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Some summer reflections

This is my first post since June. Apologies for that, but I have used the summer months to go travelling, spending 6 weeks in Australia, only returning last week. Whilst this was ostensibly a holiday, I couldn't resist taking the opportunity to meet with educationalists, and to keep an eye on the local and national news with regard to what was happening in education in Oz. We had a fab holiday, even though it was winter down there. It was a bit wet and windy in the Perth area at times, but still very pleasant, with temperatures in the high teens or low twenties. We did head up to Broome for a few days and the temperatures were a balmy 30 degrees, so we did see our share of sun, but perhaps not as much as was being experienced back at home.

Anyway, back to more musings on education, both in Australia and back here in Scotland and the UK. Most Scottish schools have started the new school year, either last week or this, following the summer break. Already the Scottish Government has started publishing new plans, the latest one just out, 'Learning Together: a national plan for parental involvement, parental engagement, family learning and learning at home 2018-2021', a cause close to my own professional heart. Likewise, as the dust settles from the activity of the start of the new session for children, parents, teachers and school leaders, thoughts will already be turning to school development plans and vexious issues that remain for schools and systems.

Well, there is good news, folks. Those issues that we are constantly being challenged and frustrated by are common, even when you are separated by geography of 12000 miles or more. Yes, there will be specific issues that are related to school and system contexts, but it slightly reassuring that the big issues are similar and are being faced, or not, in education systems and schools across the globe.

Of course, the fact that many of the issues are so similar could be as a result of the common neoliberal approaches to education taken by many governments around the world, and the difficulties and challenges presented as a result. However, some of them are still to do with teachers and schools seeking to do the very best for all their learners and families.

How to develop and improve learning and teaching would seem to be a universal issue to tackle. Whilst in Australia, there were numerous conferences, teacher and leadership events happening that sought to explore how teachers and school leaders could be supported to be the very best they could be, in order to have the greatest positive impacts on outcomes for all learners. It would seem the dialogue around this is very familiar to those of us up here in the northern hemisphere. A new book 'Flip the System Australia: What Matters In Education' is just emerging, building on the Original 'Flip the System' by Jelmer Evers and the follow up 'Flip The System UK'. In this, Australian educators, and some from overseas, explore the system issues, suggesting a different way forward for Australia, opposing the neoliberal approaches currently being pushed by government. The issues in the new book concern teacher agency, teacher leadership, using research and evidence, the impact of coaching, how we best use technology and how we best empower teachers as agents of change. Sound familiar?

Whilst there was much happening around these areas, I saw little evidence, as yet, of teacher-led development events, like our own TeachMeets, Pedagoo, BrewEd. Most of those that were happening whilst I was there seemed to be organised by Professional Associations, State Education Departments, Universities or other organisations. That is not say that teacher-led events were not happening, and I know some teacher-led events have happened in the past, and probably still happen now, but perhaps this is an area that will grow. I am sure the geography, and sheer scale of the country, might well mitigate against this, except in the city municipal areas, with technology being an important facilitation tool. It was great to see the successes and challenges faced by the indigenous peoples of Australia being acknowledged in the new book, and across the systems themselves.

The debate around phonics testing and the development of reading rages across the Australian system. There was a televised debate around the issues, with contributors being unhelpfully labelled as 'for' or 'against' in what was described as a 'war' by some of the more colourful media. It would seem that many state governments wish to adopt the English approach, with phonics screening tests and a proscribed way of teaching. This is being argued against by educators, academics and parents, with others feeling just as strongly in supporting a more directive approach. After the TV debate, there was lots of vehement discussion across social media, with feelings obviously running very high amongst some participants. I dipped my toe into that particular debate, but withdrew after being described as  'a member of a cult who didn't want children to learn.' I was on holiday after all, and decided I didn't need the hassle, so left them to it. However, I thought his did demonstrate once again how quickly people do set up 'camps' and create dichotomies that just don't need to exist within education.

Testing was a very hot topic during my stay. The NAPLAN testing system in Australia has never been short of critics within the education sector, but still has its strong supporters amongst state and national governments. It would seem this year the tests had been administered using the usual computer-based format, and as a paper version for some. This duality of approach has caused lots of issues, with the validity of this year's results being questioned, even more so than they have been before. This particular issue has acted as a catalyst for many to revisit all the associated issues with NAPLAN, its impact on learners, teachers, schools and the curriculum. Perhaps this has been brought into sharper relief by New Zealand's decision to stop making such standardised testing mandatory, or publishing the results? I came back to all the same issues still being raised in Scotland, with the Government getting itself into a similar mess, in particular with its advice regarding our new standardised testing, especially in the face of such strong opposition to those being imposed on five year olds in P1. There is no doubt there is a place for teachers using standardised testing as necessary, and for diagnostic purposes. But, the system compelling schools and teachers to test whole cohorts, at the same time, to be used for accountability purposes, deserves to be challenged by those individuals who compose any 'system'.

Whilst the above were issues dominating the national education debate in Australia, similar to our own, and I am sure many others, there are many educators in schools an the system beavering away trying to resolve issues and improve outcomes for learners on a daily basis. When we see all the headlines about issues in education it is easy to lose sight of the fact that there are thousands and thousands of individuals in any system who are still trying to do the very best for all the learners, and their families, who they work with daily. Often this is despite the system they are working in, because they have a moral imperative to make a difference, and will 'exploit policy', as Fullan calls it, to do the right thing for their learners. I have met people like this on this visit to Australia and on previous visits, and I have worked alongside many across the UK. Too many of them fail to recognise that they are 'the system', and they can change it for the better if they use their powerful professional voice.

On this visit I spoke with educators and university staff from Western Australia who were taking positive steps to ameliorate the worst impacts of system decisions and to explore how educators could be further supported in their endeavours. One of the issues that educators in WA recognised a long time ago was that Curricular Progressions or Pathways, don't work. They present learning as linear and standardised, related to age, when in fact learning is more complex and individualistic than that, with teachers needing accurate information on where learners were, the gaps in their learning and identifying the next steps they would need in their learning. The West Australian Primary Principals Association (WAPPA), academics from the University of Western Australia and schools across the state have been working to resolve some of these. What they have discovered, from over fifteen years of research, is that teachers professional judgements of where learners are in their learning are remarkably accurate! If that is the case, then how could they use this to assess learning, track progress and identify next steps in learning. Could they create a tool that does all of this, which would have high levels of validity, would save teachers time and which would enable them, and school leaders, to report accurately on progress? So, focused initially on genres of writing, they have set about creating such a tool. I will write more about this in a future post, but I thought this was a brilliant example of people getting on with the 'day job', collaborating to solve issues, despite all the system 'chatter' going on round about them and the profession.

The same thing is happening across Scotland, England and Wales. I have visited many schools this year in all these countries and have seen or heard many inspiring similar stories. Teachers, school leaders, academics and other partners collaborating on self-generated and focussed improvement, informed by data and research. Such experiences always give me great hope for the future and the profession, despite the issues that might ail any system. That is not to say we should ignore the bigger issues, and we should still fight the fights that are necessary, but this should never be at the expense of just getting on with the job, and doing what we do best.

I am already looking forward to the opportunity of working with and speaking to more educators across different systems. Focused collaboration on the things that matter and make a difference will always the remain the best way forward.

Thanks to those I spoke to, face-to-face or online, whilst I was in Australia. Hopefully it won't be too long before I return for more collaboration and dialogue.


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