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A watershed for Scottish Education

Late in 2015 the OECD released its report on the review of Scottish education, 'Improving Schools in Scotland: An OECD Perspective'. This report, commissioned by the Scottish Government and after they had drafted their National Improvement Framework (NIF), described Scottish Education as facing a 'watershed moment.' The authors praised many aspects of the direction of travel over the last ten years and more of the Scottish system. Surprisingly they seemed to also endorse the NIF. I say surprisingly for two reasons. One was that two of the four man team who visited Scotland were Andy Hargreaves and Helen Timperley, two researchers and writers on education and educational systems that I have much respect for. The second was because the NIF seems to myself and others within the Scottish system to be flying in the face of everything that Curriulum for Excellence stands for and represents, and with which they were so obviously impressed by. It could be that they didn't want to upset their hosts, or they were convinced by the Scottish government and Education Scotland that this framework was not about high-stakes standardised testing and was more to do with backing up teachers 'professional judgement'. I will leave that for you to decide.

Roll on a few months, and in that time Andy Hargreaves has been quite effusive about the direction of travel in Scotland. He has written a number of articles extolling the approach in Scotland and usually accompanies these with the counter example of what has been happening in England. His latest article in last week's Times Educational Supplement, put Scotland in 'the vanguard'of educational reform and England back in the guard's van, if they are even on the train at all. Andy and Helen have written and researched extensively on what are the component parts of high performing schools and systems and I suspect they would be horrified if anyone saw them as supporting the GERM agenda identified in many systems by Pasi Sahlberg. The characteristics of such agendas, I would say, would be the polar opposite of what they would see as good practice.

Since last week's article by Andy in the TES, I have listened to two other professors of education Gert Biesta and Stephen Ball who have been talking about the characteristics of high performing systems. I wrote about these in my last two posts. Biesta and Ball, have quite a bit of experience of working in, and looking at, the Scottish education system, and I feel both would also agree that Scottish education is at a 'watershed' moment. They have warned of the dangers posed by the NIF in that, if we are to look at similar structures and frameworks introduced into England, USA and Australia, then it could quite quickly develop all the characteristics of the GERM. None of these are positive, and in the countries mentioned have led to falling attainment and widening gaps, the very opposite of what they set out to do. 

It is very much a watershed moment, or tipping point, for Scottish education in my view. We stand having the opportunity to build on what has worked in CfE and addressing the issues that have emerged, by collaborating, keeping the curriculum wide, improving learning and teaching, developing leadership, focusing on skills, aptitudes and attitudes, reducing standardisation, reducing summative assessment of our learners, and by focusing on these and other inputs into the system that will keep us moving forward and improving. Or, we can do the complete opposite. The evidence from around the world would tend to suggest there is a grave danger we could be heading in the wrong direction, if we are not vigilant. It is up to us all in the system to hold our politicians to account and keep reminding them of the promises they have made around the introduction of the NIF. We should be wary of the GERM agenda being introduced by stealth, or due to us failing to recognise the subtle changes happening. Some of the dangers and early signs identified by Professor Ball, such as target setting and more focus on accountability, are already starting to appear, as some are already more outcome focused than on inputs. I hope Andy Hargreaves keeps a close eye on the direction of travel in Scotland and he, and other researchers and academics, will speak out if they see Scotland moving from the vanguard and back to the guard's van. We owe it to all our learners and to ourselves as a profession, and it is from that position that we should be prepared to engage in the dialogue around where we are heading. Of course, this also means people setting the agendas have to be prepared to listen and understand.

This week the Flying Scotsman returned to the tracks and is being admired once again across the world. This could be a timely metaphor for our education system. Let's work to keep it on the tracks, something to be admired, and not bring about its derailment.


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