Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Improving the well-being and skills of young people in Scotland by strategic structural change

Euan Mackie

In a previous blog, I indicated how rigid institutional mindsets can hold back the educational well-being of many Scottish young people.  I don’t believe it is easy to change this, but in this blog, I suggest how Scottish Education might be improved.

I don’t fault the willingness and skills of those who wish to support young people’s growth. However,  in my experience, as a headteacher and educational coach, I have seen how the system often fails the growth of individual agency of those who work and learn in it. This characteristic is something the OECD identifies as being important for health, well-being and future development. A lack of attention to agency and personal confidence renders many young people unable to contribute to society while deskilling their parents and teachers. It leads to many of the negative outcomes prevalent in schools (absenteeism, apathy and violence) and in Scottish society ( disengagement, self-medication in drugs and alcohol, anti-social behaviour, suicide and chronic health issues).

I believe the prime function of educators is to nurture young people through safe pathways of personal growth with the warm oversight of adults. This foundation should provide a growth of individual agency – an ability to become self-confident to overcome setbacks and build well-being resilience. It’s more than an academic orientated education (though structure is important),  or a model which identifies many young people with special need characteristics. It is one of relentlessly focusing on the pastoral care of young people while building their competence and agency in life skills. Strategic structural reform is needed to accomplish this better.

A standing commission on educational reform might be the way to go, based on a cross-party political consensus to nurture citizenship through building personal agency, family importance and efficacy, and community empowerment – a Scandinavian model of building mature civic co-operation for community and personal responsibility. This may be a tall order for our current political discourse.

This orientation would mean repurposing the prime objective of all those who are engaged in the institutions of the Scottish Education sector. A national educational covenant could be an important and overriding lens for reform. Specifically to address:

  • Improving the quality of the social and physical environments of pre-school children and their families: Encouraging the status and confidence of parents, and quality of their partnership with childcare providers for family efficacy; Improving the social experiences of young children (Beyond screen time and childcare); Preparation for maturity in concentration, self-care and mental, emotional and physical development ready for a later school experience; Creating positive community environments for families and their associated opportunities for nurture and play.
  • Emphasising Primary School Literacy, Communication Skills & Expressive Social Experiences: Following from richer early nursery education foundations, young children will benefit from a later start to primary education at the ages of 6 or 7, with more psychological and development maturity. This transition would then focus strongly on early organisation of pedagogical awareness in letter formation and phonics to provide a comprehensive stronger literacy foundation, allied with expressive and social activities in safe pleasant environments, with parents having clear ideas of their contributions.
  • Early Secondary School Competencies and Socially Rich environments for 12- 16-year-olds:  Revitalising the early secondary school curriculum highlighting broadly based competencies through awards and socially rich experiences;  Oversight by small teams of teachers who have cross subject teaching and pastoral responsibilities, with closer connection and ongoing dialogue with parents ( a long awaited reform highlighted over 30 years ago); The conclusion of a general education should be one of broad and varied accomplishments and a strong sense of personal agency ready for the maturer post-16 phase.  
  • The alignment of status of vocational and academic post-16 educational experiences (including communication and life competencies) and broader opportunities for personal growth, particularly in skills, in comprehensive gymnasium institutions of different lines. The development of mentorship and coaching as a nurture for achievement and pastoral care through secondary into tertiary institutions of colleges and universities- providing a richer pastoral base for each young person.  
  • Alternative Routes for Education;  The national and local authority recognition and nurture of alternative routes of education for many, particularly those with additional needs, interests and aptitudes.  Targeted support for all kinds of organised alternative study e.g. arts, apprenticeships and skills, youth organisations, extra mural and evening classes, online learning and independent ‘folk’ high schools.

The covenant for educators,  could be open to all stakeholders (from professionals through to parents and young people), to provide an overriding vision, dynamic and urgency to reduce bureaucratic mindsets and empire building.  The covenant would highlight the prime responsibility of each individual for the pastoral care of young people, and the development of their skills and agency. The covenant sets out the energy to diminish elaborated schemes of institutional oversight and many administrative protocols.

Those who take up the covenant in leadership of government agencies (national and local authority) should set the strategy to provide greater agency and opportunity for all stakeholders through less top-down prescription and restrictive practices.  The purpose of this approach is to nurture personal and professional agency not hindered by mentalities of tick box cultures, gatekeeping and of institutional rules and restrictions. The freedoms envisaged should greatly reduce workload, expense, while allowing more time to devote to local flexibility, and expanding opportunities for young people.

Those in senior positions could also have a covenant aspiration to act part time at the chalk face, in whatever capacity they can contribute, to rebuild trust in senior educational leadership so that those who are out of the classroom emphasise their commitment to deliver well thought out reform.  

Key to the actions of educators is the improvement of social environments of young people, focusing on young people’s appreciation of feeling safe and secure and having adults who know them. Well-being can be nurtured through pastoral experiences of the expressive arts, as well as volunteering, to provide service to others in the school and community. Young people should then experience different kinds of relationships with adults and their extended social group, beyond the traditional teacher- pupil model. In this way, social skills are enhanced as individual uniqueness is respected, with reassurances that problems in life are natural, and can be worked through by building confidence and resilience. Such positive experiences could help provide young people with a stronger sense of personal meaning and purpose and counter-balance the influence and attraction of social media.

There may be a case to allow local authority and schools to personalise a wider range of competency awards for the 12-to-16-year age. These  broader and richer set of awards could allow more locally tailored experiences of various kinds from academic stretching attainments to expressive and service accomplishments. Teachers who would have direct pastoral care for this age group would act as facilitators for relentlessly building these tailored opportunities for these young people. The rigour of current academic qualifications should be maintained but there should be more scope for innovation, flexibility and freedom in the classroom and less on time consuming evidence tracking.  

In all these strategic and operational matters the Educational Covenant may then relentlessly focus that the system seeks to grow young people, their parents and their teachers with stronger senses of personal agency, and abilities to choose maturely good decisions for themselves and their community. This sets to align education with the natural inclinations and disposition of human nature, providing hope and opportunity, while recognising that nurture often trumps genetic presumptions or labelling.

Euan Mackie has wide experience of working with children in leadership roles from nursery education through to young people at primary, secondary and university level and has spent over ten years coaching and supporting school leaders. He is currently an Education adviser for the African JED Child Trust Foundation and the Alternatives to Violence Project.