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Given the recent devastating floods across Scotland and the rest of the UK, ‘watershed moment’ may or may not have been the best metaphor to describe the current state of Scottish education, but that was the description borrowed from a recent OECD report by Education Scotland’s Chief Executive Bill Maxwell last week, in his ‘state-of-the-union’-style blogpost on the Education Scotland website. We seem to be living in an age when ‘watershed moments’ in education come thick and fast, but as for this latest case of hydro-hyperbole, I reflect on how big the gap is between the rhetoric and the reality. Dr Maxwell’s post on the Education Scotland blog is fairly brief, so I have quoted it in full here, along with my own thoughts (in italics) on the current state of state education in Scotland.
Scottish mountain-bike daredevil Danny MacAskill in the making of ‘The Ridge’
Bill Maxwell: Scottish education has had an excellent opportunity to “see ourselves as others see us” to borrow a famous Burns quotation.
We have been receiving a lot of international attention recently. December’s report on Scottish school education by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), one of the world’s most authoritative think-tanks, was followed this month by the premier annual gathering of education researchers from around the world – some 500 of them – in Glasgow.
The main message I took from these international engagements is one which rings true with the evidence we gather at Education Scotland. That message is that the wide-ranging programme of reform of education in Scotland over the last decade is setting the right ambition and has the potential to ensure young Scots are amongst the best educated young people in the world, but we have more to do to make sure that happens.
The Literacy Adviser: The ‘programme of reform’ in Scottish education has actually been painfully slow, and in the case of the reform of secondary education, virtually non-existent. It is absolutely true that the vision for education set out in Curriculum for Excellence has the potential to ensure that young scots are ‘amongst the best educated young people in the world’, but we knew that ten years ago, and nothing much has changed in the interim. Indeed, we do ‘have more to do to make sure that happens’. However, recent signs are not good, and there are strong indications from the Scottish Government – through the ‘National Improvement Framework’ (sic) – that some of the core principles of CfE are about to be eroded in favour of more ‘teaching to the test’, in the mistaken belief that this will close the attainment gap between children from poorer backgrounds and those whose parents have more than enough money to be going on with. Incidentally, the OECD may be regarded by some as ‘one of the world’s most authoritative think-tanks’, but that view is by no means universal. Others believe that the PISA tests used by the OECD to make international comparisons are riddled with ambiguities, and do more harm than good when it comes to governments using them to determine educational policy (see for example this Guardian article from May 2014)
BM: We need to hold firm to the vision, but we also stand at a ‘watershed moment’ to use a phrase from the OECD report. We need now to move confidently beyond managing the introduction of key structural changes such as the new National Qualifications and strengthened professional learning arrangements for teachers, to a new phase which shifts the focus firmly onto teachers and school leaders capitalising on the scope which these changes give them to develop more effective, more customised learning experiences for all their learners.
TLA: In reality our schools currently spend more time making sure they are watertight rather than sensing that they are in a ‘watershed moment’, and the fact that Education Scotland describes the introduction of new National Qualifications (which are not that different from the old National Qualifications) as ‘key structural changes’ reveals much about the appetite of the educational establishment – and by implication the Scottish Government – for radical changes to the system. Putting aside for the moment all the major changes which would be required to realise Curriculum for Excellence as envisaged in the original blueprint – such as a shift to project or problem-based learning, the re-definition of ‘practical’ subjects, an overhaul of school buildings, timetables and the school day, a drastic reduction in the amount of testing, greater investment in teachers’ professional development and so on – these ‘new’ qualifications change nothing. They are still predominantly pen-and-paper tests, an anomaly in today’s largely digital world, taken by young people when they reach a particular age rather than when they are ready to take them. If you truly want to move education forward in this country, you need to shift the emphasis away from National Qualifications as the end goal.
BM: The new National Improvement Framework, also launched last week, has now set out a clear set of priority objectives for all schools to address, as they exercise these new levels of professional freedom. It places a strong onus on teachers’ professional judgement in the assessment and evaluation of progress. There is also a strong role for educational research, both to help inform the decision schools make about what changes to make in their own provision and to generate a wider body of evidence on what is working well, and what is working less well, across Scotland.
TLA: This nothing short of double-speak. A key aspect of the National Improvement Framework is a return to standardised national tests, meaning a significant reduction in ‘professional freedom’ and a diminution of teachers’ professional judgement. Teachers, especially when they are provided with robust, good quality professional development opportunities, are perfectly capable of assessing learners’ progress and reporting on it to parents. Standardised testing is not about helping teachers to make judgements about a child’s progress, it is about holding teachers to account, or – to put it more crudely – judging teachers by their students’ test results. The suggestion that there is to be a strong role in the process for educational research is to be welcomed, though one would have hoped that this was already the case.
BM: The framework also stresses the need for schools to engage strongly with young people, parents and carers and their local communities as they develop and refine new ways of meeting the needs of learners more effectively. If you are a parent or carer, a learner, an employer or just someone with an interest in education in your local community, you should expect to see increasing opportunities to be involved in real dialogue about the education being provided in the schools in your locality. Parents and carers, in particular, should expect expanding opportunities to be involved actively as partners in their child’s learning.
TLA: One of the key features of Curriculum for Excellence – quite rightly – was the emphasis on parental and community involvement. The fact that little progress has been made in that regard will not be addressed simply by re-stating it ten years later in another ‘improvement’ document. It has always been the case that parents are more involved with their children’s primary education, and that as they progress through secondary school that involvement tends to be limited to one or two parents’ evenings a year, where they are on the receiving end of a brief summary of progress, usually in the form of grades or scores. It may well be that that is what most parents (and their children) want, but opportunities to be involved in the learning process – teaching methodology, homework policies, curriculum content etc.) tend to be very limited. I am sure communities across Scotland will look forward to the ‘increasing opportunities to be involved in real dialogue’ and the ‘expanding opportunities’ you mention, but since there is currently no indication as to what this means in reality, I guess they will have to simply reserve judgement for now.
BM: All of this has implications for my own organisation too. Education Scotland was created back in 2011 as a new type of improvement agency which brings a rich mix of education experts in development, support and inspection together in one place. This allows us to flex the way we deploy our staff over time, shifting the balance of the support and challenge we provide from year to year to reflect what is most needed at any particular point in time. In recent years that has meant a strong emphasis on supporting the process of implementing CfE in local authorities and schools, including a major commitment to supporting the transition to new qualifications and to new teaching and assessment approaches from the early years onwards.
TLA: The order in which you list that ‘rich mix’ of education experts is interesting, because when Education Scotland was created in 2011, the balance between development, support and inspection shifted quite dramatically away from the former towards the latter, a shift that was reflected in the number of staff who were retained from the original agencies of Learning and Teaching Scotland and HMIE. I am not sure that many schools – or indeed local authorities – will recognise that ‘strong emphasis on supporting the process of implementing CfE’ of which you speak. In fact, perhaps the greatest obstacle to the implementation of CfE has been the inability of local authorities to provide clear leadership and adequate support for schools – a situation brought about largely, but not solely, by chronic under-funding – as they have struggled to adapt to the changing world around them. In such circumstances, and fearing that school inspections may reflect badly on them, local authorities often adopt an ‘accountability’ mind-set and impose another layer of inspection on schools. This encourages a fear of failure which stifles innovation and creativity. The solution to this is to end the process of national school inspections and replace it with a form of local democracy, which makes schools more accountable to the communities they serve, but I guess since you represent Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (even though you aren’t called that any more), you are not going to argue for your own demise any time soon!
BM: Looking forward, as we move into a new phase of embedding Curriculum for Excellence, I see that balance shifting. That will mean we move to a stronger emphasis on evaluating what is working best as schools individually, and together in networks, devise new ways of delivering the best possible learning experiences for their pupils. We will increase inspections to help gather and spread that evidence more effectively. We will also accelerate our work on new approaches to promoting improvement in key areas, particularly the Scottish Attainment Challenge as it leads a nationwide effort to close the Attainment gap.
The next few years will be crucial in ensuring our young people reap the full harvest from the seeds of change that have been planted and nurtured thus far. The OECD praised Scotland for its foresight and patience in taking an ambitious education reform programme to the stage it has reached so far. We now need to follow through and tackle the next phase of improving Scotland’s schools with renewed focus and vigour.
TLA: Here we get to the heart of the matter. ‘What we need to improve Scottish education is more school inspections’, said no-one ever, yet that is the one clear promise in your whole blogpost, and, ironically, what you describe as the shifting of the balance from ‘supporting’ to ‘evaluating’ is one that we can all see happening, just as you do. The difference is that very few people in the educational community will see this as a good thing. And interestingly, while your post emphasises words like ‘research’, ‘evidence’, ‘evaluate’ and ‘vigour’, it makes no mention of teachers, and specifically does not mention increasing support for them in their professional development, which is an absolute pre-condition for improvement in any education system.
There are many good things happening in our schools at the moment, but I suspect most of them are happening despite the system, rather than because of it. An Education Scotland whose role was to support teachers in every way possible, rather than trying to measure everything they do, would be a welcome step on the road to irrigating those seeds that you mention, without flooding the landscape in the process.