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The best of times, the worst of times?

I read an account in today's Scotsman newspaper of Tommy Castles' speech as outgoing president of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) at their AGM. In his speech to his members Mr Castle considered the thorny issues of excessive bureaucracy, workload and risks posed by increasing political interference in education and the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). If you are in education anywhere I am sure these themes sound very familiar.

He was concerned about misinformed or ill-informed politicians, commentators in the media and elsewhere, who were taking swipes at the profession, and in particular our curriculum in Scotland. Those outside of the profession seemed to have formed the opinion, or taken as truth, that since the inception on CfE, all assessment to support learning had disappeared from schools and classrooms. We who work in schools know that this has never been the case and we have continued to use assessment, of all sorts, to support and assess learning. What has changed is that we no longer submit our learners to mostly meaningless national tests that we used to administer in the previous 5-14 curriculum. What politicians and others seem to miss is a simple way to assess how pupils are doing nationally and against previous results, that is if the previous assessments ever provided this in any meaningful way. I think not. As they became more and more high-stakes the inevitable teaching to the test became the norm. These tests never really measured what we were supposed to be teaching or wanted to teach.  But we have a culture where those charged with oversight of schools and the system still like a grade, a level, a letter or a percentage, no matter how meaningless these indicators might be. My own thought is that if we pander to such desires we are actually dumbing down what we do as a profession, and what we know to be a complex and heavily nuanced picture.

As a headteacher of two primary schools in Scotland, I have some empathy and understanding of Mr Castles' position because I too have been concerned with the apparent change in the political climate and its attitude to education recently. We have a new First Minister in Nicola Sturgeon and a new Education Minister in Angela Constance. Therein perhaps lies part of the issue. It would seem that both the First Minister and the Minister for Education want to make their mark and to demonstrate how they are different from the previous regime of Alex Salmond and Mike Russell. They want to be seen as 'strong' and prepared to make 'tough decisions' to improve what they have described as a 'not good enough' education system. The rhetoric now being heard in Scotland is perhaps more familiar in tone and nature to that experienced by colleagues in England to the USA, but is different to what has been the norm here. In Mike Russell I always thought we had an Education Minister who understood the difficulties and complexities faced by teachers and schools and wanted to help the system to keep developing and improving through a process of collaboration and support. He was very committed to high standards for all learners and to closing the gap for those at risk of not reaching their potential because of deprivation factors. Aims that everyone in the profession also bought into. He also,understood that to bring about deep sustainable change he also needed to give schools time and space to grow and develop.

Whilst the new ministers profess the same desires and aims, it feels that at the moment they see the way to achieve this is to go down the road of being 'tough', with more direction from the top, a fiercer inspection regime, more standardised testing and a demand for quicker results. I, like many colleagues, am hoping this is a misreading of the current situation and that some of the statements made recently have been made for a different audience. I have always recommended that we judge people by their actions, not their words, so we have to give some time to our new ministers to see what their actions will actually be before we rush to man the barricades. It is worth noting here that another newspaper, The Independent, published an article today with the strap-line 'Scotland, the best educated country in Europe' This was a reference to a report just published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in which the chief economist Joe Grice noted that ' in terms of the proportion of the population going to higher and tertiary education, Scotland has just about the highest in the world.' I suppose this shows that the assessment of systems and schools depends on your viewpoint and on the measures you use.

In my next post I want to look at why I feel we still have such a problem with excessive bureaucracy in our education system.


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