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Bureaucracy CfE and Trust

To be honest my last post was going to be about bureaucracy, but I got sidetracked onto political interference in education and assessment. I have always written to help develop my own thinking so I suppose it is to be expected that I will meander from topic to topic from time to time as my writing reflects how I think. I think!

What I wanted to comment on in that last post was how so much of the well meaning and well intentioned aims of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) have almost morphed into something unrecognisable by its original architects and designers. How often have similar transformations happened in education? We only have to look at two other recent examples to see how so much good research and sound thinking can be corrupted into something it was never meant to be. The work of Black and Wiliam on Formative Assesment and John Hattie's meta-research  on successful,strategies in schools and systems to raise achievement are two pieces of work that became something they were never intended to be when various elements of the system got hold of them.

The messages and findings of Black and Wiliam contained in 'Inside The Black Box', a very short report of their findings, quickly morphed into a series of techniques, tick-boxes and associated paperwork. We were inundated with written learning intentions, success criteria, WALTs and WILFs and Personal Learning Plans, with learners and teachers spending many wasted hours writing these all down or filling them in. They became used and promoted by many who didn't understand, or take the time to understand, the research and messages that sat behind them. Never slow to miss an opportunity, the snake-oil salesmen were quick to offer a plethora of resources and solutions to 'help' schools deliver on AfL. They weren't the only ones though, as headteachers, local authority staff, inspectorate and various national organisations started to produce a tsunami of paperwork so that everyone had 'evidence' it was happening, when in fact all they had was evidence of mounting bureaucracy.

The main message from the work that informed 'Inside The Black Box' was that we had to develop children as active participants in the learning process, with the ability to assess their own learning, and support their peers through collaboration. Black and Wiliam further noted that ' the main plank of our argument is that standards are raised only by the changes that are put into effect by teachers and pupils in classrooms.' They weren't saying we needed more paperwork, but that is what we got as the people charged with overseeing implementation distilled the main messages into lists of activities and characteristics that needed to be seen. These in turn produced more paperwork to be completed by everyone to show it was happening.

Similar things have been happening with Hattie's 'Visible Learning' which is a work that aimed to identify, summarise and quantify interventions and changes to practice from across the globe that had had positive impacts on student achievement. Hattie felt he was able identify the effect size for each intervention and was able to rank these according to this size. This is a fascinating piece of work but not one which detailed closely the findings of every piece of research. Unfortunately, this work has been diluted down into a list of interventions that teachers need to use to produce the biggest positive impacts for learners. All school and system leaders needed to do was make sure the top six, or the top ten, or whatever, were introduced, and visible, and achievement was bound to rise. Of course this takes no account of contexts or other cultural influences that had impacted on research projects referenced. More importantly it takes no notice of the particular context of the schools trying to put them in place. It is definitely a 'one size fits all' approach. Such an approach also produces lots of paperwork and tick-lists so there is lots of 'evidence' for everyone to see that the strategies are being used, but does nothing to develop deep understanding.

And so it is with CfE. I don't think all hope is lost, because the Goverment and Education Scotland have recognised the dangers of excessive bureaucracy, but it is in danger of becoming something it was never intended to be. CfE is about raising attainment, de-cluttering the curriculum, learning and teaching, raising the bar, closing the gap, innovation and developing our learners within the four capacities. It should not be about excessive paperwork which gets in the way of the main objectives. I think a lot of the problem is that each of the varied partners and levels within the system have to put their 'stamp' on the curriculum and each has a slightly different perspective. The inevitability is a growth in different expectations and levels of bureaucracy. Everyone outside of a classroom is charged with ensuring that the curriculum is on track and they all place demands on schools and teachers for 'hard' evidence to demonstrate this. If you see your main role as to ensure that what is supposed to be happening is happening, and at a suitable pace, you are going to produce systems and structures that are heavy on paper work and lower on trust. So schools and their leaders have a whole host of levels above them who require them to provide paper evidence as to what is happening in their classrooms, and they can translate this into increased demands for paperwork from their teachers.

In my own schools we try to reduce bureaucracy as much as possible by having high levels of trust and through a collaborative culture and ethos based on agreed values and principles. Senior management team members collaborate and work with staff at all levels when they are planning and teaching. We are in all classrooms  every day and we see professional dialogue as a key component of school development. We encourage teachers to spend more time considering learning and teaching experiences than the paperwork that informs and supports this. Just as 'Building The Curriculum 5' says we should. We keep things proportionate and manageable and focused on impact for learners. This assures us that we know our learners, we are providing them with learning opportunities to grow and develop and we are promoting and encouraging their active participation in the learning process. We still have paperwork but we always are asking 'for what purpose?' And 'for who?' Just as our learners are displaying less of their learning on paper so are our teachers, and myself, trying to reduce the amount of bureaucracy we produce ourselves. We all need to be a bit more minimalistic about this and reduce our dependency at all levels. Starting by having more trust in teachers headteachers and schools would be a good starting point.

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