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What is going on in Scotland?

Like myself, there are many people who are getting more and more concerned with the direction of travel in Scottish education. Since 2004 schools and educationalists in Scotland have been engaging with and implementing the Curriculum for Excellence, originally called A Curriculum for Excellence or ACE. This promised a new and radical approach to learning in our schools and for our learners, and had emerged out of the National Debate on Education of 2002. This new curriculum focused on developing four key capacities in all our learners, successful learners, effective contributors, responsible citizens and confident individuals. It also saw learning as broad and holistic with a focus switch from an emphasis on knowledge to one that aimed to develop skills, attributes and attitudes that had been identified as key by all partners. The other big aim was to 'declutter' the curriculum in schools for teachers and school leaders, as this was one of the many failings identified in the previous 5-14 Curriculum. 

Move on to today and we find ourselves facing another overhaul of our school curriculum. Some of the laudible aims of CfE have been achieved but, if we are honest, quite a few have not. Unfortunately, the curriculum has again become very beauracratic, full of tick-box accountability procedures and practices and with an overburden of assessment, particularly in the secondary sector. I would say that many of the faults that have emerged with our curriculum are not the fault of the original architects of the curriculum but are a consequence of all the layers of accountability and 'support' that exist within the system. However, significant progress has been made and we have had many compliments on our direction of travel from across the world. Indeed, many researchers and system leaders from other countries have visited Scotland to see what has been going on, and many of our own researchers and system leaders have been invited to visit other countries to share our experiences and help them with their own development journey. The new curriculum being introduced in Wales is very much a reflection of the Scottish journey.

What has been recognised for some time is that, whilst there are significant issues with our curriculum, overall our direction of travel and approach is to be applauded and is envied by many. When we look at other countries and systems we see high stakes testing and accountability predominating. We see education being fitted into business models and being privatised by stealth, and we see attainment falling and equity gaps increasing. Many countries are using what Michael Fullan calls 'wrong drivers', such as those I have already mentioned, and they and their learners have suffered as a result. Many politicians are unduly influenced and driven by PISA standings, flawed those these may be. Too many see these as the only measure that counts to demonstrate if a school system is performing well or 'excellently' as most seem to desire, taking no notice of the impossibility, or desirability,  of everyone being excellent, 'above average' or top of PISA.

So why are we now more than a little concerned about what is happening in Scotland? Since our First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, came into post she has put the improvement of Scottish education at the top of her agenda. Rather like Tony Blair who repeated 'education, education, education.' when asked what his priorities were as took over as UK premier in 1997, Ms Sturgeon started with 'judge me on education' and went on to promise she would close the equity gap that exists in Scottish schools. I would suggest you would struggle to find anyone involved in Scottish education, and certainly not me, who would argue against any of the rhetoric that the First Minister espouses about what our priorities should be. The issue lies with the strategies she has chosen, it would seem personally, to solve these issues.

Another thing she has said from day one of her installation as First Minister is that we shouldn't be precious about the Scottish system and that we should be prepared to look anywhere in the world to what works elsewhere and be prepared to adopt such practices. I agree that we should learn from what works elsewhere, but I also feel equally we should look at what doesn't or hasn't worked elsewhere. That is why I am concerned that our First Minister has decided the USA and England can provide suitable models for improving our system. Both these countries are prime examples of systems where the 'wrong drivers' have held sway and with disastrous results. President Obama himself was lamenting in Novemeber 2015 how American students were over assessed and tested, attainment had fallen and equity gaps had widened since the introduction of 'No Child Left Behind' and other 'reforms.' Similar reforms, driven by government and individual ideologies, in England have had the same effects and continue to cause high stress levels for learners and teachers, and consternation amongst school leaders. Not for nothing has Pasi Sahlberg labelled these as 'GERM' interventions into systems around the world.

Ms Sturgeon has set out some of the direction of travel for Scottish education in the National Improvement Framework, produced last year ahead of the visit by, and endorsement, of the OECD. This organisation recognised a lot of the good and innovative work that had been going on in Scotland and noted we were now at a 'watershed' moment in our system. They felt we could continue to build on the good work already happening, address some key issues, and really become a world leading system, or we could let that work founder as we lost our nerve. One of the key proposals in the NIF is the reintroduction of national standardised testing across primary schools and in the early years of secondary. This is supposed to help raise attainment and close equity gaps, as well as provide a measure of how well the system is doing. The fact that standardised testing was never developed to do any of these things, and no-one has demonstrated how they can achieve this, seems to have escaped the architects of the NIF and their advisors. Teachers, school leaders, researchers, academics and parents have grave concerns about the reintroduction of such testing and its impacts, and these concerns are further heightened when considered alongside some of the statements made by the First Minister and Education Minister in recent weeks.

The Education Minister has said 'we need to step up the pace of change' with regard to educational reforms. One of the the pieces of praise Scotland has received from numerous academics is that we have taken our time with the implementation of CfE. Research after research shows that deep sustainable change takes time. Quick fixes, silver bullets, panaceas and the such have no long-term benefits for learners or systems, but are very appealing to the short-term thinking of politicians. To bring about meaningful change we need to give systems and practitioners the time to understand, assimilate and embed change in their practice. Both Ministers have also spoken of giving headteachers more control by devolving budgets directly to them, and how they want to give parents a bigger role in the governance of schools, as well as more choice in their options for schooling. They are already considering requests from a number of parents requesting to take their children's schools out of local authority control. They are also proposing the setting up of independent regional boards, outwith of local authority control, to oversee schools. 'We need to get away from the one size fits all approach we have in Scotland.' All of this sounds very similar to the rhetoric to be found in England, and elsewhere, and is why myself and others are getting more and more nervous about our direction of travel. 

Are we heading towards many of the vagaries of the English system? It certainly sounds and feels like it, strange though this might sound from a Scottish National Party government. I think there is an agenda at play here that we are not being fully told at the moment and it is concerning and unsettling. We run the risk of destroying anything that is good about about what we have been doing in Scotland, and then replacing this with aspects that can only be detrimental to the system as a whole but, more importantly, for our learners within it. If our politicians are serious about their aims for education in Scotland then they really do have to be prepared to listen, and to see schools, teachers and school leaders as the solution, not the problem. Any policy and strategy is only deliverable by teachers and schools. When others try to impose solutions, without engaging the hearts and minds of the deliverers, then they are doomed to fail. My worry is that much of what is proposed, and that which is still to be revealed, risks more harm than good. With current austerity impacts affecting all schools and all learners, teachers and school leaders are working flat out to keep these to a minimum for learners. We are working every day on maintaining staff morale in the face of mounting demands and pressures in the system, if we head down the road of more testing, higher accountability, business models, academies and more top-down direction, in the face of everything research says about what really works, then the impacts will only be negative. If we lose the goodwill of our school staff, where will we really be then?

I should point out that I voted SNP at the last election, so this is not about party politics, it's about what is right for our learners, our schools and our system. I hope my reading of the situation is wrong, but only time will tell.

We actually know what works and what has an impact on attainment and equity gaps. We need to recognise that equity is an issue for all of society and all government policy, not just schools. We can make a difference and the way we make a difference is by working collaboratively and dealing with learners and their families holistically. We need to keep the main thing the main thing, and that is learning and teaching. We need to give every teacher and every school the support to grow and develop their understandings and their practice, through professional development that is ongoing, locally focused and individualised. We need to keep developing and improving our school leaders so that they understand and can lead learning in their schools, and across the system. We need to really embrace early intervention and improve our early learning practices. We need to be research and data informed, not driven, and we need a relentless approach to development that is focused on impacts for learners. We need to be creative in developing our curriculum and our approaches to inter-disciplinary learning and we need to change how we assess and use assessment in the system. We need to spend more time on improving the aspects that really make a difference and less time on proving what we are doing all the time for various audiences. That needs trust and I really think this needs to be developed at all levels in the system. I saw an interesting graphic recently on Twitter that showed the levels of trust in and reputation of teachers in education systems across the world. It was no surprise that the countries that had the highest level of trust and where teachers were most respected, were the ones among the highest performers in PISA. Go figure?

So to try and answer the question posed in the title of this post, I am not quite sure what is going on in Scotland but the omens are not good. I do know I work in a proud and independent country and am equally proud to be a small part of its education system. We have given a lot to the world and in many ways, and will continue to do so, I only hope that the direction of travel in our education system continues to be something we can all be proud of and which will help all our young people reach their potential and achieve their dreams. Anything less and we will have failed them.


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