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Here's a thought, or two, or three

Well, this week in Scottish education, and political point-scoring, has been dominated by the latest results regarding numeracy from the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN). Media, politicians, and everybody and their dog, have pronounced on the state of Scottish education based on what has been widely reported, and misreported, this week from the SSLN. One of the things that concerns me most about a lot of the pronouncements made is that it is fairly obvious that most of the people giving opinions and soundbites have not bothered to read the entire report, and have completely failed to think critically about the data presented or the interpretations being put on it.

The SSLN reports annually on either numeracy or literacy, they alternate each year. The report is based on a random sample of four pupils in each school at P4, P7 and S2. Pupils in my own schools have just been completing this year's survey of literacy and these will be sent off to be marked and pored over by Scottish Office statisticians, with the aim of helping to inform next year's figures on literacy. The government and their statisticians themselves acknowledge some of the weaknesses inherint in the process. First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, indicated in the Scottish Parliament that the survey was         'limited in its coverage', and that is some understatement. Four pupils, selected at random by a government department, are expected to complete an assessment of their literacy or numeracy attainment, on a particular day and in a particular way that they may have not experienced before. I am sure statistical analysts better qualified than myself could drive a coach and horses through the imperfections of this survey and its sample. If you refer to my previous posts on Stephen Ball and Gert Biesta talking of the dangers of being driven by data, and their concerns regarding the validity of much of the data used to promote educational reform, you will get a flavour of some of these concerns.

Despite limitations of the data being identified by the First Minister and more informed observers, she and others have continued made sweeping judgements about the state of Scottish education, our schools, leaders and  teachers. I have seen the state of education described as anything from 'appalling' to 'not good enough or acceptable.' No matter that the results of the survey showed that actually performance in numeracy had remained fairly static in P7 and S2, whilst there had been a small drop in P4 performance over the last two surveys. The report acknowledges that the small decline in P4 performance had already started to slow down. The performance of pupils from the most deprived areas of our society had continued to decline in P4 and P7, and this had accounted for almost all the decrease across primary schools. The situation in secondary for our most deprived groups had remained static. I have seen few commentators in the mainstream media, or politicians, even try to consider the impact of austerity measures and changes in social benefits might have had for these learners or their families over the last seven or more years. A lot of the differences between 2013 and 2015 performances of different social groupings in primary schools are described as 'statistically insignificant' in the full report, but such statements were ignored by many politicians and commentators.

I could go on, but others have done this better than I could, so I would refer you to James McEnaney's article in The Daily Record, and to Robin McAlpine's for The Common Space.

Our politicians and many media commentators are still quick to make the simplified performability link between survey results such as this week's SSLN announcements and the state of our education system and schools. Educational experts have warned for many years now that making such direct links is flawed as well as simplified and fails to acknowledge the deficits of the data and tools used, the data that is ignored, and of the connections and interpretations made as a result. So people like Biesta, Ball, Mark Priestley, Michael Fullan, Alma Harris, Pasi Sahlberg and many others have tried to tell governments and media of the pitfalls of being data driven and especially if that data is spurious and only loosely connected to the complexity of the learning process and how schools work. They probably despair at the situation we find ourselves in many countries, as much as we who are working directly within our schools do.

Here's a thought. What if attainment gaps for our most disadvantaged learners and families would be even greater were it not for the hard work and dedication of all our teachers and school leaders? I have never met a teacher or a school leader who goes into school thinking 'I am going to work to reduce attainment and try and widen the disadvantages of our most deprived learners and families.' It just doesn't happen! In my experience, and that of many others, teachers and schools continue to work extremely hard to provide the best learning and development experiences for all their learners, and I do mean all. They do this day in and day out despite the complexities they face, the obstacles put in their way and the constant attacks they face by governments, inspectors and media and anyone else who has an opinion. The vast majority work every day to try and get better at what they do, despite moving goal-posts and the shifting sands of political agendas and ideology that impacts on everything they do. Most schools and teachers work hard to try to protect their learners from all of this, to give every learner the best opportunity to succeed and grow as individuals. They see and deal with the whole child, and their individual circumstances, every day, and they take all this on board whilst they are trying to shape learning experiences for them that takes all this into consideration. To them, a learner is much more than their raw and often narrow attainment data. So many of their learners have overcome disadvantages, problems and issues that will never show up on a standardised test or attainment survey. We get that, and we deal with this every day. Every school and the vast majority of teachers I meet are working their socks off and want nothing but the best for every learner.

Here's another thought. Wouldn't it be great if governments, politicians and media recognised all of this before they rush to castigate teachers and schools? Wouldn't it be great if they determined to ask schools, teachers and their leaders what support they need to help them get better at what they do? Wouldn't it be great if everyone within a whole system determined to work together to put in place systems and structures designed to first and foremost support teachers and their leaders to improve learning and teaching experiences for every learner, recognising that this is the thing that will make the most difference in improving what we do? Couldn't we work collaboratively to produce deep and sustainable improvements across our systems? Wouldn't it be great if our system was founded on high levels of professional trust?

Here's my last thought. What if high-stakes testing, increased command and control and accountability, and the privatisation of education by stealth fails? What do we do next, and who really suffers in the meantime?

Please read the full report, and with a critical eye. 

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