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.

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It Should Have Been Messier

Here we are, a decade on from the launch of one of the most radical and visionary curriculum frameworks anywhere in the developed world, and sadly the focus of the mainstream media and the educational establishment in Scotland seems to be back on familiar ground – the lack of readiness of secondary teachers to ‘deliver’ the new National Qualifications to school leavers (STV News). It is an all-too-familiar scenario, and the language of ‘delivery’ tells you all you need to know about our continuing collective failure to turn the system around. I thought this recent tweet from one of the country’s top educational commentators summed it up rather neatly:

The Scottish Government claims to be fully committed to the vision of Curriculum for Excellence, yet sometimes I wonder if our politicians and their representatives in Education Scotland send out confusing signals  about what was designed to be a ‘seamless’ educational experience for young people between the ages of three and eighteen. Terms like ‘senior phase’ are used to justify the fact that, by the middle years of secondary school, and earlier in some instances, the development of the four capacities appears still to  give way  to relentless exam preparation. If the development of the four capacities in our young people really IS what we believe the purpose of formal education should be about – and the general agreement on that over the past twenty years or so seems to be holding firm – then we need to have the courage of our convictions and look at what is preventing that from happening. Shouldn’t we be spending more time and energy, for example, looking at how we measure that development? Technology has provided us with tools which make it easier for learners to record and demonstrate their own personal development – why aren’t we making more use of them and transferring that responsibility to the learner more effectively? 

“Our approach to the curriculum sees it as a single framework for development and learning from 3 t0 18. The framework needs to allow different routes for progression from one stage of learning to the next, and promote learning across a wide range of contexts and experiences. It should equip young people with high levels of literacy, numeracy and thinking skills and support the development of their health and wellbeing. It should enable every child to develop his or her full potential through a broad range of challenging, well-planned experiences which help them develop qualities of citizenship, enterprise and creativity…As many schools recognise, the curriculum is more than curriculum areas and subjects: it is the totality of experiences which are planned for young people through their education – a canvas upon which their learning experiences are formed.”

A Curriculum for Excellence, Progress and Proposals, Looking at the Curriculum Differently. March 2006

Discussing this issue on last week’s Inside Learning podcast, I repeated my long-held belief that the brakes were put on the new curriculum almost from the start, when it became clear that secondary schools would be ILexpected to implement significant changes within their existing structures, when in fact it is the very structures themselves which should have been up for discussion, a point taken up by Professor Mark Priestley of Stirling University in two recent blogposts on the same topic.

“I wish to dwell briefly here on issues of provision. Addressing questions of fitness-for-purpose should also be about looking at systems and procedures, thus identifying barriers and drivers which impact upon the development of the curriculum. A prominent example of where this has not tended to happen concerns the secondary school timetable. Logic would suggest that a serious attempt to implement the principles of CfE would include a serious look at the structure of the school day. One might expect longer school periods for example, to accommodate CfE pedagogy. One might expect a serious look at the ways in which knowledge is organised in schools.  Disciplines and subjects are not the same thing, and schools should be looking at alternative ways to organise disciplinary (and everyday) knowledge, especially in the pre-qualification Broad General Education phase, where fragmentation is a problem (typically S1 pupils might see 15 teachers in a week). As Elliot Eisner (2005) reminds us, ‘There is no occupation …  in which the workers must change jobs every fifty minutes, move to another location, and work under the direction of another supervisor. Yet this is precisely what we ask of adolescents, hoping, at the same time, to provide them with a coherent educational program‘. Serious attention to such matters might include the systematic development of inter-disciplinary approaches, including hybrid subjects (integrated science, social studies, etc.).”

Mark Priestley, Professor of Education, Stirling University

While I agree wholeheartedly with Mark Priestley’s observations, I don’t think ‘the systematic development of inter-disciplinary approaches’ goes far enough; many schools claim to be doing this already, and the evidence of impact is so far hard to find. For me, the problem is caused by having a ‘Broad General Education’ for three years of secondary schooling before reverting in the senior phase to the exam-driven scenario we are all too familiar with. Shouldn’t the whole of schooling be a ‘BROAD, GENERAL, EDUCATION’? As I said earlier, I think the crucial decisions were made with the publication of the Progress and Proposals document in 2006, which made it clear that the structures in secondary schools would remain largely unchanged. This was what launched the next phase of development, when outcomes and experiences were written by ‘subject-based’ groups of specialists. A much more productive next phase, in my view, would have been to tease out the ‘attributes’ and ‘capabilities’ of the four capacities (featured below) into a larger curriculum framework.

It could have been different, and it is never too late. If we are to make real progress in Scotland and re-establish our reputation for a world-class education system, we need to grasp the nettle, admit that our natural conservatism has not brought about the systemic changes we were looking for, and go back to the drawing board. This would be less an admission of failure than a further declaration that we do indeed have the courage of our convictions.

Whether you are working at school, departmental, local authority or national level, and wondering how you might re-boot the curriculum, looking again in some detail at the four capacities would not be a bad place to start.

capacitiesdiagram1_tcm4-392948 (1)

The four ‘capacities’ of the Scottish curriculum.

Footnote: The day after I published this blogpost, I was alerted to the publication of ‘A Common Weal Education‘ from the Jimmy Reid Foundation. I had no idea that it was being written, but an added bonus is that it was written by Brian Boyd, Emeritus Professor at Strathclyde University and one of the most positive influences on Scottish Education over the past two decades. If you have any interest in the future of education in Scotland – or anywhere else for that matter – I could not recommend this report highly enough.