Failing the Literacy Test

The principles of Curriculum for Excellence continue to take a bashing from right-wing reactionaries in the traditional media, and from others who feel their positions of authority threatened, not only by the notion of a curriculum for all rather than just an academic elite, but by definitions of intelligence which go beyond an ability to remember “facts” to the capacity for critical and independent thought. In today’s Sunday Times, Joan McAlpine is critical of the idea of a portfolio of evidence to support the development of literacy and numeracy skills, preferring instead to put “the straightforward business of education” to the test – literally. She continues by citing as support for her grand theory the former First Minister Jack McConnel’s radical plan to re-introduce arithmetic at Standard-Grade as a “sensible idea”. Strange bedfellows indeed – until you consider the political ideologies of their respective institutions.

McAlpine contends that “an obvious way to improve literacy and numeracy would be to teach it well.” So there we have it. Literacy and numeracy reduced to a single entity, and one which should be “taught well”. A hugely complex issue reduced to a few basic rules and tested at the end of the process by a well-crafted examination paper. Improving the nation’s literacy and numeracy in a series of simple, carefully delivered lessons.

Joining the rush to condemn the idea of a portfolio before it has even been fully explored is Carole Ford, president of School Leaders Scotland, who, writing in this week’s TES, records the serious doubts expressed by the association of headteachers about the ability of schools and teachers to cope with the demands of a folio, claiming that the idea of gathering evidence of performance in literacy and numeracy from across the school is impractical, “will inevitably result in pupils drafting and redrafting work”, involves the judgement of “non-specialist” teachers, and is not a “robust system of assessment.”

These claims should not go unchallenged. I totally agree that the practice of drafting and redrafting of folio work in Standard-Grade English has been one of the most negative and depressing features of our curriculum in recent times, a consequence of a system where the end grade assumes an importance completely disproportionate to the means of achieving it. However, I don’t accept that there is any “inevitability” about this whatsoever, as the best teachers have always realised how counter-productive this can be, in terms of de-motivating pupils, especially those who are already disengaged from a curriculum which offers them very little. And how patronising to teachers of subjects other than English and mathematics (I’m assuming, perhaps wrongly, that these are the specialists in literacy and numeracy McAlpine and Ford have in mind) to suggest that they are “non-specialists” in the development of literacy and numeracy skills. The illustration McAlpine uses in her article of a geography teacher “taking time out from map reading to explain percentages” at once demonstrates perfectly her failure to grasp how learning and teaching have already moved on in our schools over the past few decades, and the failure of those few remaining teachers in our schools who, sharing her mindset, fail to recognise their broader responsibilities.

Those people who still believe that more tests, “robust measures” and target-setting, disguised, to paraphrase McAlpine, in the camouflage of accountability, have had ample time to prove their theories correct, and they have failed miserably. Show me the test which is going to deliver the literacies our young people need to be successful in this century, not the last one, and I will eat my proverbial hat. It’s time to move on and look at the range of ways, including technological ones, which are available to our teachers and young people to allow them to develop and to demonstrate their literacy skills.


Moving Images in Musselburgh

Had a really good day yesterday at the Brunton Theatre in Musselburgh where I was making a presentation to the MIEast network on Curriculum for Excellence and the New Literacies. Despite a few technical glitches in setting up when the laptop and projector seemed to have failed to get the message about digital media and communication and were refusing to talk to each other, the day went well.  

Mairi Flood spoke about Dundee’s successful Moving Image project which provided a box of resources for every primary school in Dundee. James Miller presented a new resource built around Winky’s Horse, a lovely short film about a Chinese girl who moves from China to Holland, where her father has opened a restaurant, and which explores the cultural difficulties she encounters.

Finally we had a very interesting presentation from Per, Jens and Pia-Mari of the Swedish Film Institute who took us on a journey through a brief history of children’s films in Sweden and gave us a flavour of the ways in which they are encouraging the use of moving image education in schools. One particularly ambitious project was the one in which they took all the headteachers in a particular area and had them filming and presenting a brief news item in the course of a day. They thoroughly enjoyed it of course, and what better way to learn of the benefits of MIE for young people. Wonder if it would work here?

I have attached a copy of the presentation I used yesterday. Feel free to watch it, use it, adapt it or distribute it if it is of use to you.

Brave New World

I would guess this is by far the most significant post I have written since I started the blog, as today I announce to the world that I will be leaving Learning and Teaching Scotland in early July and stepping out into the world on my own as an independent learning consultant. Finally, I will actually be The Literacy Adviser, and the title of the blog will be a reality rather than a statement of intent. I never really knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, and while it’s too early to establish whether I have finally grown up or not, the prospect of being completely independent is at once daunting and hugely exciting.

Having been an English teacher, a Principal Teacher, Staff Tutor, Depute Headteacher, and latterly an Education Manager at LTS, the time has come for me to really put myself to the test and see whether I actually have the knowledge and skills which I have been claiming all that time. Again, after working for just over thirty years in the public sector, for the first time in my life I will be selling my wares in the educational market place, but to paraphrase Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, we’re all selling ourselves in one way or another. The market is depressed at the moment of course, but it is something of a paradox that only by investing in teacher training and education generally will the country be able to move out of recession. And just in case I forget what the education business is all about, I’m planning to do some supply teaching as well.

If one or more of the following statements applies to you, then you need to contact me as soon as possible to discuss what I can do for you (see, I’m warming to it already):-

  • I have just taken on a responsibility for developing literacy in my area of work
  • My staff need to have a better awareness of Curriculum for Excellence
  • I would like to explore Moving Image Education but don’t know where to start
  • We need to improve our literacy results in P6/ P7/ S1/ S2
  • Our school cluster would like to develop reading strategies to improve transition from primary to secondary
  • I would like to explore the use of new technologies but I don’t have the time and I’m a bit scared of it all
  • I know we should involve our parents more but we never seem to get to it
  • I need to develop a better understanding of literacy as “the responsibilty of all” within my school
  • I am organising an event and I need a first-class presenter/facilitator/chairperson
  • In preparation for the new literacy qualification, we want to look at how to develop e-portfolios


I hope that gives you a flavour of what I am about. Over the coming weeks and months I will be using the blog to upload resources, advertise events and share what insights I have gained into the vision of Curriculum for Excellence. In the meantime, here is a brief summary of some of the areas I will be working in, and where I can offer support and advice to teachers, schools, local authorities and others:-

Reading Strategies to Improve Literacy

Improving literacy is a key feature of most education improvement plans, yet there is often a lack of clarity about how it can be achieved. Motivation, and understanding the key strategies involved in developing higher order reading skills, are the route to success. Over the past couple of years I have been looking at what some of the world’s leading thinkers have been saying about reading development and at the key strategies we employ as we move from acquiring basic reading skills to becoming sophisticated readers. These strategies are often regarded as “instinctive” but in order to be effective they need to be made explicit to learners, and before they can be made explicit, teachers need to be aware of what they are and how they can be developed.

 Improving the Transition from Primary to Secondary

HMIE’s Improving Scottish Education report in January 2009 had some fairly damning comments about the primary-secondary transition, confirming that in the first year of secondary school young people are still too often “passive observers in lessons”, and going on to say that “while many schools recognise that improving links with primary schools helps progression in learning, too many do not build on what has been achieved in P7.” While we are now very good at the social aspects of transition from primary to secondary, we are failing to build on prior learning when young people enter secondary school. Developing a common pedagogy, especially around literacy, can change all that.

 Improving Literacy through Moving Image Education

I have recently joined Scottish Screen’s core group of Lead Practitioners in Moving Image Education. This is an area which has huge potential for teachers as they come to terms with the re-definition of “texts” in Curriculum for Excellence – using the kind of texts which most of us engage with on a daily basis viz., short films. Through an understanding of the film-making process and through working collaboratively, young people develop the “traditional” literacy skills of talking and listening, reading and writing, while at the same time developing critical thinking skills and a better awareness of modern media.                                           

 Using Web 2.0 technologies to Improve Learning and Teaching

Working in Learning and Teaching Scotland has given me the opportunity to develop a wide range of skills and knowledge of new technologies, internet and networking tools – such as Blogging, Wikis, Twitter, Delicious and a host of others – which can make learning and teaching much more fun and effective, and at no extra cost! Finding the right resources for the modern-day classroom need not be an issue if you know where to look, and with a few simple lessons teachers and learners can become part of a global learning network.

 From Inputs to Outcomes – Making Sense of the Literacy and English Framework

As one of the original writing team for the Literacy and English Framework, I have a comprehensive understanding of the thinking behind the Experiences and Outcomes, and of Curriculum for Excellence generally. I have presented extensively on various aspects of Curriculum for Excellence over the past couple of years to a wide range of audiences. Whether you are looking at specific outcomes, beginning to look at interdisciplinary approaches, or trying to ensure that literacy is at the centre of learning and teaching in your area of responsibility, I can offer you unrivalled support and advice.