29 September 2015

Maths - a Formula for Success

Inspiring young people has been a challenge for teachers and educators for generations.

In a speech that I gave this month on Scotland’s educational success, I chose to speak about a teacher that had such an impact on my own education – he still makes it into my political speeches 55 years on!

When I was in school, our deputy head teacher was Doc Inglis – a Lancastrian and a mathematician. He saw it as his duty to inspire – and the first thing he did with each class was to send it round the school on a quest for infinity. We looked in the dustbins, we took the blackboards down, and we even went out to the sports field to contemplate where this could be found. This is still imprinted in my memory. In the sixth year, Mr Inglis brought his tax return into the class and went over it with us - either to tell us how little he got paid for imparting his mathematical knowledge, or to demonstrate the value of keeping an eye on your tax bill.

Doc Inglis is my example of an inspirational teacher. On the anniversary of our headteacher’s appointment, he would always come in wearing a black tie. He had gone for the job and been unsuccessful, and this was his way of marking the occasion. This quirk serves to instil Mr Inglis in my memory, but the quality of his teaching, teamed with his interesting character, also made me want to learn.

Maths was a subject that I felt drawn to as a youngster, and when I went to Aberdeen University I graduated with an MA in Mathematics, and a more advanced love of numbers. I am delighted that the Education Secretary Angela Constance has stated that there needs to be a greater public enthusiasm for maths – I couldn’t agree more.

Maths can be a subject that creates more fear than inspiration in both young and old - but this does not need to be the case. History can also be a good teacher.

The Indiana pi bill – or more specifically – the Indiana House Bill 246 of 1897 sought to define in law a value for pi. It wanted to fix that value at 3.2 rather than 3.1416 et cetera, that most will remember from their school days as a transcendental number which cannot be defined in the real number system. That bill was passed on 6 February 1897. Fortunately, the Indiana Senate had another look at it after it went to the temperance committee, and the matter never went any further.

Back in the present day, the Scottish Government has launched the Making Maths Count programme to ensure that pupils can see the stories behind the numbers, and the many uses that Maths has in everyday life – with the aim of improving attainment in primary and secondary schools in Scotland.

If we can make mathematics relevant to real life, we can make it a matter of enthusiasm for our kids.

Also with the emphasis in Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence on cross curricular learning – Maths features, and adds to, many other subjects.

In literature for example, Dante’s ‘Inferno’ refers to one of the keepers of the gates of Hell as Belphegor. This character has his own special prime number which is named after him, is symmetrical, and is 31 digits in total.

Mathematics also takes a place within religion. In one example, Hindus are guided by the Vedic texts, which discuss what Hindus believe are the five types of infinity - the infinity of point, of line, of area, of volume and of time, and the concepts of 1 and 0 are introduced.

There are many areas in our culture and in our lives where mathematics is relevant and where it matters. To deter our young people in any way from discovering this world of knowledge would be detrimental to them and to society as a whole. Let us inspire the mathematicians, shop owners, librarians and religious leaders of the future and give them an education that truly adds up.

15 September 2015

We Welcome Refugees

I would like to take the opportunity in this column to reiterate the importance of responding to the refugee crisis across Europe, and one in which we are all a part.

It has now been a few weeks since the picture of young Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach was used across most media outlets in the UK. It provoked a nationwide response as it highlighted the plight of the thousands of refugees making perilous journeys across Europe, for the promise of a better and more fulfilled life.

Following the outrage and sadness expressed by the public and vocalised by Scotland’s First Minister, a taskforce was formed to coordinate Scotland’s practical response to the humanitarian refugee crisis.

The group of Scottish Ministers, the Scottish Refugee Council, the UK Government, local government and key stakeholders are now engaging with organisations across Scotland to look at capacity over a range of areas including housing, language support, social services and health services to meet the need.

Since it was set up, the majority of Scotland’s 32 councils have said they are willing to accommodate refugees affected by the crisis, and an online hub has been created to give the public the information they need on how they can donate, register available accommodation, assist with lessons in English as a second language, and befriend.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already said that Scotland stands ready to take at least 1000 new refugees as an immediate priority.

It is very encouraging that the majority of councils want to accommodate refugees, and I hope that we can build on this response and keep the momentum going while services are put in place.
Scotland is ready to play its part and take its fair share of the most vulnerable people in need.

This case has been taken to Westminster also by my colleague – Moray’s MP Angus Robertson who was greatly encouraged by the backing of seven political parties – all of whom spoke together in a House of Commons debate to call on the UK Government to do more in helping refugees from the Middle East.

The motion being debated on the SNP Opposition Day was led by Moray MP and SNP Westminster Leader Angus Robertson, and backed by Labour, Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats, SDLP, the Greens and Ulster Unionists.

Local MP Mr Robertson has been inundated with messages of support for the refugees from people across Moray including a significant number offering rooms in their own homes and others asking how they can donate money and essential items to help.

The SNP used the first Opposition Day debate in the House of Commons to challenge the response from the UK Government to the humanitarian crisis which they called woefully inadequate.

He said that while the announcement of the Prime Minister to accommodate 20,000 refugees over the next five years was welcomed, it is simply not enough – and only equates to six refugees per constituency, per year.

The overwhelming majority of the parties have responded to the plight of the refugees with a welcome message of support and goodwill. And we can all play our part in this.

Ways in which we can help include signing a petition to demand action from the UK Government; attending a vigil that may be organised near you – Glasgow and Edinburgh have held their own in recent days; and getting involved in local initiatives.

Scotland Supporting Refugees are a group of volunteers raising awareness and campaigning for action, and many cities, towns and villages have set up local groups.

Financial donations can be made to a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that is involved in related humanitarian work overseas. These include Save the Children, Red Cross Europe, Migrant Offshore Aid Station, International Rescue Committee, UNHCR, Refugee Action and World Vision.

In a world looking for a simple display of common humanity, all of us can play our part, and we can offer sanctuary.

1 September 2015

Everybody needs an education

Almost 60,000 children started their full time education this month in Scotland – four and five year olds starting out in primary one on a journey of at least 11 years of learning. And all the very best to all the youngsters across Banffshire and Buchan Coast who excitedly wore their new uniforms and made their first trip to the school gates this month.

To reflect what the First Minister recently stated in a speech – we have a sacred duty to each one of these children to make sure that they are being well equipped in the skills that will determine much of the rest of their lives.

Scotland has long been at the forefront of education and in the 17th and 18th centuries was indeed the envy of the world for creating a universal system that catered for all – regardless of economic means and circumstance.When my grandfather starting his teaching career in 1881, things were very different from today.

Now it is taken as a given that a good education sets a young person up for life – with benefits not only for the individual but also for the country in creating prosperity, competitiveness and success.

But one of the areas where improvement is most certainly needed is in the less advantaged areas - closing the gap in educational outcomes between pupils from the most and the least deprived parts of Scotland. The 200,000 children currently living in poverty in Scotland need to be given the same opportunities to succeed as all others.

This gap is not a reflection of young people’s talent but rather that too many children have their life chances influenced more by where they live, than by how talented they are, or how hard they work. The Scottish Government is determined to address this.

Over the last eight years there have been significant challenges facing the education system such as the recession and deep spending cuts, but in spite of this progress has been made.

The Curriculum for Excellence has marked a major step forward in Scottish education – and one which has attracted international attention. It provides a broader education for young people and raises the standard overall.

In 2007, just 45 per cent of students stayed on at school until sixth year – now, the proportion is 62 per cent. Unlike in England, Scotland retained the educational maintenance allowance benefitting 35,000 school pupils and college students every year – which has contributed to this.

School leaver destinations are also the best on record. Of the students who left school last year, more than nine out of 10 were in employment, education or training nine months later.

At the beginning of August, young people in Scotland gained a record number of passes at Higher and Advanced Higher, and there were more people gaining National Certificates and National Progression Awards than before.

Preparing young people for work will be an even bigger focus in the future – and getting employers involved in the education of youngsters.

In every part of this country, Scotland has good schools, good teachers, good parents, and our young people are good learners. Standards have risen and are continuing to rise. That’s testament to the work of local authorities, and many others such as the third sector, youth workers and community learning and development staff.

A recent local example of innovative education funding is the Inspiring Learning Spaces fund. Across Scotland there are 20 projects over 19 local authorities that have been given a cash boost to create spaces for flexible learning, allowing closer partnerships between schools and further education.

In Aberdeenshire, £260,000 has been invested into remodelling four classrooms into innovative teaching environments that are modern, flexible and motivating for both teachers and pupils.

The space in which children learn can help in the transition from school to further education, training or employment. The fund complements the £1.8 billion Scotland’s Schools for the Future programme, all of which aims to ensure Scotland becomes a world leader in education.

When children first enter schools, they are full of ambition and dreams which can wane as they get older as the information, support and inspirational role models can be lacking in their lives. This is the drive behind an aspirations package for schools currently being put together – working with the Children’s University, local employers and entrepreneurs.

The education of young people in Scotland is a huge area with much of the work being done that will bear fruit in years to come. But you can be assured that the education of our young people is at the heart of the Scottish Government. Building on the success of the past and striving to achieve more, we have a bright future ahead.

Stewart Stevenson
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