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More warnings for Scottish education

The last seven days or so have again demonstrated some of the major challenges that lie ahead for Scottish education. These challenges are both long-term and short-term, and how we deal with them will shape the future direction of travel. The prognosis with regard to the possible outcomes is at best looking precarious for the system, teachers and learners.

First we had the motion and debate in the Scottish parliament around the introduction of standardised testing in Primary 1 classes. This whole debate, even before it was aired in parliament, had become very politicised, commonly being presented as an anti-SNP one, rather than about education and how we best support our very youngest learners. Many individuals and organisations tried to point to research and evidence showing why the use of such standardised testing not only did not measure what it was being purported to measure, but that it could potentially skew learning and practices in schools, to the detriment of young learners. Upstart, James McEnaney, the EIS, Connect (a parent organisation) and others, all made well reasoned and evidenced arguments as to the inappropriateness of  such testing in P1, and indeed at the other age groups being targeted by the Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSAs). Pretty soon this was being dismissed as 'ill informed' by John Swinney or more anti-SNP rhetoric by the government's supporters, ignoring that many critics are in fact supporters of the SNP government.

Before the debate had reached the chamber of parliament, Mr Swinney and his civil servants had attempted to deflect concerns about how these assessments were being delivered and experienced in schools, with minor adjustments being made to questions and advice given to schools on their administration. However this did include the conflicting advice given to Directors of Education around whether the assessments, or 'tests', as the government consistently struggled to remember its own agreed nomenclature, were mandatory and if parents could in fact withdraw their children. This not only served to embarrass Mr Swinney's department but also muddied the waters even further for parents and politicians alike. The final advice given being that whilst there is no 'legal right' for parents to withdraw children from the tests, they could still do so 'in consultation' with their child's school. This was to be described as a 'riddle, rather than advice' by one MSP.

When the issues was debated in parliament Mr Swinney was swift to dismiss the whole debate as 'political opportunism of the worst order' as all opposition parties spoke to the motion raised by Liz Smith of the Scottish Conservatives. In parliament Mr Swinney and his party refused to budge or soften their stance. One of his MSP colleagues, and former leader of the parliamentary education committee, James Dornan, dismissed stories of children being brought to tears by their experiences with his hardly helpful comment, 'weans have always cried in school' However, there were some well reasoned and argued points articulated by others, and questions raised, all of which Mr Swinney ignored or dismissed out of hand. Ross Greer the Scottish Greens' education spokesman, in particular, laid out a calm well-reasoned argument for why the tests, particularly in P1, should be dropped. Mr Swinney was asked for the evidence to support the introduction of the assessments and continually referred to the OECD report published in 2015 on Scottish education. In doing so he completely failed to recognise the difference between 'evidence' and 'advice'. Nor did anyone challenge the fact that this 'report' had been commissioned by the Scottish government to support the contents of the NIF (National Improvement Framework).

The upshot of this whole debate was that the motion was passed, with the majority of MSPs telling the government and Mr Swinney to stop the use of these assessments in P1. However, it would seem that the government and Mr Swinney intend to ignore the vote and plough on with their chosen course. Not surprising given that the First Minister declared on a school visit ahead of the debate and vote that,  'standardised assessments will close the attainment gap'. She has yet to show us how that will be brought about exactly!

On Thursday of last week I attended the annual Scottish Council of Deans of Education conference at Stirling University. The keynote speaker in the morning was professor Bob Lingard of Queensland University. Professor Lingard has worked in education systems around the world, including Scotland, and is currently looking at aspects of the English system. Both in his presentation, and in conversation later, he was quite pessimistic about the direction of travel being taken by Scottish education. He was seeing many similarities to approaches adopted in the USA, England and Australia which are not working. All of these are high on accountability and performativity for teachers and schools, at the expense of teacher professional judgement, expertise and agency, including the use of blanket standardised testing. Ultimately, he noted, such agendas have led to detrimental effects for children, both in terms of their learning as well as their wellbeing.

Bob is piloting a project in Queensland that proposes a re-thinking of accountability, involving the whole community, and which supports schools to 'give an account, rather than just being held to account' about aspects of their practice and what they do to make them special or unique. He calls this  'rich accountability' his project being called PETRA (Pursuing Equity Through Rich Accountability). The project came out of work with school principals in Queensland frustrated by the narrowness of NAPLAN and the inadequacies of the 'MySchool' website and how these are used. One principal expressed this as 'How do we measure the stuff that can't be measured?' This spoke to the frustration of school leaders about value only being given to things that can be quantified and measured, rather than the things that make each school unique, and which really matter. Australia has gone down the road of high-stakes accountability and top-down direction, all driven by a desire to improve their PISA ranking. Bob noted that everywhere that OECD had gone in to work with governments and systems, their followed an increase in accountability and standardised assessments. Not surprising, given they store they put in their own assessments and metrics.

The result has been a skewing of the curriculum in Australia, the focus on improving assessment data, more and more top down direction, leading to lower attainment and widening gaps in performance, especially for the most disadvantaged. The opposite of what the politicians said they wanted to achieve. Perhaps worst of all, to them, their PISA ranking continues to slip. Exactly the same picture is to be found in the USA and elsewhere, where such approaches have held sway. The key strategy Bob and his colleagues in Queensland have taken is to engage with the whole school community, in order to capture how everyone feels about their local schools, to identify what they see as important, then explore how the schools can engage with them to reflect and support this. He talks of a 'dialogic democracy' where no voice is privileged more than any other, and all are seen as important and listened to. When this is combined with other data, is when they are able to get a fuller, holistic picture of a school and its community. Accountability needs to become multilateral, a mixture of bottom up and top down, and of vertical and horizontal approaches from all levels in the system. This is in opposition to the current neoliberal mode of accountability exhibited in the Anglo/American model, that Scotland seems hell bent on adopting.

Cut to Saturday and the Researched Scotland event held in Dollar Academy. It was great to see 200 or so educators attend this event and for the Scottish voice to be so strong across various presentations and workshops. My particular highlight was provided by Walter Humes co-editor of the annual 'Scottish Education', which examines the current state of the system and recent developments. His workshop was entitled 'What counts as evidence?' and followed on from his reflections on responses to an article he wrote for the 'Sceptical Scot' website in January of this year. He argued that whilst evidence is important its relationship both to professional practice and to public policy is complex. Fundamental beliefs about human nature and human society are always involved in decisions about the form and content of education. It was his belief that 'opinion' pieces, like his January one, backed by research and involving personal judgement should continue to have a place in the debate. A point I am in full agreement with, and one which I think more educators in Scotland and elsewhere needs to recognise and embrace going forward.

In his January article Humes had given some warnings to Scottish education and suggested seven ways in which the system might be underperforming. These were: a failure to learn from the past, poor political leadership, a complacent and self-regarding policy community, lack of up to date independent data, defensive and protectionist professional attitudes, the use of boastful and sentimental language and finally, a deep vein of anti-intellectualism. Given that he was directing criticism at all sections of the education system in Scotland, it is little surprise that hackles rose and he was not everyone's' favourite commentator. I suspect that was the response he expected from some, but in others perhaps he hoped to cause them to stop, think and consider their behaviours or attitudes and how these might be supporting, or otherwise, the system as a whole.

Walter took us through his arguments, refreshing them with the latest examples and anecdotes from the news to illustrate why he believed his view was still based on the actions and statements found in different levels of the system. Given behaviours exhibited by politicians, media, academics and educators recently, it was difficult to refute much of what he shared.

By considering what Humes had observed, and what Bob Lingard fears is happening, combined with what we have seen played out in the media, government and parliament recently, I believe we have grounds for grave concern around where Scottish education might be heading. It would seem to be that we have a minister and government determined to press ahead with a flawed agenda, and who will not listen to anyone who might reason or caution against aspects of this. There are politicians on all sides who have their own agendas, and we have a profession who feel they are unable to speak up, because of the cultures and hierarchies that prevail, or when they do speak up no-one listens. We have vested interest groups that have fixed and narrow focuses and we have a media that keep pouring oil on the latest flame that appears. Some of the comment pieces I have read recently have been so ill-informed they lack all credibility. However, people read them and are influenced by their spurious claims and lack of knowledge displayed. In all of this, it is easy to lose sight of the young learners and people we claim to be working for.

Seeing the 'ACE Aware Scotland' currently taking place in Scotland, with Dr Nadine Burke Harris and driven by Suzanne Zeedyk and her team, should give us all hope, and remind everyone about what is truly important, children and young people. The decisions we take as a government, politician, organisation, teacher, school leader or parent, have implications, for good or bad, for our young people and the rest of their lives. In which case, shouldn't we all be striving to make those decisions for the correct reasons, informed by evidence and professional experience and expertise, whenever we can? Dogma and rhetoric should have no place in education, only a determination to listen, consider and to truly act in the best interests of all children and  learners. Too often egos and other agendas get in the way of what we know to be right. On her first day here Dr Burke Harris said, ' Stress is toxic. Our kids are not....Once you know this information, you can't unknow it. I think it is unethical not to act on it.' Says it all really.


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