12 January 2016

S4M-15282 Education

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-15282, in the name of Angela Constance, on delivering a world-class education system.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

We will continue to be challenged as individuals and as an educational system by the youngsters of today. Most youngsters do not carry a pen or a pencil. That is very different from my time as a youngster. However, most have an intelligent phone and are perhaps more adept at operating the on-screen keyboard on that than they are at using a pen or a pencil.

The modern world is very different from the world in which my grandfather started teaching 135 years ago, and it will keep changing. In 1881, my grandfather was a pupil-teacher in Bo’ness. By 1890 he was a schoolteacher in Eyemouth, and in 1900 he had his own school in a rural location in the Black Isle. The school photograph for that year shows that the majority of pupils were barefoot. At lunch time, they depended on my grandmother preparing soup for the school lunch, which was made from the vegetables that the pupils took to school.

When my grandfather retired from teaching in 1926, he had achieved the lofty heights of a fellowship of the Educational Institute of Scotland. The experience of teachers and pupils in my grandfather’s school was very different from the experience today.

Today, other members of my family are teachers. My niece Morag teaches in England. She has taught in the public and private sectors, and she looks with some envy at aspects of the Scottish system. My nephew Jamie is based in Denmark and is married to a Dane, with a Danish family. The educational system there is also very different, and it is not without its difficulties. Because of a dispute with the unions, the Government in Denmark chose to lock out all the teachers for more than a month. My nephew did not enjoy that much.

I will give another illustration of how things change. When I was a student studying mathematics in the 1960s, in my intermediate honours year, one of my digs landlady’s friends sent their 12-year-old to get help with his maths. He was studying topology at school, but we at university had yet to reach that subject. We cannot expect the past to be repeated in the future.

Although the OECD report is about the formal education system, we should not imagine that all education takes place in school. It is important that parents and relatives are equally equipped to answer the intelligent questions that our youngsters inevitably come up with. A couple of months ago, I did a little experiment with my four-year-old goddaughter. She asked about a rock crystal that we had, and I explained crystals by showing her salt crystals, dissolving them in water and then evaporating the water on the stove. She was fascinated by that and we had a discussion. I hope that that is typical of discussions that are going on across Scotland.

One point in the OECD report that I was taken with, particularly because of my parliamentary constituency, is the comment that

“Scotland enjoys one of the smallest proportions of low performers among its immigrant students.”

That is important to me because, on average, the four secondary schools in my constituency have 20 languages spoken in them. At Peterhead academy, the number has just become 28, with the addition of Hungarian. It is not new in the north-east of Scotland that we interact with the rest of the world and that language is an issue. As long ago as 1853, the post office directory listed three foreign consulates in Peterhead.

Of course, that is both a challenge and an opportunity. In some of our schools, I have seen immigrants successfully passing on aspects of their culture and, more critically, their language to the local population. In return, the locals have taught those who have come to our community how to speak Doric—only a minority of the people who are in the chamber are likely to be able to do that. Education is and will always remain a work in progress. Informal learning is important, and it is important to provide opportunities for it.

The OECD report refers to international examples, including the Ontario teacher leadership and learning programme and the Alberta initiative for school improvement. That gives a fascinating insight into what can be done elsewhere. We have to accept that there is no single answer and that, actually, the most important thing is that those who are engaged in education are committed to picking up and trying new ideas.

There is no single idea. If there was a magic bullet, somebody would have found it and we would be applying it. Equally, we have to be slightly conscious of the Hawthorne effect, whose name comes from a factory in the United States in the 1920s and early 1930s. The idea is that the mere intervention of change can deliver short-term value. There is excellent work in the OECD report that leads us to where we are.

I again say to the minister that it would be good to use the Trachtenberg system. Speaking from the lofty heights of my many years, I think that it would be worth using the experience of older people and getting them into schools to impart their knowledge and experience to our students. We have to be adaptable.

The OECD report is a good interim report. There is more to do, but I am confident that the Government is willing and able to do it and is actually doing it.


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