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Austerity, education and losing sight of learners

Since Nicola Sturgeon' announcement that standardised testing was to be reintroduced into all Scottish primary schools and the early years of secondary schools, as a key component of the National Improvement Framework, much has been written in the media, blog posts, by academics and some organisations that must make for very uncomfortable reading for the Scottish Government. The vast majority of what has been written is opposed to the reintroduction of standardised testing as a tool to drive forward improvements in our schools, both in terms of attainment and closing the gap between the attainment of the most privileged and the least. President Obama signalled last week that even in the USA, with the 'No Child Left Behind' agenda, they have gone too far and American children are over assessed and under taught. Worse, the programme aims, which were to raise attainment and to close the equity gap, have not been delivered. Recent research has shown that the equity gap in the USA has actually got wider in recent years and attainment is down when compared to other countries across the world. 

I have already written in previous posts of my opposition to the use of such standardised tests as a driver for our shared aims in Scotland, and other individuals such as Bill Boyd and organisations like RISE have published posts and policy statements that eloquently show the folly of the Scottish Government in placing their faith in such tests to deliver something that they have demonstratably failed to deliver in other countries across the globe. But, I am currently reading 'The Price of Inequality' by Joseph E Stiglitz the Nobel Prize winning economist, in which he examines the problems caused by the economic crash of 2007 onwards and the rush to austerity measures in America, the UK and many other countries. Stiglitz looks at what happened in the USA and other countries when governments introduced measures that basically impacted adversely mostly on the middle classes and the poor in such a way that the gap between the very rich and the rest of us got progressively bigger. Indeed the top 1% of earners and richest people in these societies were largely protected from the worst excesses of austerity so that the inequality gap has widened both in the USA and the UK, as well as elsewhere. Stiglitz argues that this was not inevitable and was a direct result of government actions and policies following the crash. My aim here is not to review or critique of Stiglitz's thesis in this work, I wouldn't dream to think I am qualified to do so anyway. But, reading the book and some of his insights did make me think again of the equity gap in education in Scotland, and elsewhere, and the approach currently being taken by the Scottish Government. Stiglitz has noted how government policy can help, or can make things worse, especially if they are badly informed, misinformed or driven by ideology.

When governments, including ours, began to focus on austerity measures, this had impacts for schools, our education system, local authorities and devolved government structures. Suddenly, everyone's focus was on finance. At first we were told that 'the status quo was not an option' as governments and directors encouraged everyone  to think and work differently, and 'do more for less.' We did. We reconfigured the ways we worked and looked to work more efficiently in order to begin reducing costs and overheads, whilst always trying to minimumise the impact for our pupils and learners. I myself became headteacher of two primary schools in 2008, as my own local authority, who could see what was coming, tried to reconfigure the service and reduce the number of headteachers by partnering schools where possible. At the same time they made all headteachers non-teaching, so there were no more teaching-heads, and this was a bonus for many heads and schools. Partnering schools enabled this to happen. So there were some gains, as well as some losses. This was just the start though and we soon started to see further budget reductions and the need to make even greater savings at the centre, where staffing started to be drastically reduced, and in schools as our budgets now required us to make savings too. Headteachers very quickly had less and less resources to help them deliver their own, local and national agendas, all of which were definitely not slowing down.

Soon, everything we talked about at headteacher meetings was dominated by budgets and the 'new efficiencies', which we eventually started to call 'cuts'. All of the time, many at the centre and everyone in schools were trying to protect our learners from the impacts of what was going on behind the scenes, and I think we have been pretty good at this. There was no reduction in the expectations from the local authority, Education Scotland, the HMIE, and the Scottish Government in terms of school development and the introduction of teaching and curricular reform. We also had the same expectations in school, which was to keep moving forward ourselves, and we kept delivering. 

Fast forward to today and we still find an ever increasing improvement agenda, driven by all the same people and organisations, and even more pressure on resources. What has changed now is that, to me as a headteacher, it would seem that many of the people driving forward the agendas are losing sight of the individuals that make up our learners, our staff and our school communities and systems. Decisions are being taken that are beginning to have bigger impacts on learners and education, by experts in finance, statistics, data handling and politics, and who have limited, if any understanding, of learning and teaching and the things that make a difference to these. My worry is that when we become so focused on money, statistics and data, we lose sight of the people who sit behind the figures. This is a concern with standardised testing too. Already we are being asked questions about percentages of pupils and levels of attainment and what is concerning is that the people asking the questions, including the government, don't want to know, or haven't the time to understand, the individual learning stories and journeys that sit behind the data. Percentages don't tell you about the individual circumstances of the pupils, where they started from and the efforts that have been made to get them where they are now. Every single pupil is a unique individual to their teachers and their school. To a standardised test they become a percentile, a number, or a point on a chart or graph. They lose their identity. They lose their individual learning journey. My point is that once we take the people and the individuals out of the learning equation, we lose sight of what education should be about. Not at a school level, where we will always see the individuals, but at an area and national level. Our own government are moving forward with the 'Getting It Right For Every Child' agenda (sounds familiar), their aim to raise attainment and the drive to reduce the equity gap. These are all very laudible, but they become undeliverable if policy makers have the wrong drivers and lose sight of the individuals that make up the 'system'. You can have all the rhetoric and visionary aims you like, but if you keep pulling the rug out from under the feet of the individuals delivering on a daily basis, by diminishing resources, monetary and personnel, and focusing on the figures, the loftiest of aims are doomed to failure. Eventually 'less does actually mean less', as there are no more efficiency savings to make and the people aren't there, or resourced, to deliver what needs to be delivered. When the people who drive strategy at local and national level become fixated on numbers, percentages and costings it is very easy for them to lose sight of the people who sit behind that data. You can dehumanise the system as we become more and more data driven instead of people driven. If education is not about people and their individuality, we have lost our way somewhere.

Ms Sturgeon has asked us to judge her on education. We will, but she should remember we judge people on their actions, not their words.

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