Sunday, 13 March 2016

Conversations, Reflections and Communities of the Curious

Last Tuesday evening I had a long overdue dinner and conversation with my colleague, mentor and friend Karen H. It was good to catch up and talk. One of the things we talked about was her past work on a project for Nurse Education Scotland on the educational preparation of nurses. This part of our conversation was purposeful as the following afternoon I was catching a train to Scotland to take part in a Quinquennial Review of the Health Sciences School at Stirling University. Every University undertakes something similar, a regular review of the work of a particular School, the way in which the students experience their studies and what the plans might be for the future.

Much of the journey was uneventful. I sat and read, watched the world go by and generally enjoyed the experience. I sat opposite 2 women who had boarded the train at Manchester Airport and were on their way home. Home for them was Lockerbie.

As the train pulled into Lockerbie station, it was possible to see part of the town bathed in the late afternoon sunlight. The scene looked peaceful and a world away from the events of 21st December 1988, when Pan Am Flight 103 was destroyed over Lockerbie by a Libyan terrorist bomb. All 243 passengers and 16 crew as well as 11 of the Lockerbie residents were killed. It may have been just me, but as the train pulled out of the station, I felt there was a shared moment or two of respectful and reflective silence.

By contrast, arriving amidst the chaos of Edinburgh Haymarket Station, was a jolt of instant harsh reality. My next train terminated at Dunblane. Seeing the train station name evoked an almost physical reaction of sadness and loss in my heart. On the 13th March, 20 years ago today, 16 children and their teacher were murdered by a lone gunman at the Dunblane Primary School. It remains one of the UKs worst mass shootings. The children were all aged 5-6 years old.

That morning in Dunblane has been described by those living there as starting off like many other March mornings, dry, bright, cold and frosty, with snowdrops and daffodils in full flower. And in the quietness and still cold air of the early morning as I walked across the beautiful Stirling campus last Thursday, I reflected on how it might be that within such closely geographically located communities so much unexpected tragedy could be experienced.

The review of the work of the Health Sciences School went well. The paper work, sent in advance, effectively captured and presented the work and ambitions of the School. The staff were articulate in the telling of their stories and the enthusiasm of the students in describing their experience was almost palatable. 

The higher education system in Scotland is slightly different from the rest of the UK. Unlike the English approach of 3 years degree programmes, 4 year degree programmes are the norm, (also in many parts of the US and in Hong Kong). It’s claimed that the 4 year degree offers students enhanced flexibility and academic breadth. For students living in Scotland or elsewhere in the EU (which strangely does not include the rest of the UK) all course fees are paid for by the Scottish tax payer. 

I pay taxes in both England and Scotland, and as a taxpayer I think the current system is probably unsustainable in the longer term. There are other challenges arising from the geographical vastness of Scotland. Many of the students I met in Stirling accessed their studies at a distance using digital technology to do so. Indeed some of the conversations I had with the students were conducted using video conferencing facilities.  But there was a hint of disappointment to be heard in some of the student’s stories around the lack of opportunity for face-to-face contact.

Such student observations are not uncommon, and it’s something as educators we need to be aware of in designing and facilitating our programmes. Tony Sheehan (from the London Business School) reflected my thinking on this in his report in the Financial Times last week. He was discussing the rise of on-line courses in Business Schools, and said ‘digital transmission of knowledge is wonderful, but the very best way of learning [the art and science of management and business] will always include face-to-face interactions in a community of the curious’.  I couldn’t agree more! 

My week ended with a conversation as good as that I enjoyed with Karen H at the start of the week. I was privileged to participate in a conversation led by Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of the NHS England, held at the DW Stadium, Wigan. Representatives from all the stakeholder partners were in attendance and it was wonderful to hear the creative and leading edge work being undertaken in Wigan being cited as providing the example for the rest of the NHS to follow.