Chaired by Professor Ray Thomas, Chairman, Royal Society of Arts, Western Branch, on 30 October 1999

Kevin Flanagan, Director of Special Projects: Bristol and West plc., opened by highlighting the "drivers" behind the sort of approach advocated in the RSA report "Opening Minds" to which he would give 7/10! It was right to stress the knowledge-driven economy in which the quality of people was central. His concern was that while the concepts in the report were good he felt their delivery was unlikely if only because the scope was too narrow; the issues were much wider than schools and their curriculum. He drew attention to the work of the Irish Curriculum and Assessment Authority and to the growing practice in Irish schools of "opting out" of the normal curriculum for a year before the equivalent to "A" levels in order to develop competencies.

First among the "drivers" is technology. The speed of introduction of new processes, the rapidly falling cost of equipment and processes and their short life, as developments rendered them obsolete, was not reflected in the educational system, which remained in an outdated mind set.

Second was globalisation, notably of information access and with it the ability to deliver services and products. This created a lack of respect for established institutions and a new challenge from students who could now take charge of their own learning. The need was for a competency approach but this presented its own problems - what competencies and how do we assess their attainment?

Learning was a continuous activity through life. The emphasis by employers when recruiting was now on transferable skills such as co-operation; communication and the ability to make decisions involving an assessment of risks. He further asserted that it was the employers, not the students who were the "customers "!

Dr Packham challenged this view and the stress on ICT (Information and Communications Technology) when social interaction was so important in the learning process. Other speakers commented on the contrast between the vibrant service sector in the UK economy when compared to the consequences of stratification through certification in France, the role of ethics and values in developing social skills and comprehension of globalisation, and the variety of ways in which we already learn how to learn even under the present system.

Lesley James, Head of Education at RSA, first sketched her own varied background in education and the importance of the wider context in which it took place. Knowledge was like milk, in time it goes off! There was a need to develop skills and the underlying knowledge that contributed to competence. But there also had to be sensitivity and a tolerance of failure.

The RSA study "Redefining Work" pointed to the much more difficult situation facing the individual who has more responsibility for his or her own future, including personal development. To assist there was now a wide range of new opportunities for learning, from Distance Learning to the use of the Internet.

The great difficulties lay in forecasting what skills would be needed in future and in managing risk. The RSA's role was to be provocative. Where should education be undertaken? The RSA appears to concentrate on the school system but that is but one part of the process; the home and the real world have major parts to play.

As for the response to "Opening Minds"— for a start some 30% of its recipients had responded to the enclosed invitation to continue involvement in the debate. So far the main response represented by `pilot projects' was from eight secondary schools and there were also four primary heads involved. Questioned, she indicated that the eight pilot schools were one independent, two technology colleges and the rest state comprehensives.

In discussion, examples of experimentation were given and there was a plea for greater publicity for the pilots and for similar experiments. There was a great deal more interest in the new approaches than was generally acknowledged.

However, a major problem was the current emphasis on assessment against easily measured performance criteria leading to `teaching to the test', whereas the key-skills approach called for assessment which embraced a mapping of the curriculum and there remained formidable problems in assessment, in the time needed to undertake it adequately and in the training of assessors.

Dr Christopher Cloke (Department of Education, Bath University) reviewed the "Role of ICT in Education". At the outset he distinguished between ICT as a key skill and as a subject. To do so he identified four distinct purposes of ICT:
Vocational — as a key skill in accessing and handling information

Social — its role in the National Curriculum

Pedagogical — as a facilitator of subject learning

Catalytic — as an agent of change.


ICT as a subject in its own right had five roles:



Revelatory — through simulation and modelling

Conjectural — what if?

Emancipatory — accessing libraries

Medium of Communication — shared experience.

He then reminded those present of the changed perspective of the way in which children learned, moving from imitative through didactic learning to their new role as knowledgeable managers of their own learning. Lastly he reviewed the main governmental initiatives and their targets:

• Qualified Teacher Status requires ICT capability from 1999;

• All teachers to be confident about ICT by 2002;

• Grid or Network access for 75% of all teachers and 50% of pupils by 2002.

This is a massive challenge. OFSTED asserts that only 50% of secondary and 30% of primary schools reach the required standard now. There is already evidence of the economic divide between schools and local authorities. But the biggest challenge is the extent to which the new facility is transforming pedagogy.

Don Foster MP tackled the conference title head on. Why do we need compulsory education at all? He advanced four reasons why we still do need it:

Economic - our future as an economy depends upon a knowledgeable labour force;

Social - there is a clear link between social deprivation and education;

Democracy - effective citizenship is dependent on a knowledgeable and critical electorate;

Solution of global concerns - there remains a critical need for able people to contribute to their resolution.

We need privately happy, publicly useful citizens. The present system is outdated and cannot deliver what we need. We continue to ignore how we learn. The system remains teacher dominated and is fearful of technology.

The early years of education are the most crucial. It is here that the most potent driving forces for change could be unleashed. He cited the experience of parental involvement in learning that he had observed in Cambridgeshire where schools are "Community Learning Centres". After all, the process of weaning children involved their exposure to risks and learning how to react to them. In this we are all learners.

But the present situation in which education is a centrally-driven uniform activity ignores the role and capability of parents and leaves school governors to implement what remains a knowledge-based hierarchy in which academic and vocational aims remain divided. Therefore the system needs changing with a new approach to its accountability.

In this he placed great stress on restoring the professionalism of teachers with a General Council for the profession. At the same time he welcomed the idea of Individual Learning Accounts to be drawn upon as and when required by the learner

The delegates then divided into three discussion groups.

The first, led by Dr Eric Albone (Clifton Scientific Trust), began by stressing the need to work in teams and this extended to the notion of education partnerships. Sandwich courses, work experience and similar approaches contributed to this. Throughout there remained a division between education and training. There was an opportunity to harness the minds and skills of the retired in contributing to such developments.

The RSA report was a good start but it was essentially a middle-class approach. The pilot studies should be more widely publicised.

The second, led by Robert Gillan (Society for Education in Effective and Affective Learning), explored the issues of creativity and flexibility, in particular the role of the Arts in stimulating creativity. At the moment the Arts are suffering from severe curtailment but it is not true that creativity is confined to them; it can occur anywhere. Unfortunately the current stress is on evaluation of knowledge and fact, not imagination
and curiosity. Emotional intelligence was being overlooked when what was needed was a new resurgence of imagination.

The third group, led by Rick Hatton (Learning Partnership West), while largely supportive of the RSA "Opening Minds" report suggested that it was too light on assessment. Where in a process of lifelong learning does the individual take charge of his or her own development? This group explored the extent to which the student is a customer. The stress on Competencies was welcomed but there remained a major question of their definition.

In summing up the Chairman recalled his own experience in the setting up of vocational standards for supervisors and managers where there was a misconception that knowledge was a matter of facts which rapidly become outdated when in fact what was central was the way of looking at a problem and selecting from the differing approaches of the accountant, the economist, the engineer, the behavioural scientist and the lawyer, which ways had to be deployed in a given situation. There needed to be the willingness to acknowledge signals from the most unexpected quarters and the insights into problems when viewed from a very different angle.

But there was also the interaction of skills and knowledge.

Pursuing the development of a competence revealed the areas of knowledge that needed to be explored. In all of this, innovation could arise anywhere, often in the most unexpected places. Really old universities could be far more innovative in looking at the competencies approach than allegedly trendy newcomers which could be very conservative.

Ray Thomas