Thinking outside the educational box

Walter Humes

The world of Scottish education is inclined to be rather inward-looking. By that I mean that it is resistant to ideas that come from outside existing professional and bureaucratic structures. There is a defensive and protectionist mindset evident in much of the discussion that takes place about the direction of education policy.

When committees and working groups are set up, there may be token representation from parents and employers, but it is the usual suspects who control the agenda - senior civil servants, inspectors, members of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, representatives of non-departmental public bodies, such as the General Teaching Council for Scotland, the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Learning and Teaching Scotland. Sometimes, as a gesture towards apparent openness, the odd tame academic is included - the tameness being more important than the oddity.

Some of the reasons for this insularity are perhaps understandable. The proximity of a much larger neighbour, England, makes us keen to preserve the special character of the education system as one element of our cultural distinctiveness. Those who occupy prominent positions in the organisations I have mentioned see part of their role as ensuring that influences perceived to be alien to the traditions of Scottish education are kept at bay. However, in an era of globalisation, that particular response is likely to be ineffective. Something more constructive is required.

There are within post-devolution Scotland sources of ideas that have the potential to broaden thinking about education, making connections with other areas of public policy and taking account of international pressures that are impacting on all governments. I am referring to a number of independent "think-tanks" which produce interesting publications, hold events bringing together people from varied backgrounds and introduce perspectives that are different from those which normally dominate in debates about education. Let me mention three.

The Scottish Council Foundation (SCF) has been in existence for more than seven years and seeks, through research, public events and publications, "to address the strategic changes facing Scotland . . . in an age of complexity and rapid change". Its publications include material on education, health, the economy, youth justice and technology. The foundation sees itself as a vehicle for translating ideas into action. Its motto is: "Think into a new way of acting. Act into a new way of thinking."

The Scottish arm of Demos is another source of innovative thinking. It describes itself as a "think-tank for everyday democracy" and aims to promote knowledge and understanding in relation to learning, enterprise, global change, quality of life and democratic processes. There is a Demos Scotland 2020 programme addressing some of the major challenges the country will face over the next 15 years. Earlier this year a collection entitled Hopeful Stories for a Northern Nation was published.

Finally, there is the Centre for Scottish Public Policy (CSPP), whose chief executive, Ross Martin, published a challenging letter in a recent issue of The TES Scotland (October 28). He referred to the "attitudinal barriers facing those of us who seek to reform our public services" and criticised the lack of effective leadership within education. The centre describes its role as providing "a focus for imaginative and innovative policy debate on the key issues facing Scotland".

None of these groups would claim to have all the answers. But they bring a welcome broadening of perspective to thinking about education.

In planning continuing professional development opportunities for teachers, educational leaders would do well to consider inputs from sources such as these. They might even consider attending the events themselves.

Walter Humes is professor of education at Aberdeen University.

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Walter Humes

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