy away from being clear that education institutions must become more "young person-centred". Unsurprisingly, given Young Scot's extensive use of its portal, Ms Macdonald also argues that digital technologies, such as podcasts, are crucial in that process. She points out that young people have become "digitally native": by P7, and even in cyberspace, they are protective of their space (for example, she says, Facebook has been hijacked by the "olds", Bebo wins for young people).

Louise Macdonald is one of those leaders who is clear where she wants to get to and is determined to get there, but not by riding roughshod over those she sees as partners. She wants to have an equal partnership with schools, to share power but, most of all, to put young people's needs first. If she can help schools do the same, she believes she will have achieved something significant.


1968: Born Edinburgh

1988-91: Reporter, Burton 'Daily Mail', Staffordshire

1991: Reporter, 'Sunday Scot', Glasgow

1991-92: Senior reporter, 'Evening Telegraph', Derby

1993-94: Co-ordinator, East Lothian Volunteer Centre, Tranent

1994-96: Public affairs manager, Family Mediation Scotland, Edinburgh

1996-99: Senior development officer, Scottish Community Education Council

1999-2000: Public affairs director, Community Learning Scotland

2000-03: Communications manager, Young Scot

2003-07: Deputy chief executive, Young Scot

2007- : Chief executive, Young Scot; member, Scottish committee of the Royal Society of Arts; member, Scottish Futures Forum project board on alcohol and drugs use.

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