The topic of international education should unite everyone in the Parliament as we grow to realise that Scotland has an important international role to play in the global arena and that, in a fast-changing and interdependent world, education can help young people to meet the challenges that they will confront now and in the future. I welcome the Government's commitment to ensuring that Scotland's children are equipped to understand the world around them.
I want to concentrate on the benefits of school linking. I have been amazed by the results that such a simple exercise seems to have on the kids who take part in it. The school links that I have learned about and seen at first hand show that the process helps to build a degree of confidence, self-esteem, wellbeing, knowledge and understanding that might not be attained through the use of text books alone. That is in line with the Government's key objective of making our country smarter and fairer, and with the curriculum for excellence's aims of making children confident individuals, successful learners and effective contributors, and of building capacity so that they can develop their critical thinking.
Learning about the world and Scotland's place in it by linking in partnership with schools across the globe is not just about learning the geography or the poverty statistics of countries in the developing world; it can be fun. Importantly, international education should be about respecting different cultures, traditions and languages, and it should be made relevant to all areas of the curriculum and all ages and abilities, not taught as an additional subject for teachers to tutor. It should also be about sustainability, with the premise being that the school is in a partnership and that learning from each other is a reciprocal process. In short, international education should be part of the school's ethos.
My parliamentary assistant spent a year working in Malawi. As I said in a previous debate on Malawi, he told me that when young Malawians come to Scotland or young Scots go to Malawi, the remarkable thing is that they notice not the material differences in their lives but the similarities of their experience. Typically, we say that youngsters do not like doing homework or are on the lookout for romance. From that, we know that genuine partnership and understanding can work both ways, and that young Scots will come to realise that, regardless of where someone comes from in the world, when we scratch the surface we are not that different one from the other.
What makes a good school link? According to Oxfam, it means educating children about
"social justice ... diversity ... interdependence ... peace and conflict ...critical thinking ... respect" and the "Ability to challenge injustice", and about having
"empathy ... Commitment to social justice and equity ... Concern for the environment."
I will share a couple of anecdotes to highlight good examples of school linking. The first concerns my first encounter of school linking, which was at the Scottish Storytelling Centre up the road on the Royal Mile. I attended an event that was co-hosted by the British Council, where stalls were laid out by schools that were involved in a partnership. I visited each one and was particularly taken by one stall. The pupils were so eager to tell me about what they were learning that they dragged me over to it, their eyes glistening. Their work was outstanding.
I told their teacher that they were a credit to their school. She went on to tell me of one wee boy who had brought to school the bull marble from his marble set. He told her that he wanted to send it as a present to a political prisoner whom he had been learning about because his father was in prison and he knew what prison was like. The story sums up everything that is good about school linking. The young boy's thought processes had led him to feel tremendous empathy and respect for someone who was fighting for justice thousands of miles away. I found it incredible that, all by himself, the boy had made a link between the political prisoner's situation and his personal circumstances.
The second anecdote concerns a visit to the Parliament of a South African school that is linked to a Scottish school and which I hosted. The pupils were members of a choir and were so pleased to share their traditional song that they gave an impromptu performance for us in the chamber. For me, that proved the tremendous cultural benefit to all the pupils and teachers involved.
Those are fine examples of school links. If the Government is to increase the roll-out of such links, I urge it to ensure that that is the type of school linking that Scotland follows.
In the briefings that we received for the debate, charities such as Oxfam, SCIAF, IDEAS and the sustainable development education policy network highlighted examples of poor school linkings that do nothing to broaden young people's horizons or promote understanding between them. If those concerns are prevalent, the topic is worthy of debate today. As Kenneth Macintosh and Iain Smith said, schools—admittedly with the best of intentions—can believe their role to be that of fundraiser and donor, which serves only to perpetrate and reinforce the stereotypical myth
We need to ensure that school links are partnerships that are based on equality. As a country, we must understand that we do not know it all and we have much to learn from those around us. However, teachers need support for that. They need guidance on how to achieve the best for their school and students and how to ensure that the children who leave their school and care grow into adults who know the difference between justice and injustice and right and wrong, and participate in the wider community to make it a fairer and equitable place—one that respects diversity.
That approach raises challenges. I believe that the principles of being a good citizen and a good global citizen should be embedded at every opportunity in the curriculum for excellence. The new curriculum provides a good opportunity to ensure that we in Scotland get global citizenship right. We all agree that Scotland has a great role to play in the world, albeit that we may not agree on the level at which we should play it. However, we must all work together to ensure that today's children and students are well equipped to make them confident and able to go forward into work. We must ensure that they realise that co-operation and respect should triumph over prejudice and stereotyping.