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7 February 2013

The market forces
behind Scotland
as a 'learning nation'

Walter Humes

Photograph by Islay McLeod

What should Scottish education look like by the year 2025? We are being encouraged to consider this question by Scotland's Futures Forum (SFF) and the Goodison Group in Scotland (GGiS), which have collaborated in a study aimed at stimulating debate about how best to produce 'a world-leading learning nation'.

The aim is not to predict the future or to advance a particular set of policy recommendations, but to pose a series of questions, some of them deliberately provocative, which politicians, employers, education professionals and the wider public need to address. The report of the study is informed by a wide range of research evidence and by the views of some 350 stakeholders who were consulted as part of the process.

Two fundamental 'drivers' which will shape the direction of society and learning between now and 2025 are identified: increased globalisation and greater social inequality. Four scenarios of possible futures are then described, each of which represents a different set of responses to the two key 'drivers'.

The first scenario is a 'Market Driven Learning Society' in which Scotland has embraced globalisation: there will be winners and losers, with the leading universities emerging as powerful players. This contrasts with the second scenario, a 'Local Learning Society', in which the principles of equality and social justice influence policy to a greater extent than international pressures. The third scenario is the 'Global Learning Society', in which government (not the private sector) takes the lead in promoting learning and skills as instruments of growth and marketable exports to other countries. The final scenario is the 'Divided Learning Society', in which the gap between the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated, has intensified. This leads to social unrest, fuelled by the stark contrast between areas of extreme deprivation and the gated communities of the wealthy.

Among the 'key overarching questions' posed by the report are these:

Can the Scottish business sector be encouraged to promote a deeper spirit of entrepreneurship with and for learners of all ages?

Should the content of further education be driven and organised by regional business sectors?

The emphasis in these questions is interesting for two reasons. First, it signals that vocational learning, which traditionally has been accorded second-class status in the educational system, is seen as vital to economic growth and future employment. Secondly, and just as significant, there is an implicit belief that what is worth learning, and where that learning should take place, should not be determined exclusively by education professionals. Critics might fear that this will lead to the 'commodification' of knowledge and the devaluation of learning for its own sake.

More specific questions are prompted by each of the four scenarios. These include the extent to which universities should become private organisations, no longer reliant on public funding; for example, collaboration between Harvard and Edinburgh universities could produce a leading global 'brand', with considerable scope to generate income, but what would that mean for the Scottish 'democratic intellect'? Again, would the creation of local 'learning hubs', offering flexible pathways and extensive use of technology, geared to the needs of particular communities, undermine the notion of a 'national' system of education?

Is it reasonable to expect the schooling system to prevent, or remedy, deep social problems which have their roots in poverty, unemployment, poor health and family breakdown? If schools try to do too much, might they end up doing nothing very well? What are the implications for the education of teachers if global competitiveness is given priority? Is it possible to 'import' practices from highly successful education systems (such as Singapore) without damaging the distinctive culture and traditions of Scottish education?

Creating scenarios in order to stimulate debate is a quite useful method, but it is not new. A decade ago, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) produced a series of similar scenarios, ranging from minor adjustments to existing forms of education, through 're-schooling' alternatives, to a drift in the direction of 'de-schooling' as market forces and loss of trust in state provision undermined public confidence.

The OECD scenarios were aimed at an international audience, whereas the new report from SFF/GGiS is specifically Scottish. To that extent it may connect more effectively with the issues facing all those concerned about the quality of learning in Scotland. But the impact of the OECD report was limited and official policy in Scotland continued to be dominated by pragmatic political considerations. The much-vaunted Curriculum for Excellence programme was inadequately conceptualised and showed limited evidence of engaging with the big global issues that are affecting all educational systems. Even now, there is resistance to any independent evaluation of the success of Curriculum for Excellence. This suggests that, after some initial interest, the new report may fail to make the impact its questions undoubtedly merit.

There are several reasons why it is not easy to bring about substantial changes in Scotland's educational system. Firstly, despite occasional gestures in the direction of long-term strategic thinking, most politicians work to a short time-frame that is dominated by the date of the next election.

Secondly, there is a strong vein of professional conservatism among Scottish teachers, notwithstanding their traditional support for left-wing political parties.

Thirdly, the current system of financing Scottish education (which is not well understood, even by many of those occupying senior positions) is historically determined and fairly inflexible, making it difficult to introduce radical shifts in the allocation of funds.

And fourthly, the infrastructure is highly bureaucratic, with established institutions reluctant to embark on anything that might reduce their power and influence. For example, although there is strong empirical evidence to support the case for increasing resources to early years education, when it comes to determining policies, advocates for higher education have much stronger lines of communication to government, which enable them to promote their interests. Taken together, these points suggest that the educational establishment itself is a major part of the problem: expecting it to come up with imaginative solutions seems optimistic.

Walter Humes held professorships at the universities of Aberdeen, Strathclyde and West of Scotland and is now a visiting professor of education at the University of Stirling