The Power To Make A Difference

It may sound like romantic tosh, but I’m sure most teachers, if not all of them, enter the profession to try to make a difference to the lives of those they teach. I certainly did. I grew up on a council estate in a semi-rural area of south-west Scotland. I was the first of my family ever to go to university, and I could only afford it because of a generous government grant. One of the biggest influences in my life at that time was an inspirational teacher called Bob Bates. He used to read aloud to us, books like Animal Farm and Lucky Jim and Of Mice and Men, and we were captivated. He was never overtly political, but it was undoubtedly a political message; literature, and education generally, have the power to transform lives. Which is why I could never really understand expressions like ‘you shouldn’t mix politics and sport’ or ‘let’s keep politics out of this’. Politics are an integral part of who we are, what defines us as adults, so the idea of keeping our politics out of our teaching did not make any sense to me. I should add, however, that this is not the same a saying that we should be presenting young people with a singular view of the world, or that we should not be prepared to have our convictions challenged, but simply that if you try to leave the political aspects of your character at the door of the classroom then you leave part of your soul with it.

The Scottish Independence campaign as seen by Banksy

The Scottish Independence campaign as seen by Banksy?

Those of you who follow the blog on a regular basis, and especially those of you who live in the UK, will have realised by now that what I am leading to here is the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence, the most important decision facing our nation in over 300 years. I have set out my own reasons for voting YES below, and you can follow my curated history of coverage of the referendum, Scottish Independence – The Quiet Revolution – on Scoop.it by clicking on this link. If you are a fan of Pinterest I have also been collecting some of the hundreds of pro-independence posters which have become a feature of the campaign. Again, click on the link and you will find them.

One of the most significant, and controversial, aspects of the referendum is the decision to give voting rights to 16 and 17-year-olds (see also Literacy, Democracy and Responsible Citizens). Why it should be controversial is something of a puzzle to me, since it is entirely in keeping with aspects of citizenship in the Scottish curriculum, yet while there is almost universal agreement with the notion of teaching citizenship, a significant number of adults still seem reluctant to accept the idea of actually granting it to those very young people they wish to see behaving more responsibly. I have heard more than a few worrying stories about debate being closed down in schools rather than encouraged, and many local authorities, while ostensibly trying to  ensure impartiality, are frightening teachers into avoiding the topic altogether. This is not the way to develop a healthy democracy.

The referendum decision is one for the people who live and work in Scotland alone, but the consequences will affect all of those who live in the UK, so it is something which should be on the agenda in schools the length and breadth of the British Isles, and possibly beyond. If you are a teacher and interested in setting up a discussion or debate, you may want to check out these links, where you will find plenty of material to get you started. You will need to get off the mark quickly though; the referendum takes place just a fortnight from now, on Thursday the 18th of September!

Political Literacy and the Independence Referendum. Education Scotland

How to Teach the Referendum on Scottish Independence. Guardian Teacher Network

Further Reading:

Common Weal: A Discussion Paper on the development of a vision for Scotland. Jimmy Reid Foundation

Scotland’s Future: Your Guide To An Independent Scotland (Kindle). Scottish Government

11 Reasons A Yes Vote Will Improve Democracy. National Collective

The Wee Blue Book: The Facts The Papers Leave Out. Wings Over Scotland

Blossom: What Scotland Needs To Flourish (Kindle). Lesley Riddoch

Road To Referendum: The Essential Guide To The Scottish Referendum (Kindle). Iain Mc Whirter

Video:

Our Time. First Minister Alex Salmond

Aye Talks. Dr Phillipa Whitford, Consultant Breast Surgeon

The Bigger The LIe: Media Bias In The Scottish Independence Referendum. John Robertson

Yes Scotland Playlist

Websites:

Wings Over Scotland

Bella Caledonia

Newsnet Scotland

Business For Scotland

Yes Scotland

Common Weal Logo: All Of Us First

Common Weal Logo: All Of Us First

Why I Will Be Voting YES

I personally have done reasonably well as part of the UK, so why am I voting Yes?

Put quite simply, I don’t want to grow up in a country where an increasing number of our children are being brought up in poverty, where a new food bank opens every four days, where immigrants are treated with suspicion, where replacing nuclear weapons is more important than repairing roads, and where over 2,000 of our elderly population died needlessly last winter because they couldn’t afford to heat their houses.

I don’t belong to a political party. Never have. But this referendum is not a choice between one political party and another. It is not about any individual politician or political leader. It is about one thing and one thing only – whether you think decisions about Scotland are best taken by the people of Scotland or whether you think they should be taken for us at Westminster? The ‘democratic deficit’ means that in only 13 of the past 35 years did Scotland get the government at Westminster that it voted for – and we know how that turned out. Anybody remember Tony Blair and Gordon Brown?

On the other hand, let’s have a look at the current Scottish Government’s record. Acting within the constraints of Westminster cuts (Scotland’s budget is allocated via a ‘block grant’ from the UK Treasury) they have introduced free prescriptions, free healthcare for the elderly, free bus travel for over-60s, in addition to free university tuition fees – education based on the ability to learn, not on the ability to pay. Scotland already has its own separate education system, legal system and National Health Service (separate in terms of policy but reliant on London spending decisions). These services stand comparison not only with the rest of the UK but with the rest of the world. Scotland has more universities per head of population in the top 200 than any other nation.

So, if we are capable of running education, the law and the health service for ourselves, then why would we be incapable of defending ourselves, running our own welfare service or managing our own money? Another glaring example of the democratic deficit in Scotland is on the issue of nuclear weapons – opposed by around 80% of Scots, yet imposed by all the main political parties at Westminster, at a cost of something in the order of 100 billion pounds. Just imagine how that money could be spent to benefit the everyday lives of the people of this country.

Westminster isn’t working for the people of Scotland. The current coalition government’s so-called ‘austerity programme’ is a choice, not an inevitability. It is a myth to say that we are a poor country. There is an abundance of money in the UK, it is how the wealth is distributed that is the problem – did you know that there are currently around 280,000 millionaires in Britain? The UK is currently the 4th most unequal country in the developed world. As a result of Westminster cuts, ONE IN FOUR children in Scotland is living in poverty, and that figure is closer to ONE IN TWO in some parts of Glasgow. Smart education policies can compensate to some extent for inequalities, but only full economic powers can allow us to tackle the underlying issues. Last year there were over 2,400 excess winter deaths among the elderly in this country, double the rate of colder EU countries, and 49% of pensioners are currently living in fuel poverty. These are truly shocking statistics.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the solution lies not in hoping for a change of government, or heart, at Westminster, but by voting to stand on our own two feet and to choose a different route, a different future. Independence is not a new concept; it is normality for most people. There are just over 200 independent countries in the world. Three quarters of them have only been independent since 1900, and many of them are smaller than Scotland.

With control of our own affairs Scotland can potentially be a world leader – not in terms of bombs, or threats, or posturing on the world stage, but in areas like renewable energy, and in making a significant contribution to protecting the future of the planet. As an example, the largest tidal energy project in Europe is just about to get underway in the Pentland Firth. When completed it will power 40% of homes in the Highlands. At a time when scientists are warning about the dangers of global warming, think how much potential there is out there, not only for Scotland to become self-sufficient in energy, but to be a net exporter of energy to other countries, and to lead the way in tackling climate change.

So the question is not whether we are big enough, or smart enough, or whether we can afford it. There is only one question to be answered. Do you think decisions about Scotland should be made by the people who live and work in Scotland, or do you think they should be made by Westminster, in the House of Commons and the unelected House of Lords? This is not about ‘separating’, or turning our backs on our friends and neighbours. It is about standing on our own two feet and making our own decisions. It’s about hope, not fear. It’s about the future, not the past. It’s about ambition, not tradition. It’s about fairness, not about wealth.

We have the opportunity – perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – to create the kind of Scotland we want to see in the world – a greener, fairer, more democratic Scotland. As singer-songwriter and political commentator Pat Kane said: “You’ve got the chance to stand on this earth and say: I built a better society. I decided to do that, for myself, for my children, for future generations. And all it needed was a cross in the right box.”

Don’t Blame Boo Radley

 

To Kill a Mockingbird. Other great books are available.

To Kill a Mockingbird. Other great books are available.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a great book. It is one of many great books, and it happens to be written by an American. It is one of many great books written in the English language, and it happens to be written by an American, and it happens to be written by a woman. You see, great books are written in many languages, by writers male and female, of many nationalities. One of the key roles of teachers is to introduce young people to great books, at the appropriate times, and in accordance with their developing love of reading and awareness of the world. By now, I hope, you are all nodding in agreement.

So when an English Education Secretary says that young people are not reading enough, that they are not reading difficult enough books, and that he wants to make sure that they are reading ‘a wide range of texts’, what is there to disagree with? Well quite a lot , actually. Michael Gove’s announced changes to the literature requirement for GCSE English caused more than a little anger this week, with media channels, writers, bloggers and commentators rushing to proclaim that he had ‘banned’ American literature from English schools, including one or two which had become classroom staples for recent generations. (see To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men axed as Gove Orders More Brit Lit).

In reality, what he had actually done was to set out a minimum requirement for anyone studying GCSE Literature  – a Shakespeare play; poetry from 1789, including the Romantics; a 19th-century novel; and some fiction or drama written in the British Isles since 1914, to be precise. Besides believing that this would provide a much-needed injection of his favourite ingredient, ‘rigour’,  he further defended the changes by adding, “Beyond this, exam boards have the freedom to design specifications so that they are stretching and interesting (sic), and include any number of other texts from which teachers can then choose” and that teachers had welcomed a “specification that allows for Keats and Heaney, Shakespeare and Miller, the Brontes and Pinter.” (see Michael Gove Attacks ‘Fictitious’ Claims He Has Banned US Books From School).

The telling word in this statement is ‘allows’. Of course, the syllabus ‘allows’ for the reading and study of any other works of literature, but TIME doesn’t. In reality, overstretched teachers will stick to the texts which are guaranteed to come up in the exam, because they will ultimately be judged by their students’ results. I have written before about this effect (see Of Mice and Flies: Death by Examination), and how it leads to the demise of reading rather than its further development. Reading for pleasure and enlightenment gives way to learning how to write ‘critical’ essays and preparing for the test. Not that we in Scotland have anything to be complacent about here. Admittedly there are fewer restrictions on the choice of texts which young people can use in response to exam questions (see National 5 English Course Assessment Specifications) , but the introduction of a compulsory Scottish text in national courses recently was a mistake, and I say that as someone with a deep regard for Scottish culture and who has read, taught and enjoyed a considerable number of Scottish texts, both fiction and non-fiction. If this is indeed social engineering, as some would claim, then the fact that we are not quite in the Govean league of social engineering is nothing really to be proud of.

You see, there are two important principles at stake here. The first is that it is not the role of politicians to determine what young people read. If it was then we may as well make teachers redundant, send reading lists home to parents and their

Gregory Peck and Mary Badham in the film adaptation of Harper Lee's classic novel.

Gregory Peck and Mary Badham in the film adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel.

kids, and let them get on with it. If Michael Gove had really wanted young people to read more widely, then what he should have done was to remove the specified texts completely from the exam requirements, then teachers (and students) would truly have to argue the merits of their chosen texts. Nor should it be the role of examination boards to determine what young people read. As I said earlier, that belongs to the trained professional, the teacher. And that is the second important  principle.

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Postscript: Michael Gove’s announcement had two immediate effects. Three of the four main examining bodies in England immediately removed the aforementioned American authors from their list of specified texts, and sales of To Kill a Mockingbird from Amazon increased significantly.

Letter To An Unknown Soldier

The Unknown Soldier at Paddington Station. Photo by Dom Agius.

The Unknown Soldier at Paddington Station. Photo by Dom Agius.

This summer a new kind of war memorial will be made by people from all over the UK. ‘Letter To An Unknown Soldier’ is a project commissioned by 14-18 NOW – a nationwide cultural programme designed to mark the centenary of World War One – and inspired by the statue which stands on Platform 1 of Paddington Station in London. Representing the millions of soldiers who died in that terrible conflict, the statue depicts an ordinary soldier, in battle dress, reading a letter. The project organisers want YOU, and your students, to contribute to the memorial by writing that letter. Every letter received will be published online, alongside some which have been written already by distinguished writers such as Malorie Blackman, David Almond, Andrew Motion, Val McDermid, Melvin Burgess, Owen Sheers, Liz Lochhead and Sita Brahmachari.

The project is lead by writer and theatre director Neil Bartlett, and Canadian author Kate Pullinger, who were keen to come up with something truly original:-

“For us, the creators of the project, it is important to move away from the usual imagery associated with war and commemoration – cenotaphs, poppies, the silence that falls over us all on Remembrance Day. What we’d like instead is to hear what you think – what you really think. If you were able to speak to the unknown soldier now, with all we’ve learned since 1914, with all your experience of life and death to hand, what would you say? We are especially keen to hear the voices of what young people think and we very much hope that schools will embrace the project across the curriculum.”

It is very easy for schools to take part in the project, and some very clear lesson plans have been created for use in a number of curriculum areas such as English, history, citizenship, creative

Surviving letters from 'The Great War'

Surviving letters from The Great War

writing and drama. These are designed to provide teachers with a context in which they can encourage young people to reflect on such an important part of their history, and to contribute their own short piece of creative writing towards a national collection. Having their work published online, in the company of established writers and poets, provides students with an added incentive, All letters received will eventually be housed as a national archive in the British Library for the benefit of future generations.

Letters can be written online, or they can be written, scanned and uploaded. Alternatively, they can be performed to camera and submitted online, or written in the conventional manner and posted to the organisers, any time between now and the

deadline of 4th August (the date of the declaration of war in 1914). Letters will be published from 28th June and will be fully searchable by name, theme, geographical region or age group.

The face of The Unknown Soldier. Image by Dom Agius.

The face of The Unknown Soldier. Image by Dom Agius.

Organisers are also keen that schools which intend to participate should contact them via unknownsoldier@1418NOW.org.uk and tell them how they are planning to take the project forward.

 

For more information, and to download the age-appropriate lesson packs, visit the 14-18 NOW website at http://www.1418NOW.org.uk/letter. You will find the classroom resources under the ‘MORE’ section.

 

Twitter: @letter1418

Facebook:www.facebook.com/letter1418

End Of An Era

teacherWell, I’ve gone and done it. As of today, I am officially an ‘ex-teacher’. I decided to cancel my registration to the GTCS (General Teaching Council Scotland) since I hadn’t actually taught in a school for the best part of the last decade. After a few years with Learning and Teaching Scotland (now Education Scotland) I have been working independently, while holding on to my teaching registration ‘in case of emergency’ as it were. Realistically, I am never going to teach kids again, but I intend to work with and support teachers for a good few years to come, so don’t dare use the ‘R’ word in my company if you don’t mind. It’s such an old-fashioned concept these days.

To mark this momentous occasion I received two letters from the GTCS in the post today. Unfortunately neither contained the gold watch I jokingly referred to when I spoke to the young woman on the other end of the phone on Wednesday. However, I did appreciate the sentiment contained in the first of them.

“Dear Mr Boyd,

On behalf of the GTCS, I would like to thank you for the time you have given to the teaching profession in Scotland. One of our aims is to ensure the highest standard of teaching and learning in our schools. Your commitment has helped make this possible and has no doubt contributed significantly to improving the prospects and opportunities for the young people whom you have taught.”

Over the course of more than thirty years in the classroom I would like to think there is some truth in this, and the thing which gives me most satisfaction is the number of ex-pupils I meet frequently around my home town who want to reminisce about ‘the time you……….’ etc etc. Not once, after all that time, has any of these conversations been other than positive, funny or heart-felt.

The other letter, in case you were still wondering, began as follows.

“Dear Mr Boyd,

I am writing to inform you that your annual registration fee of £50 is due for payment. As we have Direct Debit instructions held on your record, the payment will be deducted on or around 27th May 2014. If the payment is successful, your record will be automatically updated to show that the registration fee has been paid. If for any reason the direct Debit is not successful, we will write out to provide you with alterblamenative payment methods.”

It would be easy to sink into a slough of depression at this point, and to conclude that one is indeed only a number in an over-bureaucratic system, but that would be to exaggerate greatly the case. There is no other profession which comes close to that of the teacher.It is indeed an honour and a privilege, and the greatest rewards don’t come in the form of gold watches but in the appreciation from those who matter most.

Still Searching for Scotland

R.F. MacKenzie 1910-1987

R.F. MacKenzie 1910-1987

In this year of the referendum on Scottish Independence (September 18th) it was appropriate that my ruminations on the future of education, and specifically the ‘Curriculum for Excellence‘ as it has been labelled, should find me making greater acquaintance with one of the country’s most progressive educationalists of the 20th Century, R.F. MacKenzie, a figure whose name I had heard but about whom I knew very little. Appropriate in more ways than one, in that not only was Mackenzie regarded by many as ‘ahead of his time’, but he firmly believed that it was through the state education system that the British establishment maintained its position of power and privilege, and that only by breaking this mould would ordinary Scots be released from their educational and creative straitjacket.

“The doctrine of power depends on a belief that the majority need an intelligent  élite to guide them. The élite spread the axiom that the majority of earth-dwellers are unintelligent and, to justify the assertion, flood the educational system with incomprehensibility. The majority of children, obviously failing to comprehend, are adduced as proof of the majority’s limited intelligence. The lesson is ‘Leave it to the élite’.”

R.F. MacKenzie, A Search For Scotland

R.F. MacKenzie was born in 1910 in rural Aberdeenshire, the son of a country stationmaster, and spent much of his childhood travelling between the rich agricultural soil of his immediate environment and the rugged North Sea coastline, with its tales of fishing, survival and adventure. It was travelling further afield which was to enable him to look more forensically in later life at the country he loved dearly: as a young man he taught in Switzerland and Nazi Germany, served as aircrew in the Royal Air Force, travelled widely in Europe by bicycle and lived for a while among the Calvinist Boers in South Africa, before returning to Scotland and taking up a career in teaching. The insights he gained from these experiences, as well as the lessons learned from fellow-Scot and radical teacher A.S. Neill of Summerhill School fame, were to inform his career and his philosophy of education, which would generally  be described as liberal and progressive. Like Neill before him, MacKenzie believed that a person’s education should begin in his or her natural environment and stem from a natural desire to answer the great questions in life – Who am I? How did I come to be here (on the earth as well as in this particular place)? Why is this place the way it is? How can, and should, I shape it while I am here? – and that children needed stimulation, not discipline, in order to learn.

The Ideal Classroom?

The Ideal Classroom?

Learning outdoors is a key feature of the Mackenzie doctrine, having played such a part in his own early education. It is one which he was able to put into practice early in his teaching career, and in his first Headteacher post at Braehead Secondary School in Fife, a ‘Junior’ Secondary for pupils who failed what was then known as the ’11+’ or ”Qualifying’ examination at the end of their Primary schooling. It was with such pupils, whom he believed had been failed by the system, that MacKenzie had most success, often taking them, literally, back to nature in the form of walks and expeditions in the Scottish countryside. In A Search for Scotland, his last book, published two years after his death in 1987, he describes such an adventure:-

“On a June crossing of the high plateau of Scotland from Braemar to Rothiemurchus, from the Dee to the Spey, in which thirty teenagers took part, we discovered a little of the enquiry and discovery that appeals to them, the experience that gives them enjoyment. We left the Linn O’Dee at nine in the morning and stopped four miles later, near Derry Lodge, for breakfast. Some had sandwiches. One gourmet fried bacon and eggs; we thought he would go far. We followed the less-frequented track of the Lairig-an-Laoidh up the Derry Burn past ancient Caledonian pines, quiet, flat-topped like the mediaeval bonnets that Aberdeen professors wear for graduation ceremonies. The gouging out of two neighbouring corries has left between them the tight-rope of an arête but we had twenty miles of tough walking ahead of us and there wasn’t much time to look at it. A.S. Neill, kindest of critics, said that we were compulsive teachers, too keen to offload geology on our pupils. I imagine he was right because when we stopped for mid-morning break to eat a sandwich and gulp lemonade, the pupils were much keener on dropping rocks in the burn to throw up a cascade of water and soak their unsuspecting companions than on listening to a cascade of geological information…….

The compulsive educationalist tries to gather some crumbs of validation for his own over-serious classroom preoccupations. The sixteen-year-old, staggering in his self-imposed task of carrying a half-hundredweight boulder, legs apart, is learning about density, the feel of granite, the musculature of the human skeleton, the endlessly entertaining phenomena of this miracle substance, water. It comes back to the full meaning of the word ‘know’. What is ‘knowing’? We repacked our rucksacks after the midday siesta, laced up our boots and resumed our journey.”

It was a philosophy which was ultimately to lead to his downfall, dismissed from his post as Headteacher at the ill-fated Summerhill Academy in Aberdeen in 1974. His own account of these events is recorded in The Unbowed Head, but according to Walter Humes of Stirling University it was a failure resulting less from deficiencies in the man or his philosophy than from a combination of external factors, including the inherently conservative nature of the Scottish educational establishment and the difficulties of scaling up an approach which had worked in a previous school with around fifty – albeit challenging – pupils.

Many would argue that there is an inherent contradiction in a man who is himself so well-read and able to quote extensively from the Classics, the Bible and Shakespeare, doggedly pursuing a child-centred, ‘discovery learning’ approach toSearch.jpg schooling.  Surely a proper education must be about the acquisition of knowledge? My guess is that Mackenzie himself would not have argued against the idea that knowledge was the key to learning, but would have had very sound views on what it is that stimulates the desire and motivation in individuals to acquire it. It could be said in fact that much of what MacKenzie was trying to do was to put into practice the principles of the current Curriculum for Excellence, and that the barriers which stood in his way then remain firmly in place now. Whatever your view, I challenge you to deny that the following extract, written 25 years ago, does not still have some resonance today.

 “The richest of the resources that Scotland is wasting is her young. We would be immeasurably richer for their cooperation, and their reintegration into the community. Many years of dealing with these edgy youngsters of industrial Scotland have convinced me of their intellectual ability and potential goodwill as well as their spiny independence. I suspect that our prolonged schooling of them is to hold them down, to protect us adults from their explosive initiatives. Keeping them into their late teens memorising swathes of barely comprehensible information takes the steam out of them. Maybe schools aren’t the best way of bringing up the young. All the politicians in the last election thought that excellence in education is better examination results.”

R.F. MacKenzie, A Search For Scotland

For a more comprehensive analysis of the life and works of R.F. MacKenzie I would recommend that you read Walter Humes’ excellent paper ‘R.F. Mackenzie’s Manifesto for the Educational Revolution‘ in Scottish Educational Review No. 43 (2011)

See also rfmackenzie.info 

Listen to a discussion on R.F. MacKenzie and A Search for Scotland on the Inside Learning podcast

With thanks to my good friend on Twitter Robert Macmillan (@robfmac) for pointing me in the direction of A Search for Scotland. One day soon I hope to meet him in the real world.

‘The Ideal Classroom?’ image from The Shieling Project at A Thousand Huts

A Common Weal Education

Commonweal.jpgFollowing hard on the heels of my previous post on the current state of play regarding the Scottish curriculum, last week saw the publication of a brand new report from the Jimmy Reid Foundation*, A Common Weal Education. Its findings and recommendations are potentially quite radical, but is there the collective will to carry them out?

The report’s author, Professor Brian Boyd, a member of the Curriculum for Excellence Review Group and a lifelong advocate of comprehensive education, argues that we have a clear choice in Scotland at the moment – to mimic those systems which are set on pursuing high-stakes, elitist models of education, based on selection, whose main or sole measure of success focuses on examination results (and yes, he does mention Michael Gove and England by name), or to look to the Nordic countries, where social conditions and aspirations are arguably closer to our own. The Finnish model provides the template for what is described as a ‘common weal model we can learn from’ (NB ‘common weal’ means ‘common wealth or public good’), and its main features are set out in the report:-

  • formal schooling begins at age seven; up until then, play is the core activity
  • all children attend comprehensive schools until age 16
  • there is no ‘internal selection’ (setting and streaming)
  • there are no private schools and fee-paying is banned
  • the curriculum is not prescriptive, offering professional autonomy within guidelines
  • formal exams do not take place until age 18
  • league tables do not exist
  • teachers take five-year degree courses covering theory and practice, and teach no more than four lessons daily
  • there is no schools inspectorate

Though brief (20 pages including reference section) the report makes a number of telling, and sometimes controversial, points.

On the importance of aims:-

“The Ministerial Review Group (2004) considered these aims (UNESCO’s ‘four pillars of lifelong learning’) and produced what it saw as an uplifting vision of the school curriculum, 3-18 – the first time the curriculum as a whole had been reviewed since the Advisory Council Report of 1947. Now, almost a decade since this publication, the question of aims appears to have been lost among the controversy over ‘age-and-stage’ targets, national assessments and subjects versus interdisciplinary study…Every school in Scotland has a published set of aims – yet few staff, parents or pupils would be able to say what they are…the time is right to re-evaluate what is important in our schools and to challenge the false dichotomies of academic/vocational, core/minority and classroom/practical as applied to subjects.”

On the ‘knowledge’ debate:-

“Finally, learning to know, in the digital age, may  now be the least important aspect of schooling. Knowing ‘stuff has a value (cf. the proliferation of general knowledge games shows on television) but it is no substitute for critical thinking, creativity and problem-solving. Historically, the balance has been wrong; as one commentator put it: ‘It seems unlikely (in the digital age) that remembering large amounts of information and writing it down quickly’ (Burgess, 2013) is what employers value most.”

On inter-disciplinary learning:-

“At present, ‘subjects’ dominate the curriculum. They derive from attempts, over the centuries, to place order and rationality on the world…But what is largely missing is inter-disciplinary learning, focusing on the big issues affecting human beings and how they interact with one another and their environment. Primary schools have managed to hold on to the concept of inter-disciplinary learning , but secondaries, constrained by the exam system, have largely rejected the concept, or have made it the preserve of the ‘less able’ student…Exams, largely to serve the needs of universities – and possibly employers – are subject-focused and so the curriculum, particularly in the senior phase, has to follow suit.”

On formal qualifications:-

“We need to move to a system of ‘exit exam’ only in the last year of school which is designed to assess how well a pupil has learned and how well they are able to apply their learning in new and different contexts. These could be different exams for different purposes, taking into account the proposed destinations of the student.”

On Early Years Education:-

“Whatever the figures involved, there is consensus that early intervention is critical and there is growing evidence from nurseries in our most deprived areas that their input is making a difference to children’s life chances. However, challenges remain. There has been, in recent decades, a creeping ‘downward incrementalism’ in curricular terms, where ‘preparation for school’ has been a focus. In the UK, we begin formal education earlier than most of the rest of Europe, often distorting the work of the nurseries.”

On Primary Education:-

“Scottish primary schools are among the best in the world…They have had an all-graduate profession for decades and yet primary teachers, as generalists, are less highly regarded than the secondary school specialists…Nevertheless, the expectations placed on our primary teachers have continued to grow; they are expected to teach every subject in the curriculum, meet government-imposed targets for every child, meet the expectations of interest groups (from sport to music, from diet to vocational skills, from ‘the basics’ to creativity) and teach the same pupils all day every day.”

On Secondary Education:-

“Examinations dominate secondary schools. They influence the shape of the school day, they are the starting point of the timetable, they dominate the discourse around pupil choice and, most recently, they dictate how many subjects a pupil may study. They distort the curriculum, they narrow the focus of learning and, as the exam diet draws closer, understanding – deep learning – becomes a luxury. The goal is to get through the syllabus and second-guess what the examination paper will contain. ‘Prelims’ provide a dry run, timed-pieces are practised in class and pupils’ progress is meticulously tracked by teachers who care passionately about them and who go the extra mile to support, cajole and nurture them through the process. The stress is often palpable as the exams approach.”

On parental choice:-

“The situation was exacerbated in the UK when, in the 1980s, Mrs Thatcher introduced ‘parental choice’, a measure designed to undermine the comprehensive school. If our goal is a fairer and more equitable society, parental choice should no longer be the guiding principle. I would argue that for most parents having a good school in their neighbourhood is more important than having the right to choose. Thus, just as with the right-to-buy scheme, also introduced by Mrs Thatcher on ideological grounds, the right to choose a school needs to go.”

On inclusion:-

“The drive towards inclusion is about equal value and recognition that difference is to be celebrated not feared. Put simply, if resources were adequate, if teachers and support staff were given access to the required CPD and if schools were measured on criteria which were much wider, more focused on added value and pupil progress, however small, inclusion would cease to be a major issue.”

Following the publication of A Common Weal Education, I went on the Inside Learning podcast to discuss its implications with regular presenter Steve Rodgers. You can listen to the episode here..

*The Jimmy Reid Foundation is named in honour of the globally-renowned Scottish trade union activist, orator, politician and journalist Jimmy Reid. Born in Govan, he rose to international prominence during the Upper Clyde reidShipbuilders’ work-in which took place in the early 1970s in response to Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath’s plans to close the Clyde yards, threatening 6,000 jobs. Reid, along with senior trade union colleagues, decided that, rather than strike, they would conduct a ‘work-in’, locking out management and proving that the workers could complete outstanding orders. Eventually the government was forced to back down and the yards received £100m in public support over the next three years.

Knowing that the eyes of the world were on them during the strike, Reid famously pronounced to fellow workers, “We are not going to strike. We are not even having a sit-in strike. Nobody and nothing will come in and nothing will go out without our permission. And there will be no hooliganism, there will be no vandalism, there will be no bevvying (drinking), because the world is watching us, and it is our responsibility to conduct ourselves with responsibility, and with dignity, and with maturity.”

Reid became rector of Glasgow University in 1971, largely on the back of his union activities, and his installation speech, which became known as ‘the rat-race speech’ was printed in full in the New York Times, the newspaper describing it as ‘the greatest speech since President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address‘. A one-time member of the Communist Party, Reid eventually joined the Labour Party and stood, unsuccessfully, as a parliamentary candidate for Dundee East in 1979, earning him the unwanted title ‘best MP Scotland never had’. He continued to support Labour up until the 1997 General Election, but thereafter became disillusioned with the New Labour phenomenon, and subsequently urged people to support either the SNP or the Scottish Socialist Party(SSP) before joining the SNP himself in 2005. Reid retired to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute and died on the 10th of August 2010.