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Some thoughts on Scottish education

This week I was asked if I would go along to speak to labour MSPs and MPs about Scottish education and schools. My brief was to talk about education. its current state, the reality of how the attainment gap can be tackled, how teachers can help government address the challenges of poverty, and how we might start to reinvest in our schools and our teaching staff. The politicians did not want to hear from the 'same people' who always spoke to them, and wanted to hear from someone 'fresh from the chalk-face'. I had forty five minutes, about twenty minutes input from me then a discussion and question and answer session. No pressure there then! Anyway, I gave it my best shot.

I started with a brief introduction to myself and my background, to give them some idea of who this person was, and why they might be able to help them and I tried to cover most of the following in my time slot.

I started with some the positives from our system.

Stuff we should be proud of:
  • Our learners and their achievements. I pointed out that we had the honour and privilege to work with fantastic young people every day, and we never cease to be astonished by all they achieve, at all stages of their education. They are enthusiastic, creative and knowledgeable, and as they move through the system they become more curious and inquisitive about their role in our society and how they can help shape this.
  • All the staff who work in our schools, and elsewhere, and their commitment to what they do. We have fabulous people who work in, and lead, our schools, who want nothing but the best for their learners. They are professional, well educated and prepared for their classroom roles and to support our learners. They want the best for all learners, but understand that they can get even better, with the right conditions and support. I spoke of Henry Hepburn's recent survey of teachers on Twitter, about why they feel they are in the best job. The results were so affirming of what we are about and what we think about our role.
  • Our Parents. We rarely, if ever, come across parents who want nothing but the best for their children. We have many committed parents working on a daily basis with their child's school to help support their learning and development. Part of our role is to tap into, and reach out further, to our parents, so that they feel better able to support their children, and we break down many of the barriers, perceived or real, that still exist between some parents and their local school.
  • The commitment of communities. At all levels of the system, we have communities that are committed to helping develop and improve the educational experience of our learners, and to support schools to do this. Some of these communities are populated by education, health or social work and political professionals, but many of them are from different backgrounds and just want to support local schools, and wider education, as best they can. Like everyone else in the system, they are looking to make a difference.
  • Curriculum for Excellence. Despite the well-founded criticisms directed at CfE, and what it has become, there is still a belief by many in the system in regard to the original principles that sat behind this curricular development, especially in our primary sector. It is still a radical and different curricular approach to many others, that still has much to offer, if we are able to get back to it's founding principles. My message is that it has to be seen as a verb, its what we do, rather than a noun, and some other 'thing' for schools and teachers to do. Of course we still have to address the issues, in particular the middle to upper secondary years.
  • Our higher education sector and the expertise therein. For a small country, Scotland has lots of high performing universities, spread across the country. There is a wealth of educational expertise that resides in many of those universities. I mentioned Edinburgh, Glasgow, Strathclyde, Stirling, Dundee and Aberdeen to illustrate this. and the geographical spread Within those universities we have world-class and leading educationalists, and perhaps we are a bit guilty of not tapping into that expertise first, before we start looking further afield. Good examples of university, local authority and school partnerships are beginning to emerge and be more common.
  • Collaborative structures and practice. We are a small country, and so we should be able to collaborate easier than some larger ones, and we do. We are not perfect, but there are many examples of collaboration happening at national, local, and school levels that help us become greater than the sum of the individual parts. We are better at speaking to each other, across sectors and across agencies to help connect all that we do for our young people and families, and to improve our performance. We understand the power and necessity of collaboration at all levels.
  • SCEL. I singled out SCEL as an example of structures and practices in Scotland which had been recognised as world class. The work that has been done by SCEL over the last two years to develop system leadership and teacher leadership has helped to greatly improve and develop the practice of many school leaders and teachers, with positive impacts for learners. Members of the Scottish Government's International Group of Advisors had particularly commented on the impact SCEL has had, and as an example of new structures that are sector leading and have impact.
I then turned my attention to some of the major issues or concerns felt by myself and others. I broke these down into bigger policy directions and then into specific issues that resulted from some of these.

  • The drift towards Tory education policy. From day one of the first minister's work she has said 'judge me on education' and she, and her education ministers, have said they will not be afraid to look outside of Scotland for examples of what works elsewhere. There is nothing wrong with this approach, if you look in the right places. My suggestion was that perhaps they have been too quick and keen to look down south and at England, for these examples. Many of the announcements and actions of the Scottish Government over the last few years have looked a bit like 'Tory-light', if not exact replication. This is a concern for many in Scottish education, but people feel they can't voice those fears, or if they do they are soon pulled to one side to have there voice quietened, or become easily isolated.
  • The belief by some that improvement can be mandated. There are too many micro-managers in Scottish education, and they tend to want to focus on changing systems and structures to bring about improvement. Lots of research has shown that, whilst these can help and support development, it is people, and in particular teachers, who bring about real change in our schools. That is where our attention should lie, a relentless focus on learning and teaching and supporting our teachers to be even better.
  • GERM agendas. One of our Government's own international group, Pasi Sahlberg, described the various government reform agendas for education around the world as GERMs. These were characterised by greater accountability, league tables, top-down direction and high-stakes testing supposedly to measure the performance of the system. Examples he identified included, USA, Sweden, Australia and England. Such countries that followed these tended to also be characterised by falling attainment, wider gaps and less equity. We seem to be heading down the same path.
  • Everything being dropped onto schools. There is no doubt that we have lots of gaps that need to be closed, as much as possible, in education. A concern around this is the feeling by many that the onus for dealing with all of these is falling entirely onto schools and teachers, when we all know there are wider societal problems at play here. In the discourse around 'raising attainment' and 'closing gaps' it seems that it is only schools and teachers who are being targeted. We recognise that we have important and vital roles to play, but the impact of other factors needs to be similarly recognised and addressed also.
  • School resourcing. It remains a concern that resourcing for schools is very much a political football and is not as clear and as transparent as it could be. The algorithms for allocation of resources are only as good as the people who constructed them, and all their biases. Whilst 'extra' resourcing to schools and headteachers is welcomed, the tools used for allocation of these seem to be very broad and arbitrary. Leading to individuals and families missing out just because of a post-code or whether they take free school meals. Throwing money at schools, and demanding impact in a school year is unrealistic, and promotes short-termism.
  • The failure of policy makers to understand the complexity of schools and learning. As with any field of knowledge, the more you come to know, the more you recognise what you don't know. So with education and learning. The very best practitioners, can make it look teaching and learning easy, but we all understand it is not. What works on one day and for one teacher, might not work the next, or for other teachers with different children and contexts. We still seem to suffer from policy makers who went to school once, or have visited schools, and think they know what works. If it was that easy, we would all be doing it!
  • Structures and systems that don't do what they 'say on the can'. There are examples throughout our system of structures and systems purportedly designed and created to 'support' schools, but which actually muddy the waters of school development and get in the way of what schools are trying to do. We have organisations and policy that are high on rhetoric around meeting and supporting needs, but in reality they pass all this responsibility down to schools and their leaders, failing to understand, or connect, all that we want, and have, to do.
Then I looked at specific concerns people have, that are a direct result of some of these bigger concerns.

  • The governance review. Another attempt to change structures to bring about improvement, which is likely to lead to greater issues for school leaders and teachers, as well as learners. I am concerned about the impact on local-democracy of this proposed change, believing, as do the Government, that education decisions should be taken as close to source as possible. The danger of this proposed change is that headteachers will find themselves between a rock and a hard place, i.e. the LA and the Collaborative and their will be a 'pitch-war' between the different parties involved that school leaders will have to deal with, and make sense of.
  • Teacher shortages and Teach First. There is no doubt that their is a big problem with recruitment and retention of teachers and school leaders at present, not surprising given some of the above. We have to continue to make teaching an attractive profession, and terms and conditions need to be addressed to help with this. We need to look at different pathways into the profession, but not at the expense of a dilution of standards and expectations for those wishing to enter our profession. teaching should never be seen as a stop-gap till you find something better. 
  • The National Improvement Framework. I have written and spoken before about concerns myself and others have about the NIF, not only in its wording but also in the elements it contains. Stephen Ball spoke in Glasgow a couple of years ago about his concerns with the NIF and how it looked very like a typical GERM agenda. Despite verbal reassurances from civil servants, and Government ministers, it still looks and feels the same. As ever, it not what you say that counts, but what you do.
  • A narrowing of the curriculum. All anyone wants to talk about, it seems, is literacy and numeracy, with health and wellbeing getting a cursory nod in its direction. No-one would argue that these are not crucial, but we do our learners a dis-service if we fail to meet their holistic development and growth. Already we can see evidence of subject hierarchies being established and promoted, at the expense of the creative arts and other areas. This should concern us all.
  • The introduction of high-stakes testing. No matter what the rhetoric around this says, this will very quickly become high-stakes with consequences that are detrimental to learning and learners. These tests were never designed to measure the performance of systems, and cannot do so in any meaningful way. They can however destroy learning and raise stress levels. as Stephen Ball noted, systems that introduce such testing always talk about them 'supporting teacher's professional judgements' at their outset. But very quickly the results of these are all anyone wants to talk about, then look to improve.
  • Education Scotland. There are some fabulous people working at Education Scotland, but many of us feel that the organisation has an identity crisis. It is not sure what role it is now fulfilling, and neither are many people in our schools. There were a lot who expected the organisation to be split from its inspection and support roles, to help give it more clarity. But that has not happened, and now it has subsumed SCEL into it. Is it to support or is it to push and measure Government policy? I think many people are unsure, but more think it is now the latter which dominates its thinking. Time will tell.
I finished by looking at some of the ways we could make a difference, that are supported by sound research and evidence.

  • Build trust and collaborative practices. Trust is crucial at all levels, and politicians have to demonstrate they have trust in the profession to do the right thing. Yes, we should always be accountable, but it needs to be recognised that the expertise to improve, and to close gaps, resides within the profession. To achieve this we need structures and systems to support us to collaborate to find solutions to issues and to improve learning.
  • We have to use research and evidence to inform practice. More and more teachers and school leaders are beginning to recognise this, and perhaps the gap between the research base and practice is one we can begin to see closing. We have to support the profession with this, through organisations like SCEL and GTCS.
  • Focus and resource properly interventions for pre-school and early years. There is a raft of evidence that firstly identifies issues have grown and developed in many young learners before they even start school, and that money and time spent in those formative years reduces the interventions and resourcing needed in later years and adulthood. We have to get better at understanding and dealing with the impact of attachment issues, ACEs, and learning through play, not starting to test our children soon as they put foot into a school.
  • The professional development of teachers and school leaders. It is generally agreed that teachers, followed by school leaders, are the most important determinants of school performance and learning. Therefore, we need to support and develop our teachers, with a relentless focus on learning and teaching, so that we develop teacher agency and adaptive expertise. We need to develop our school leaders in the same way.
  • We need national policy that support and expects collaboration. Not just policy we also need practice that promotes, encourages and develops collaborative practices within schools, across schools and beyond schools.
  • Focused and fair resourcing. We need resourcing that is fair and which targets practice that has been shown can make a difference. We need to use resourcing to encourage our best teachers to work in schools facing the most challenges, and which gives them time out of class to improve their knowledge, develop their practice and know their impact.
  • Time. This is an issue for every school and every system. But, it is really important that our politicians, and others, understand that deep embedded and sustainable change happens over time, not in a few months. Then they need to support schools and teachers to achieve this.
  • Culture and ethos. There is also a lot of research that demonstrates that culture and ethos are crucial in growth and development. This needs to be recognised and supported at national, local and school levels. Headteachers and teachers need support to explore how they develop deep learning cultures focused on impact for learners within schools and beyond, so that we develop the social capital that will allow our schools to thrive.
As I said, I only had forty-five minutes, and I could talk about all of this for forty-five days if required! My input acted as a stimulus for interesting conversations and hopefully I helped the audience develop their own thinking and understanding around some of these issues, as they consider their own policy direction with regards to education in Scotland. I certainly appreciated the time I was given, especially as they had spent time before my arrival considering the process of finding their next leader after Kezia Dugdale stepped down earlier this week.

The message they tried to give loud and clear was that they understood and recognised many of the issues I spoke about and they wished to support the profession with these and others going forward. They pointed out that we ourselves had a role to play in addressing issues that exist, and they also wondered aloud about why there had not been more push-back from the trade unions on some of these important issues.

Whether you agree, or not, with what we discussed there is no doubt there is much for us all to consider throughout the year ahead. I concluded by repeating my own view that it is perhaps time for us to have another national conversation around education and what we want from our schools, before we continue down paths that may lead to further problems for the system and our learners. We owe it to all of them to not let this happen.


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