Superpower: The Power of Speech

As I write this post, 16-year-olds and their teachers in Scottish secondary schools are, literally, wrapping up their Standard Grade English folios for the last time, as the qualification which was introduced to bring equality to the qualifications and certification system  is being replaced from next year by new National 4 and National 5 Certificates. Loved and despised in almost equal measure, Standard Grade and its attendant portfolio of writing, ushered in the era of ‘exams for all’, in the mistaken belief that treating everyone the same was the same as treating everyone equally. The subsequent ‘setting’ of classes and the self-fulfilling prophecy of identifying ‘Foundation kids’ from the start of the course soon put paid to that notion.

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One of the rarely-mentioned consequences of the current change, it would appear, is that talking and listening will no longer be a formal, assessable element of the course, which will come as a relief to many teachers, for whom the administration of talk assessments was of nightmare proportions, and to many kids, for whom standing up and delivering a speech in front of their peers was an ordeal, to say the least. It was never meant to be done that way of course, but not for the first time, expediency and the assessment tail found itself wagging the curriculum dog. Nevertheless, one of the unintended outcomes, I fear, is that the development of the spoken word, so vital in a hyper-networked world, will yet again be relegated to the category of ‘desirable, but not essential’. Which is a real shame, considering that young Scots, with some notable exceptions, have not traditionally been renowned for their verbal dexterity, and considering  the emphasis put on orality by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), especially in terms of valuing one’s own culture and identity. In its 2004 position paper, The Plurality of Literacy and its Implications for Policies and Programmes, the organisation for whom the meaningful acquisition and application of literacy lays the foundation for positive social transformation, justice, and personal and collective freedom, recognises the importance of spoken language in enabling individuals and groups to articulate their own ‘meanings, knowledge and identity’.

“In acknowledging the fact that literacy involves oral, written, visual and digital forms of expression and communication, literacy efforts conceived in terms of the plural notion of literacy intend to take account of the ways in which these different processes interrelate in a given social context. Because all such processes involve expressing and communicating cultural identity, the promotion of literacy must foster the capacity to express or communicate this identity in one’s own terms and especially language(s). In a multilingual society, the plural notion of literacy entails designing multi-lingual policies and programmes for both the mother tongue and other languages as well as recognising the complementary relationship between literacy and orality.”

The Plurality of Literacy and its Implications for Policies and Programmes, UNESCO 2004

All of which gives me an excuse, if I needed one, to share with you this wonderful TED talk by Ron Finley, which I think demonstrates admirably the power of the spoken word, the importance of pride in cultural identity, and the ability of individuals to make a difference if they feel powerfully enough about the need to do so. I hope you enjoy it and share it with your students.

Means To An End: The Future of Scottish Education

“Of all the small nations of this earth, perhaps only the ancient Greeks surpass the Scots in their contribution to mankind.”

Winston Churchill

diverseI am fairly certain that when Churchill spoke those words he had in mind the many Scots whose ideas, creativity and drive contributed to the invention of the modern world (for a fascinating analysis of this phenomenon I would recommend The Scottish Enlightenment by Arthur Herman), but I wonder whether the Scots who will shape the future world will do so as a result of their formal education, or in spite of it. In my previous post I made comment on a short video animation which attempted – quite neatly I thought –  to examine the rationale behind the last major review of the school curriculum in Scotland, and to summarise the progress, or otherwise, of its implementation since. What I didn’t realise at the time was that it was related to a fairly weighty report, By Diverse Means: Improving Scottish Education, published earlier this week by the Commission on School Reform. It should be pointed out at this stage that the report was commissioned by the Centre for Scottish Public Policy (‘Scotland’s only independent cross-party think-tank’) and  Reform Scotland, (an ‘independent think-tank’ headed up by two former Scottish Conservative party advisers).

The report begins by asserting that Scottish Education still enjoys a decent reputation, both at home and abroad, while emphasising that there is no room for complacency, and  suggests that while our schools are improving, they are improving at a slower rate than those of many of our economic competitors. At its heart, and standing out among its 37 recommendations for consideration by the Scottish Government and others, is the principle that schools should have greater autonomy, which, the report’s authors argue, will in turn lead to greater diversity. It is particularly strong in its analysis of the reasons why change is slow to happen in Scotland, a feature of the report which will immediately antagonise those – and there are many – with a vested interest in the status quo. This 129-page report is challenging, not bland, and deserves a wide readership. It raises a great number of questions of the current system, while calling repeatedly for structural and organisational change. It endorses the principles, purposes and values of Curriculum for Excellence as a mission statement for education, and suggests some of the changes which are necessary to bring it to fruition. Each of the recommendations is worthy of a longer debate in itself, and I will return to some of them in due course, but for now I would simply add one key question to those I raised in my previous post, and invite you all to join the discussion.

“Scotland does not lack good ideas. It has policies such as Curriculum for Excellence and Teaching Scotland’s Future that are forward-looking and have the capacity to bring about real improvement. However, the experience of other major policy initiatives over the past half-century indicates that Scotland often fails to extract the maximum benefit from good policies.

In short, processes of change in Scottish education fall short of what is required.

To a large extent this is because the system is too uniform. It lacks the diversity that is a vital element of any learning organisation. The Commission sees the promotion of increased variety in the system as a crucially important prerequisite of future improvement.

The best way of achieving this objective is to increase the autonomy of individual schools. Every school should have as much control over its resources as is practicable. They should be encouraged to innovate and take well-considered risks.

At present, however, schools are reluctant to take the initiative. This is because the culture of the system as a whole is disempowering. The structure is hierarchical with an ethos of each layer being subordinate to the one above it. There is too little communication or sense that constructive criticism is welcomed. Above all, the Commission considers it essential to develop a sense of common endeavour where everybody involved feels able to contribute on equal terms.

At present the responsibilities of different tiers of management are ill-defined. The strategic leadership role of government is obscured by a strong tendency to become involved in detail. The freedom of action of schools is too circumscribed. The Commission takes the view that headteachers should be seen as the chief executives of largely autonomous bodies. At the same time, it is imperative that a collegiate culture should exist within schools.”

By Diverse Means: Improving Scottish Education  The Commission on School Reform Final Report March 2013

The last two sentences of that extract will be particularly contentious. The Scottish consensus has traditionally been egalitarian in nature, the idea of the all-powerful headteacher a relic of some dark bygone era. The business analogy of chief executive will not play well with many. Others will immediately have a vision of Michael Gove and the mess of ‘free schools’ and Academies currently proliferating in England, and wonder whether that is a route we want to take. Whatever way you read it, there are substantial implications for the role of local authorities, an issue which was raised in the comments on my previous post, and which is dealt with in more detail in the report.

Key Question: Is it possible for a collegiate culture to exist in schools if the headteacher is effectively the chief executive of a largely autonomous organisation?