Dalbeattie High School (Da Vinci Challenge)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 3rd September 2013.

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Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-07061, in the name of Alex Fergusson, on the da Vinci challenge, to be tackled by Dalbeattie high school.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes that the Da Vinci Challenge will be held in Milan from 2 to 4 October 2013; acknowledges that this is the first time since its inception in 2005 that the challenge will be held outside Australia; understands that it comprises a mental and educational decathlon that places particular emphasis on higher-order thinking skills, problem solving and creativity; notes that students will work in teams and aim to complete a range of tasks that encompass engineering, mathematics, philosophy, codebreaking, cartography, art and poetry, science, English and creativity; commends Dalbeattie High School, which will send the only team from Scotland to take on the challenge, and wishes the pupils, parents, staff and everyone involved in what it sees as this exciting initiative every possible success as the team prepares for what it considers a truly daunting international competition.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative

In 2001, a teacher at Knox grammar school in Sydney, Australia, co-ordinated a series of three events, held over three consecutive days, that were collectively designed to provide a wide range of mentally stimulating challenges to teams of pupils from schools in New South Wales. It proved to be an extremely popular concept, to the extent that, in 2004, schools from several states were invited to take part in the inaugural national da Vinci decathlon. Gradually, the competition became so popular that each state now runs its own annual contest, with the winners and host schools of each state being invited to take part in the national decathlon, which is still held at Knox grammar over a three-day period every year.

Clearly, the concept was one in which interest was bound to spread and, with further interest being shown from overseas, 2012 saw the inaugural international da Vinci decathlon, tested on the host schools in Australia, run simultaneously in several countries with links via Skype. Further, just as the original concept started in one state and expanded across a nation, the international concept of the challenge will take a huge leap forward this year when the first international da Vinci decathlon takes place in Milan, Italy, on 2, 3 and 4 October.

Leonardo da Vinci was, of course, one of the world’s great thinkers and scholars and, back in the 15th century, it was he who identified a cerebral interconnection between the arts, anatomy, architecture, engineering and mathematics and astronomy, and the challenges of the decathlon that has been named after him are designed to bring the concept of that interconnection to life in a way that is relevant to us in the 21st century.

The competition therefore places particular emphasis on higher-order thinking skills, problem solving and creativity, and it does so by setting each participating team a series of 10 tasks, which encompass art and poetry, cartography, code-breaking, creative producers, English, engineering, mathematics and chess, philosophy, science and general knowledge. To me, the whole thing sounds every bit as exciting as it does challenging, and I am sure that none of us would want to do anything other than encourage the further development of that great initiative. However, had it not been for the eagle-eyed observation of a young teacher at Dalbeattie high school in Dumfries and Galloway, I would certainly never have heard of the competition, and I suspect that many of the rest of us would never have heard of it either.

A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Dalbeattie high school at the invitation of that teacher—Mr Butler—to present the prizes at the end of a day of thought-provoking challenges that he had put together for the pupils, every one of whom had obviously been enthused and motivated by the tasks that had been set. It was clearly Mr Butler’s penchant for that type of activity that drew him to the da Vinci decathlon. Completely undaunted at the thought of having to raise at least £7,000 in the last four months—never mind dealing with the logistics of getting a team of 10 pupils and accompanying adults to and from Milan in October—the team from Dalbeattie high was duly entered for the decathlon and it is, I am told, the only school from the whole of Europe that is taking part in the competition. I thought that it was just the only school from the UK. It is also the only state school that will take part. It will take on teams from Australia, the USA, India and South Africa.

One of the reasons why I wanted to bring the debate to the Parliament was simply to emphasise that that type of event does not involve just the individual participating school. Over the summer, the whole town of Dalbeattie witnessed a series of events and activities that involved, absorbed and intrigued the entire community. Over £8,000—not just £7,000—has been raised, and I believe that a final fundraising quiz night is to come this Thursday. Some £2,500 has been raised through grants; the rest has come through a wide variety of activities, such as packing bags in a local supermarket, a weekly sale of cakes made by the pupils—they make good cakes in Dalbeattie; that alone has raised £350—a coffee morning, work in local charity shops, quiz sheets, individual donations and so on. It surely says everything about our local communities that, even in these most difficult of times, they will dig deep into their pockets for a cause that they believe in. That also says a huge amount about the benefits of education beyond the classroom, the benefits of teamwork, the stimulus of competition and the unforgettable experience and benefit of social interaction between people of different nationalities and cultures.

I have no doubt at all that those benefits will be heaped in abundance on the intrepid team of secondary 2, 3 and 4 pupils who will shortly leave the safe shores of Dumfries and Galloway to take on the world in Milan, and I am quite certain that—win, lose or draw—they will be different people simply as a result of having undergone the experience. I hope and feel certain that they will enthuse future generations of Dalbeattie’s pupils to follow in their footsteps; indeed, I would love to think that they will enthuse other Scottish, British and European schools to organise their own decathlons. Who knows? Perhaps it will not be long before Dalbeattie plays host to the international da Vinci challenge.

That is very much for the future, of course. For now, I simply offer the good wishes of all members to the team and its supporting adults who, I am delighted to say, have been able to join us in the gallery.

I am truly delighted to have put the motion to members.

Photo of Aileen McLeod Aileen McLeod Scottish National Party

I congratulate Alex Fergusson on bringing a fantastic challenge to the chamber and thereby securing the Parliament’s recognition of Dalbeattie high school students and staff for taking part in that unique challenge, in which they will represent Scotland in a competition of truly international proportions. I am also delighted that students from Dalbeattie have made it to the Parliament and are here to listen to the debate. I join Alex Fergusson in welcoming them to the chamber.

I am sure that most of us will not have heard much about the da Vinci decathlon before, because it originated in Australia and made its way to Dalbeattie through an exchange programme, as Alex Fergusson said. That seems to have been one of those fortunate coincidences that has opened up a new opportunity for students.

In starting to find out a bit more about the da Vinci decathlon, one of the things that struck me was the sheer breadth of knowledge and skill that it requires competitors to demonstrate.

As Alex Fergusson mentioned, each team of eight students must complete tasks in art and poetry, cartography, code breaking, English, engineering, mathematics and chess, philosophy, science and general knowledge, as well as being tested on whether they are creative producers. That list is more than a little daunting. Every team member has to play a part in each task, so they all require a good working knowledge of all the subjects. To my mind, that makes the challenge all the more difficult. I am not entirely sure how many of us would necessarily excel if faced with such a task list. That underlines my admiration for the school: not only is it prepared to try something new, but its students will, in effect, be representing the whole of Scotland in October.

This is not just a good competition in its own right. In adopting the da Vinci decathlon, Dalbeattie high school has found an intellectual competition and an ethos that fits well with our curriculum for excellence and the future direction of Scottish education. After all, curriculum for excellence has at its core the promotion of a broad general education and interdisciplinary learning and it instils in our young people the transferable skills that they are likely to need in a world in which many people switch careers regularly and the job for life has become increasingly rare.

The idea that people should be familiar with a wide variety of knowledge is perfectly captured by the event’s title. Naming any academic event after Leonardo da Vinci—the original Renaissance man and probably the greatest polymath in history—is ambitious to say the least. The ambition that that represents is very much in line with our aspirations to have an education system that is internationally respected.

The da Vinci decathlon is something that other Scottish schools should consider for the future. I applaud Dalbeattie high school for being the first to try it, but it is a competition and the more competitors there are the better.

I hope to visit Dalbeattie high school soon. I am sorry that I have not got there sooner because I know that the da Vinci challenge is not the only exciting initiative that the school is working on. When I do so, I very much hope that the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning will join me.

I join everyone in congratulating Sue Bain and Piers Butler at Dalbeattie high school for taking on the decathlon challenge. Most of all, I wish the very best of luck to the high school students who will be taking part in October in Milan. We are all rooting for them.

Photo of Anne McTaggart Anne McTaggart Labour

I congratulate Alex Ferguson on securing today’s debate. I am pleased to hear that Dalbeattie high school will be involved in such an exciting challenge and wish them all the best with their endeavours. I, too, welcome our guests to the Scottish Parliament.

I take this opportunity to mention the different learning styles that are available to not only children and young people, but adults living in communities across Scotland. Given my background and my degree qualification in community education, I will highlight the roles that community learning and development play in complementing the formal education sector through a community development approach.

I set the scene by referring to the historical context and the origins and development of the formal education sector in Scotland. The formal school sector has long enjoyed an international reputation as part of one of the best educated societies in the world. That tradition is being advanced by Dalbeattie high school’s participation in the da Vinci challenge.

The Education Act 1696, which was an act of the Parliament of Scotland, saw the establishment and development of schools that were open to all boys and girls, regardless of their status. It was not until the Education (Scotland) Act 1872 that schooling was made compulsory for children aged five to 13 years of age, which laid the basis of the modern education system. Why the history lesson? The openness of the education system in Scotland and the quality of provision have been the subjects of much myth making.

Alex Fergusson’s motion shows what young people in Scotland can achieve if they are given the right support. In April, in my region, Glasgow City Council’s education service established the employability and skills partnership team, which helps young people in the city to access vocational education while they are at school.

The introduction of comprehensive education, in legislation in 1965, improved access to education. An attempt was made to provide an adequate standard for all children in Scotland.

Community learning and development can play a key role in not only complementing but supplementing the formal education sector. It is a way of working to support communities to increase the skills, confidence, networks and resources that they need if they are to tackle problems and grasp opportunities. In short, it is a distinct sector of education, alongside school and further and higher education.

The application of the community development approach to the creation of learning opportunities can support: the identification of the local population’s educational needs; the planning of provision to meet and support those needs; the promotion of alternative programmes; and the monitoring and evaluation of the planned programmes. Those four points are taken from a paper that Ted Milburn—a former lecturer of mine, who became a professor of community education—delivered some 26 years ago.

What Ted Milburn said more than a quarter of a century ago is more than relevant today. The community learning and development approach is important, not just in its ability to complement and supplement the formal education sector but as a way of taking forward social and economic initiatives, to tackle the poverty and social deprivation that are, unfortunately, still prevalent in too many communities in Scotland.

We therefore need to share examples of good practice, such as the vocational training programme that Glasgow City Council is running and the initiative at Dalbeattie high school. We wish the pupils of Dalbeattie high school well in their endeavours; I hope that they will come back and tell us that they are champions.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I congratulate Alex Fergusson on securing the debate, and I congratulate the staff and pupils of Dalbeattie high school, who are off on an exciting adventure. Good luck to you all.

I had heard of the da Vinci decathlon from a former pupil of mine who is out in Australia on a gap year, but I did not know much of the detail until I was prompted by the debate and the initiative that the school has shown to find out more.

Leonardo da Vinci said that the

“Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind” are to

“Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses ... learn how to see. Realise that everything connects to everything else.”

He was, of course, one of the world’s great polymaths: a painter, sculptor, architect, musician, engineer, inventor, writer, cartographer—the list goes on. He was an all-round genius because he understood the world’s interconnections in their most complex detail. He was a true renaissance man. He might even have been the first proponent of the curriculum for excellence. Who knows?

Probably the most attractive aspect of Leonardo da Vinci’s life was his ever-present quest for knowledge and for a deeper understanding of the human behaviours and emotions that go with it. Learning would never end and would constantly be enriched. Not for him was contentment with teaching according to the principles of orthodoxy; closed minds were not inquiring minds.

When the young people from Dalbeattie high school fly off to Italy in October they will face an unusual and rigorous challenge, which will test their skills to the limit. The da Vinci decathlon began in 2005 as an exciting offshoot of the successful da Vinci programme for gifted and talented students at Knox grammar school in Sydney. The challenge, which is designed to test and celebrate the higher-level academic gifts in a competitive environment, is of course run in the true spirit of the Olympic decathlon—the competition that is the ultimate test for athletes across many disciplines. It is a test of skill, resilience, mental and physical stamina and, of course, character.

The success of the da Vinci decathlon in Australia has been hugely impressive and it has clearly caught the imagination of the young people in Australia, as well as their parents and, I understand, many businesses. For them, the competition has proved to be such a success because of the rounded approach to learning that it brings to challenge young people.

As a member of the Education and Culture Committee of this Parliament, I am acutely aware of the constant refrain from employers in this country that we must do more to equip young people with the skills that cross several boundaries and disciplines, most especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, which have become known as the STEM subjects. We need many more Scottish pupils to look to future careers in engineering and the sciences. The da Vinci challenge promotes exactly the sort of subjects that we need to encourage more enthusiastically.

One of the strong characteristics of the tradition of Scottish inventors is the appreciation that to understand engineering, one needs to understand how many other subjects interconnect with it. That is something that da Vinci would have appreciated very much. Some would argue that there are very good reasons for making engineering a compulsory subject; I can see the logic in that.

In the past few years there has been a very pleasing increase in the number of schools that are making a determined effort to develop slightly different extracurricular activities. I know from my time as a teacher the benefits that such activities bring, especially if they are that little bit different and most especially if they involve a trip abroad.

The Dalbeattie high school pupils and teachers are to be very warmly congratulated on their initiative and on their fundraising efforts, which Alex Fergusson has described. They have clearly put in a power of work on that and it is a great honour for them to be not just the only Scottish school but the only one from Europe taking part. I wish them every success and hope that this might be the start of a much wider uptake of the da Vinci challenge among Scottish schools.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I now call on the Scottish Parliament’s very own renaissance man, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Mike Russell.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

How very kind of you, Presiding Officer.

I am delighted to respond to the motion and to congratulate Alex Fergusson on having secured the debate. I am particularly delighted to congratulate the team that is going to Milan from Dalbeattie. As a former South of Scotland member of the Scottish Parliament, I know that we can learn a great deal from the south of Scotland. I also know that the baking in Dalbeattie is very good, although I regret that none has been brought here for us to sample today. I am certainly astonished to discover the amazing range of challenges that the young people will have to overcome when they go to Milan.

It is appropriate that we commend all of them and that we wish them the best of luck. With your permission, Presiding Officer, I will give them a name check. They are Jenna Miller, Matthew Campbell, Amy Scobie, Georgina Murray, Emma Forsyth, Ailsa O’Donoghue, Rhiannon Gerrard, Isla Parker, Catherine Kellett and Alex Lammie. The team leaders who are going to Milan are Piers Butler and Samantha Campbell. The observant among us will notice that there are nine girls and one boy in the team. No doubt in time there will be members on our benches who will argue for gender balance in the da Vinci competition, but that is a very good start and I commend the team for it.

I have to say that I was unaware of the challenge, but so were my officials when the debate was announced. It is fascinating that such an idea should come by means of an exchange teacher to Dalbeattie—one Zak Inward. I could not believe the name, but it was Zak Inward who brought the idea to Dalbeattie and encouraged the school to take part. The idea of an exchange from Knox academy—a wonderfully named school—to Dalbeattie and a trip on to Milan says something about the interconnected nature of the world in which they live.

Our education system in Scotland is an interconnected one. It focuses on higher-order thinking skills, problem solving, teamwork and creativity, which is precisely what the team will have to show and undertake when they are in Milan. Their tasks will range from engineering to philosophy to code breaking to cartography, taking in science, English, art and poetry. They will carry out all those tasks to compete and, we hope—as Anne McTaggart said—to win. It is a wonderful reflection on Dalbeattie that its young people are going, and a wonderful reflection on Scotland that our curriculum can support that type of activity.

When I think of da Vinci, as I am sure all of us in the chamber do from time to time, I think of his logo, “The Vitruvian Man”—the man in two different positions. Perhaps that should be the logo for curriculum for excellence because it is about perfect proportion, interchangeability and connections. I thank him for drawing our attention to that and for reminding us of the importance of interconnectivity within our education system.

Photo of Nigel Don Nigel Don Scottish National Party

Presiding Officer,

Da Vinci’s challenge we are told is clearly for the bright and bold;

Not only must you read a map, you’ll need to be a thinking chap.

Can the Cab Sec let me know which way he thinks the thing will go?

Are we all in time to find our schools thus test each eager mind?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I am not entirely sure that Mr Don is going to win the da Vinci challenge with that poetry, although he might win another challenge with it. However, he is quite right to say that there is a lesson for us all to learn, which I will draw briefly.

Our curriculum reforms in Scotland are driving essential change, with the learning journey from the age of 3 to 18 and beyond. Anne McTaggart was right to remind us of the role of community learning in that process; it is vital. The process of transformation that is required to deliver curriculum for excellence in full, and to improve Scottish education, continues. We are committed to finishing the job of delivering a curriculum that is fit for the challenges of our modern world—even that most intensive challenge that Dalbeattie high school has stepped up to the plate to take.

It is an unprecedented programme of transformation—curriculum for excellence is not quite like anything that takes place elsewhere. Lots of people are looking to Scotland to try to understand the system and how it may benefit them. The purpose is to improve children’s and young people’s achievements, attainment levels and life chances through nurturing every individual young person as a successful learner, a confident individual, a responsible citizen and an effective contributor. That underpinning strength of curriculum for excellence will, I believe, benefit every school and young person in Scotland.

Liz Smith is right to draw attention to the STEM subjects and to engineering. In relation to science, we must ensure not just that our young people have those skills, but that our teachers are keen to impart those skills. They must see the importance of the STEM subjects—of science and engineering—as connecting subjects within schools and be keen to take them forward.

We must see other things, too, including the vision that the Government has for language learning and teaching, which are important. We are the first part of these islands to commit ourselves to the Barcelona system of learning one’s own language and two others. Over two school generations, we will roll that out so that Scotland’s experience of languages will be transformed. If Italian has not yet reached Dalbeattie high school, there will be some to be learned during the October break.

All across Scotland, curriculum for excellence is energising learning and teaching. It is making education more relevant to the modern world and is giving young people the skills and knowledge that they need to succeed in learning, life and work. I hope that it is also inculcating ambition, which is a wonderful thing. For Dalbeattie high school to have the ambition to compete and take part in something that no Scottish school—indeed, no school in these islands or in Europe, apparently—has yet taken part in is a tremendous achievement.

In Dalbeattie, as in the rest of Scotland, it is the learners who are the greatest natural resource. They are the investment for the future and are what the future will be. Curriculum for excellence is designed to support them, to take them forward and to allow them, through schools and other learning providers, to focus on individual need in the context—which we in Parliament should never forget—of education’s having not just an individual benefit but a societal benefit. By investing in education, we invest in the whole future of our country.

I am grateful to Alex Fergusson for having brought this matter to Parliament, and I am grateful to the members who have spoken in the debate. Most of all, I am grateful to the team from Dalbeattie high school, who will have heard all the praise and excitement today. I hope that they enjoy the challenge, but they have a lot of hard work to do; they have a lot of research and learning to do, and they have a lot to work on in the next six weeks. We should not, therefore, talk any longer; we should let them get on with it.

Meeting closed at 18:14.