THE NEW millennium presents us with an opportunity to re-examine ourselves, our values and our institutions and to gauge the extent to which our education system is preparing young people for the challenges which lie ahead.
How do the newly published Guidelines for Initial Teacher Education Courses in Scotland measure up when set against this historic backdrop? Do they present a dynamic new framework which will lead teacher education confidently into the 21st century, or are they more of the same?
The scale of the challenges facing children cannot be understated. As tomorrow's parents, voters, workers, visionaries and politicians, they will be living in an increasingly interdependent world, strained by environmental problems, conflict and poverty. The signs are there for all of us to see: every day 40,000 children die of hunger or easily preventable diseases with 500 million people suffering from severe malnutrition.
Those in the richer countries who thought they were immune to such hardships now face the prospect of a global economic collapse. Long gone are the days where school-leavers could walk out of school into a job for life.
It is not surprising that this state of affairs is having a negative effect on our children. When asked to describe their world they often use words such as unemployment, crime, famine, genocide, violence, drugs and shame. When asked what they can do to change the world their blank stares and shrugs indicate feelings of powerlessness.
This anecdotal evidence is also backed up by recent research commissioned by the International Development Education Association of Scotland (IDEAS) which found that young people are deeply concerned about their world and are willing to work for change, but don't know how to.
The research also found that the media exert a powerful influence on young people's views with over 90 per cent of them relying on TV to inform them about the world around them. Given the sensationalism and emphasis that the media give to negative stories it is not surprising that children have formed an unbalanced view of the world and think that the problems are insurmountable.
What is clearly needed is an education system which seeks to empower pupils and provide them, and their teachers, with the knowledge, skills and confidence to work for a better world. Teachers in the new millennium must also be confident in integrating complex and contentious issues such as sustainable development, globalisation and citizenship into the curriculum. Prestigious conferences like the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 have repeatedly highlighted how crucial this type of education is in securing a safe and sustainable future.
However, as every educationalist knows - content isn't everything. Equally important is the methodology which is used to deliver the curriculum. Complex issues such as these don't lend themselves easily to rote learning; there are no set rules which can be regurgitated in exams, but skills to be learned, questions to be asked, challenges to be faced, situations to be examined and informed choices to be made.
We had hoped that the new initial teacher education guidelines would address these issues. But rather than a strong framework the document goes through the motions but lacks any real conviction. This point is illustrated in its failure to mention the importance of a "global perspective" in education, with the "wider" world only being referred to once, almost as an afterthought. This appears to be a serious omission.
A welcome development is that teacher education institutes (TEIs) will now be required to address "sustainable development" on all courses. However, it is disappointing that this is treated as another add-on rather than something which should underpin the curriculum. The danger is that issues which are bolted onto the curriculum tend to be taught in a tokenistic way and inevitably have to compete for time with other issues.
Publication of the guidelines throws up other questions to be answered over the coming months. Given that TEIs are now required to address sustainability, are the methodologies and content of current courses sufficient? What examples of good practices exist? And what provision will be made for staff development in TEIs - assuming that training is indeed required?
The final judgment of the success of the guidelines rests with the student teachers of the new millennium. As they open their classroom doors will they have been adequately trained to answer the questions that pupils ask about the world around them? Will they have the skills and knowledge to empower the pupils? Will the next generation of pupils see themselves as global citizens or passive victims? Only time will tell.
Mary Patience and Ian Menzies write as members of the Scottish Forum for