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When do we start to push back?

It is fair to say that, as ever, there is lots going on in the Scottish education system, and many others. There are structural changes being put into place in education systems across the globe. Scotland has been embracing the education reform movement for the last three or so years, certainly since Nicola Sturgeon was appointed First Minister in 2014. She took office asking the electorate to judge her and her government on what they achieved in transforming the education system. To many observers, her call to arms around education sounded very familiar to Tony Blair's battle cry of 'Education, education, education' as he identified his priorities prior to being elected UK Prime Minister in 1997. Blair was to  begin a process of structural reform in English education which was to lead to academies, higher accountability, competition and privatisation, and which were enthusiastically embraced and enhanced by Conservative governments that followed.

Blair's agenda, and those that followed, were driven by neo-liberalism, both in philosophy and action. No surprise given 'New Labour's' enthusiasm to embrace all things American and Blair's support for George Bush. It was also to be characterised by what Pasi Sahlberg has since decried as the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) that had been emerging in systems around the world. Such systems featured high levels of competition, high accountability measures and structures, business approaches to education and the embracing of high-stakes standardised testing to constantly measure how the system was performing. They viewed teaching as a technical activity and they had strong top down hierarchies and direction. Sahlberg, a Finnish educator, was one of the first to vocally push back against such models, and their detrimental affects on all the things they purported to address. They were supposed to raise attainment, improve learning, improve teaching whilst improving equity and social mobility.

What in fact happened was that all of these aims were shown to deteriorate under GERM agendas, and additionally there were even more detrimental effects on learners and schools. Stress levels rose for learners as standardised testing became the main measure purporting to show how well a system was doing. League tables followed, showing the 'best performing' and 'worst performing' schools. The gradings of organisations like Ofsted were pre-determined before school visits, based entirely on pupil performance in SATs and senior exam structures. Pressure was increased and people, especially school leaders, began to lose their jobs. Stress for teachers and school leaders was ramping up, as was workload, as 'data' and 'evidence' became king. The pressures from above were cascaded down on those in the lower echelons of the hierarchy. But this particular pressure was not producing diamonds of performance, more frazzled teachers, schools and leaders, all of which impacted on learners.

Coming from Finland, Sahlberg was able to show a different way of working that had none of the characteristics described above, but which was very successful. Attainment and social equity was high in Finnish schools and across the system, because the culture and society valued education and educators, focusing on high level entry into the profession, then professional collaboration to improve learning and teaching. Sahlberg has described the high levels of trust in educators from within the system and from society as a whole. However, the UK and other countries like USA, Australia and Sweden were pushing on with agendas that directed and micro-managed schools and teachers from above., convinced that those at the top knew best and improvement could be mandated and forced.

Meanwhile in Scotland, we had taken a different route and it was a Scottish Labour government that sowed the seeds for what is now called Curriculum for Excellence. (CfE) This aimed to free teachers and schools from the proscription experienced under the previous 5-14 curriculum, and would provide learners with a broad general education, which focused not just on knowledge acquisition, but also on skills, attitudes and aptitudes to help develop young people as adaptive life-long learners. Four key capacities, Successful Learners, Responsible Citizens, Effective Contributors and Confident Individuals, aimed to encapsulate the holistic approach and outcomes of learning for all. CfE was to fall foul of Micro-management and bureaucratic snowstorms of extra workload, but its initial intentions and ideals did aim for a different approach in Scotland.

Moving on to 2014 and Ms Sturgeon's focus on education, she qualified her aim by stating that she wanted to be informed by evidence when making decisions about education, and she was prepared to look anywhere to find 'what was working' elsewhere. Leading what is ostensibly a left-leaning government it was rather surprising that she then looked to England, where  Michael Gove was an education minister seemingly determined to have the English system privatised, with a curricular focus from the 1950's, based mainly on his own experiences. (Ironically, these had been Scottish!) She was impressed by the hype and 'spin' around the 'London Challenge', as well as what was happening in USA with 'No Child Left Behind.' It would seem that our politicians were not only prepared to use 'spin' when necessary, they were also easily swayed by it themselves, and prepared to cite such spin as 'evidence'.

Whilst I recognise you cannot simply replicate the characteristics of one system in another and expect the same results, just as you can't between schools, one would have thought there were more similarities between Finland and Scotland, than any of the other countries our government turned to for models of 'good practice'. The result has been that we have embraced many of the characteristics of neo-liberal driven agendas and the GERM approach to school and system development.

In Scotland, we have structural change, standardised tests, ramped up accountability, benchmarks, more power to headteachers, less local authority input, targets and more, that point us to the direction of travel. Already attempts have been made, discussed and some implemented, to reduce entry requirements into teaching, review initial teacher education and move away from universities, different 'free' models of schools which would operate outside of current structures, abolishment of the General Teaching Council Scotland (GTCS) and the immersion of SCEL (Scottish College for Educational Leadership) into Education Scotland. All of which, can only lead to the conclusion that we are heading for many of the ills of some of systems mentioned above, rather than embracing the approaches which have been shown to work in Finland, Canada, the Netherlands and elsewhere.

What we also understand is that the consequences for many of these changes may well be detrimental to young learners, to teachers, to schools and to the system as a whole. Andy Hargreaves was right when he said a couple of years ago, we are at a tipping point at present in Scotland. We can go one way and become a leading performer in education again, or we can go another and set back all that we have built our system on, as well as what we are trying to achieve.

My simple questions in this post is, 'when will we say enough?' and 'When do we begin to push back against changes that we know will make our schools and our system worse, rather than better?'  Education systems and schools are constructed of people. All of us, not just some. One of the discussions I have had many times with colleagues and other educators is around the ethical and moral dilemmas you face as a leader, especially when confronted by directives to do things that are against your personal and professional values, which you consider to be harmful, either to learning or wellbeing, to your learners. There is no one answer to this, and it is down to individuals and their context to make their own decisions. As a commentator from outside, I no-longer face the day-to-day reality of having to make such decisions. However, I am sure all would agree that we should never take decisions or actions that will be harmful to learners.

However, such ethical and moral decisions can be made so much harder in cultures where dissent is not encouraged and where 'spin' dominates. Too many people still want to portray every change and every decision as positive and the only right one to make. It is then only a small step to using a term like 'the blob' to describe those who do not agree with decisions handed down by those above in the hierarchy. Names can soon change into bullying behaviours and isolation, producing cultures where people keep their heads down and just keep complying, even when they don't agree. When was the last time you heard a government, or minister, put their hand up and say 'we got that wrong'? Everything is a success, when you are in government or at the top of a local authority or organisation. When things do go wrong, there is always somebody else to blame. Take all the credit and none of the blame, is not a great position for any leader.

The unions in Scotland have all said they are against any move to remove the independence of the GTCS and replace it with a government appointed body. Currently it is independent paid for from the registration fees of its members. They have also voiced concerns about the introduction of standardised testing, talk of league tables, reducing the qualification requirements for new entrants into the profession and the setting up of more independent or 'free' schools.  I know there is a lot of unrest and dismay within the profession of many of the changes that are happening, but there are a lot of people who are reluctant to, or who can't, speak out about what is happening. That in itself is an indicator of an unhealthy culture across the system. If we feel we cannot be open and take part in a meaningful, informed dialogue, then people are likely to keep complying, become more unhappy, adding to the staffing pressures across the system, as they may well seek to leave at the first opportunity, be it from a school or the system.

Wondering aloud, what will it take before we act? For any system to be healthy it requires an engaged and informed profession, who feel they are listened to about everything they care passionately about. At the moment, there is a feeling that decisions are being made in Bute House, or elsewhere in the Scottish government, which we are then 'consulted' on and to which not much heed is then paid. Leaders at any level, who surround themselves only with people who are going to agree with everything they say or do, are too controlling and stifle the honest exchange of views, ideas and sharing of evidence. They become detached from the realities of those whom they purport to lead, creating ultimately toxic cultures which may well lead to their downfall, if they are in post long enough for this to happen. The political life and attention-span of your average minister, or system leader, seems very short at the moment, and often they are off before proverbial chickens come home to roost. Most of the people in any system are in it for the long haul, because they are still fully committed to making a difference, and still believe they can. Picking up pieces after failed and badly thought out change is a waste of their time, energy and expertise.

The government in Scotland at the moment is betrayed by the mismatch between what it says and what it is doing. Until both their words and their actions match, people must make their own decisions about what they really represent by their actions. I think we are not far from the situation where the education profession, that is the individuals who compose it, decide that they cannot support more and more of these actions, and have no alternative but to push back. We achieve so much more through collaboration and consensus than we ever will with conflict. For that to happen, people need to feel that our leaders are listening to what we are saying and are prepared to adjust their actions, informed by practitioners professional expertise and experience.

I really hope that in 2018 there will be more listening and collaboration throughout our system, and all others. If that doesn't happen, then I am afraid 2018 could be the year where we actually decide enough is enough!

A first step would be for everyone to take time over the holidays to respond to the consultation currently taking place around some of the structural changes proposed. The ironically named 'Empowering Schools Consultation' is available on the Scottish government website.


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