Following 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.”
“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 Shipbuilders’ 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.