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First response to Nicola Sturgeon

Well there we have it, the much heralded and expected announcement came today. First minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that national testing will be returning to all primary schools, and S3 in secondary schools. Ever since she took charge of the SNP after Alex Salmond vacated the post following defeat in the referendum, Nicola has set out to prove that she is different form him and should be seen as a tough leader, not afraid of making tough decisions. Can I just say, like so many others, I was very impressed by Nicola Sturgeon during the referendum and the general election. She seemed like a breath of fresh air to myself and so many others. Here was someone who it would seem was destined to break the mould of political leadership and to promote a new way of being and thinking for politicians. So it is with some dismay, that I heard today's announcement. The announcement is a definite step backwards politically and educationally.

I support Nicola's aims for education, raising attainment and closing the gap for those most at risk because of deprivation factors. Who wouldn't? As David Cameron noted at the weekend at ResearchEd in Glasgow who really in education would be aspiring to widen the gap, or lower attainment. The obvious answer is, no-one. So we all want the Scottish education system to keep developing and getting better, for all our learners, and everyone I know within the system has been working towards this goal, admittedly with varying degrees of success. We want Scottish education to be world class and world leading. I have been very fortunate in the last few years to meet various leading academics and researchers in education from around the UK and from other parts of the world. I have not met any that didn't feel that the approach we have been taking with Curriculum for Excellence was the best direction of travel. Many can see the benefits of our different approach to England, USA and other systems that have gone down the road of high levels of accountability, high-stakes testing  and constant political interference and tinkering. They do this, not through rose-tinted spectacles, because they acknowledge the things we have got wrong, failed to do and still need to address. But our direction of travel is seen as the right one by many, and more and more systems and countries are looking towards the Scottish model to help inform their own development plans. Wales have just recently announced their own new curricular structure that is very similar to Scotland's, and how could it not be when its main architect is our very own Graham Donaldson?

So, why does it appear that our political leaders have lost their nerve and have now looked at England, through the London Challenge, and the USA for models of how they might reshape what we are doing in Scotland? We should look to other countries and other systems to help inform and to learn from. But, we need to be clear about what we are looking at and what factors have impacted to produce the 'results' claimed by some systems and some projects. All around the London Challenge is not rosy and there are a whole host of cultural and socio-economic factors that have been at play that are not going to be replicated in Scotland, or anywhere else. It is worth noting that children in England are amongst the most unhappy in Europe according to a recent piece of research, that we seem to be ignoring. One of the problems with all research is that it is always possible to find some that will support your particular political point of view or stance, or you can just ignore any research that may show your position to be a false, or a misinformed one. 

Michael Fullan, who is one of the leading researchers and academics concerned with educational leadership and system development. He has worked with governments across the world, including England where Michael Gove decided to just ignore all the advice he probably paid quite a lot for. Indeed if you look at Fullan's recommendations after his work in London and his look  at the English system, it would appear that Mr Gove decided he knew a lot better and did the absolute opposite of what Fullan suggested! Anyway, Fullan is still in much demand and widely respected. He talks of the 'right drivers' and 'wrong drivers' in education systems. Amongst the 'wrong drivers' are high-stakes testing, high levels of accountability, a focus on individual rather than system improvement and the introduction of a series of fragmented strategies at local and national levels. He defines a 'wrong driver' as any 'deliberate policy force that has little chance of achieving the desired result.' For me, it is this against which we have to measure today's announcement from the Scottish government.

So Nicola wants to improve Scottish education, she wants to raise attainment and she wants to close the gap between the most disadvantaged in our society and the rest. The question we need to ask is 'will these strategies announced today, and the reintroduction of standardised testing in our primary schools and early years is secondary, make the aims espoused more likely? My view is they won't. To improve Scottish education, raise attainment, and for schools to play their part in closing the gap, I believe we need to be focused on improving learning and teaching in every classroom and every school. We need to focus on improving leadership at all levels, to develop and promote collaboration and be relentless in our pursuit of sustainable improvement. This requires a commitment by all to career-long professional development and the time and resources to develop this. I really feel we are on the way to this already and what I fear is that as the political agenda changes, so will the focus within the system, to the detriment of all our learners, and especially the most disadvantaged. If we get high-stakes standardised testing we will most likely get gaming of the system by schools and heads, who will soon be judged on this one criteria alone, no matter what the first minister says. I can almost hear the press and media salivating now at the prospect of constructing the 'league tables' that Ms Sturgeon says she is not seeking to promote. I remember the national assessments of 5-14 and how they became the measure that schools and teachers were judged by and pretty soon the results were seen as more and more unreliable as everyone played the game. I have fought a battle ever since we began introducing Curriculum for Excellence to move staff and parents away from the simplistic measuring of performance in terms of letters, numbers, levels or percentages. I want everyone to see that progress is more complex and nuanced than a mere letter, percentage or grade and how we wanted them to provide a narrative about each child's progress. We haven't got this absolutely right yet, but I do think it is worth the fight and perseverance. My thought is that too many politicians, at local and national level, aren't prepared to engage with something more meaningful and complex, they want something simple to measure progress by, no matter how meaningless.

Having another simplistic measure of pupil progress really is not going to help Ms Sturgeon achieve her lofty ambitions for Scottish education, never mind the morality of subjecting children as young as five to standardised testing that in no way helps their educational development, and which is aimed solely at measuring the system in some way. You have asked us to judge you on education Nicola, and we will. To be taken seriously you need to engage with the right people and be in it for the long-haul. Quick fixes don't work and silver bullets and panaceas don't exist. We all share your high aims and vision for Scottish education and all our learners. I really think we can achieve what we all want, but the way to achieving this is through collaboration and a collective resolve to do the right thing. Standardised testing is not that thing, or even part of it. So, for me, you fail, Fullan's test of what should be driving the system as you go down your proposed route.

You may have standardised tests, but we don't have standardised learners. 


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