International Education

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 10:29 am on 24th April 2008.

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Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative 10:29 am, 24th April 2008

I suspect that many teachers and members of the public will be a little surprised by the SNP's insistence that there is a need to debate international education, given that there has always been, and always will be, a whole-hearted commitment in Scotland to international education.

I agree with Mr Macintosh, who said that those people will be a bit surprised and probably a bit irritated that good-quality parliamentary time is being devoted to a motion on which we can all agree—Mr O'Donnell mentioned that—when there are far more pressing educational issues on the agenda. I add school discipline to the topics to which Mr Macintosh referred. Perhaps the decision to hold this debate was to do with the fact that the Government has been taken to task via the Daily Mail by the Scottish Association of Teachers of History for apparently thinking that history teaching, with all its international aspects, is being taught in a rather boring, dry and old-fashioned manner. Who knows? However, I will say something constructive.

If there was a single reason why Scottish education made such an impact throughout the world in the days when it first established its reputation, it would be its concern for the international community and the role that Scotland had played in the economic, social, political and philosophical development of many nations around the world. The 18th century Scottish enlightenment was remarkable for its outpouring of intellectual and scientific accomplishments, which rivalled those of any other nation at any time in history. It was made even more remarkable because it took place in a country that was considered to be one of the more backward nations in western Europe. The achievements in philosophy, economics, engineering, architecture, law and so on of people such as Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, Robert Burns and Adam Ferguson speak for themselves.

The effects of the Scottish enlightenment went far beyond Scotland. It was one of the most important forces in ensuring that Scottish education has always been underpinned by a strong international commitment. That commitment, especially in respect of the breadth of interest, has always been a cornerstone of our education system, and there is no question but that it must be maintained and enhanced. If pupils are to become well-educated, rounded human beings, part of the process must be their acquisition of a full awareness and understanding of the global community, and tolerance and respect for the many and varied cultures around the world.

I turn to Mr Macintosh's amendment. One of the most moving presentations that I heard during my former career as a teacher was on Auschwitz. Many people think that educating youngsters about Auschwitz is extremely important. We have no problem in supporting that principle, but we have a problem with the Labour amendment, because we do not believe that it is up to any Government to decide to ring fence the money that is involved, and we think that it is up to headteachers to make decisions about best experiences. However, I repeat that educating youngsters about Auschwitz can play an important part in their education.

We have many opportunities to learn from experiences in other parts of the world, which can only be good, whether the Government says that we should learn from China, Malawi or France. Indeed, the Conservatives urge members of the Government to undertake their next international trip to Scandinavia. In Sweden, they will see what happens when headteachers and parents, rather than the Government, are put in control of schools, and in Finland, they might be able to study a system in which pupils start school at seven years old. Such an approach would end the headache that has resulted from dealing with P1 to P3 class sizes.