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A further response to Nicola Sturgeon

In my last post I gave my initial response to the re-introduction of standardised national testing in to Scottish primary schools, and the early years of secondary ones. As I am vehemently opposed to such a move as a credible strategy for closing the attainment gap that currently exists, or for raising attainment generally, I think it is now beholden on me to offer an alternative. What steps do I think will actually address these two laudable aims and make a difference to so many lives? Speaking as a school leader who recognises there are no silver bullets, likes to start small, scale up and be informed by research and data, I would like to apply the same principles to the system as a whole. One of the problems we constantly face with politicians driving the agenda in education is, not only their lack of understanding of what we all know to be a complex landscape, but their constant need to grab headlines with new initiatives and solutions, or old ones as in Nicola's case. This is just like those schools and their leaders who are constantly looking for those silver bullets, which actually don't exist or make a sustainable difference. What you end up with is what Fullan calls 'initiativitis' and lots of busyness that actually produces little sustainable impact for schools, systems or their learners. Your traditional politician tends to think in five year blocks, and has to be seen to be 'making differences', 'tough', 'resolute', 'unafraid of making tough decisions', 'innovative' and any other descriptive cliche you wish to apply. They have to grab, and generate, those headlines. The trouble with all of this is that they have often moved on, retired or been elevated to the House of Lords, before anyone seems to cotton on to the fact that they have made no difference and, in lots of cases, have actually made things worse. The same can be seen in school leaders who adopt similar approaches and move on quickly before they are found out. 

So, what are we to do to address the continuing issues identified by Nicola Sturgeon? Here are some of my suggestions.

I think we need to recognise that the only way to bring about sustainable improvements to the system and for all learners is for everyone to be relentlessly focused on developing our knowledge, understanding and practice informed by research, data and evidence. We should stop the constant search for new 'things' to do, and the search for magic solutions. If everyone was relentlessly focused on improving, step by step, day by day, week by week, month by month and year by year we could actually achieve a self-improving system with benefits for all learners. John Hattie and others have shown that any change can produce positive effects for teachers and learners, but that these effects can be small and dissipate in a short time, if they are not the ones that make the biggest difference. For that, we need to be informed by research and evidence about what works, and not just hunches, fads trends or worse resources sold to us by the educational snake-oil salesmen. Remember ITA, VAK and Brain Gym? Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves and others all use the 'relentless' word a lot and I believe this is the only approach that works. Of course being relentless can be a double-edged sword in that some leaders can see this as a call for constant change and almost promoting initiativitis, and it can be if in the wrong hands. But it should not be this. Instead it should more reflect Dylan Wiliam's call to arms 'Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.' In schools this can help develop a culture and ethos that embraces career long professional development for all, and which is measured in terms of impact for learners. It also means continuous small improvement steps that are sustainable and embedded in practice of teachers, support staff and school leaders.

We should focus our attention on improving learning and teaching by every teacher and in every classroom. All in the system need to embrace career-long professional development and see this as a necessary disposition for a professional educationalist. Government needs to support teacher and leadership development that is again informed by research and, most importantly, is connected to school and system development. Professional development needs to be supported, resourced and embedded in order to develop reflective and self-adaptive expertise in all, and at all levels. Developing the agency and capacity of all our teachers is recognised by many, (Wiliam, Hattie, Fullan, Hargreaves, Donaldson et al,) as the factor that is going to have the biggest impact and biggest effect size for all our learners. This needs to be a priority for government and for all in the system.

We should focus just as much on the development and improvement of leadership at all levels within our schools. All of us in school leadership positions need to be relentlessly committed to developing and honing our practice, again based on research about what works and what is effective practice. As Fullan, Hargreaves, Harris, Dimmock, Hattie and so on have shown is that when leadership is strong and focused we can build the culture and ethos within schools, and the system, that allow our teachers and our pupils to thrive. We have started this process in Scotland, as the result of Donaldson's 'Teaching Scotland's Future' and the setting up of the Scottish College for Educational Leadership. We need to continue to develop SCEL's role within the system as we seek to develop and improve leadership at all levels in order to better understand how we can meet the needs of all our learners.

Research piece after research piece has demonstrated that the attainment gap develops even before learners reach our schools. Successive governments have acknowledged this and have also recognised the need to intervene to support families and learners at this early stage in order to best help close that gap and reduce the costs and pressures on society further down the line. We like to call this 'early intervention', and we talk about it a lot. Like many strategies, there is a lot of political rhetoric trotted around this subject, but very little action and resource. Brian Wilson, a former Scottish education minister, writes about this in today's ( 5 September 2015 ) Scotsman newspaper. In this he identifies true early intervention strategies and resourcing as the key factor that will impact most on closing that attainment gap and not more standardised testing. If he is right, and I think he has identified a key factor, one could ask 'why then, didn't you and successive governments and ministers, follow through and deliver on this.?' I once asked Mike Russell, another former Scottish education minister,  a question similar to this at a Scottish Learning Festival, and his political answer was that 'we have devolved government in Scotland. The government disperses funding to the Local Authorities, and it is up to them to prioritise.' Given all the fiscal pressure authorities face, I am afraid money was never going to be sufficiently allocated to early intervention unless it was ring-fenced and protected, and this is what I believe needs to happen. The problem with early intervention strategies however is that it will take some time to see the benefits, and time is something very few policy makers and politicians are willing to give. Brian Wilson is right we need a different approach and in my view this should start with politicians understanding there are no miracle cures and panaceas that are going to change years of political and cultural failure and inaction. We need policy that is committed to the long haul. I thought we had a chance with Curriculum for Excellence, but it looks as though our leaders have lost their nerve.

As a headteacher working across two schools, and as someone who has visited schools across the country, speaking to teachers and school leaders, the other strategic move I think we could make would be to provide more support for pupils in class, especially in the primary years. We should be spending money in training and putting good quality support staff into all classrooms. It is a constant frustration for myself and other colleagues when we see the impact good quality support can have in classes, especially with those pupils who have been disadvantaged before they came to us and who continue to be disadvantaged. We can make a big difference for these pupils with a little extra support and I would suggest such a strategy would be a better one for our national government, and which would have a bigger impact than how they are proposing to spend £100 million on the Scottish Attainment Challenge. We need to stop looking for the latest 'project' to fund and support and instead be relentless in supporting what research shows actually works and will have sustainable impact. Instead, in the current climate, it is this very support that seems to be seen by some as an easy cut and people trot out the 'class teachers should be able to meet the needs of all their learners' mantra on the back of such actions. Most teachers do strive to meet the needs of all pupils, but one needs to recognise the implications of inclusion, which I support, and the range of needs in any class, and what we are trying to achieve for all pupils, before we trot out such trite sound bites. Classes are getting bigger and the range of need wider, so if you reduce the amount of skilled support for pupils and teachers, don't be surprised if there are no positive impacts for the national aims.

My suggestions are then:
Support a relentless approach to school and system development informed by research
Stop the search for silver bullets and panaceas
Support and resource effective and collaborative professional development
Have as a key focus the continuous development of teacher agency and expertise
Improve everyone's understanding of learning and how to address needs
Support and resource early intervention and inter-agency working
Increase classroom support, not decrease it, and provide resource for training
Ring-fence and protect funding for the above so that it is not directed elsewhere by Local Authorities
Continue to develop leadership at all levels and promote system leadership 

The frameworks for most of this are already in place in Scotland. We just need the commitment and alignment of all agendas to be able to deliver and achieve what we desire.

As Brian Wilson notes at the end of his Scotsman article 'It's never too late to learn'. Indeed it's not Brian, it's just a pity our politicians seem not learn the lessons when they are in power and able to do something meaningful about it. They could also start by recognising that the addressing all of the issues of society cannot be dropped at the schools door. We can make a massive difference, but we need the right support to do so.


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