Next Steps for STEM Education and Training in Scotland

This half-day seminar was one in a series of similar events around public sector services provision operated by Scotland Policy Conferences. There were two sessions across the morning, the first chaired by Iain Gray, MSP and that after coffee by Clare Adamson, MSP.

The STEM Strategy

The first session was on the Scottish Government’s STEM strategy and began with a personal view and the recent history of it by Professor Iain Hunter1. He mentioned in particular the [STEM Strategy Implementation Group] (https://beta.gov.scot/groups/stem-strategy-implementation-group/)2 and summarised the STEM strategy, which was welcomed by several speakers at the seminar, as being about excellence in STEM learning, closing gaps, inspiring and connecting to the labour market. Professor Lesley Yellowlees3 and Polly Purvis4 also addressed delegates before these speakers formed the first panel for Q&A and commentary. A call for primary teachers to have more science qualifications so they can teach it (more?) was challenged, particularly in light of the narrowing of the curriculum in Scotland and the greater restrictions on accessing broad education, something I spoke about with Polly over coffee later in the morning. Societal attitudes and STEM literacy were also identified as important factors in improving engagement in STEM, particularly by girls. Creativity and confidence are the hallmarks of excellent primary science teachers, and are more important to development of STEM literate children than an extra science qualification for ITE applicants, my assertion of which during Q&A seemed to be against the zeitgeist of the seminar.

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Scottish Education: the best in the world?

Keir Bloomer, in an article for Reform Scotland, notices what many of us in Scottish Education already know – it’s not as good an education system as it thinks it is. One aspect that has exercised me in the most recent few years is the blind, stupid, and patronising denial of the existence of problems when they are raised by the only people who really know how good the education system is – the teachers. These denials come from the politicians and the various agencies that are responsible for aspects of our educational infrastructure, most notably the SQA and the ironically named Education Scotland. Over a decade after its launch, Curriculum for Excellence is still not working, let alone “embedded”. The Secondary part of CfE is still a seven-year programme that school leaders and teachers are trying to make fit the six years available. Weaker managers, notably in certain parts of our Primary system, continue to use bullying and intimidation to drive teachers to deliver a curriculum that has been reduced ad absurdum to an impenetrable administrative ticky-box tangle. Unions have utterly failed to even recognise the challenges and abuses, let alone tackle them. The resulting damage to teacher morale, the quality of teaching and learning, and the consequences for life chances of our children and the prosperity of the country has been incalculable.

For reasons that some readers will be aware of, I have had cause recently to look at other curricular models and find their clarity, principle and self-consistent feasibility to stand in very stark contrast to the gibberish that is the current curriculum in Scotland. If you want an executive overview of an example, check out the Cambridge International Curriculum. It will show you what’s possible.

The Scottish Academy

I had intended to offer a short talk at Teachmeet – Scottish Learning Festival 2015 this week but had to cancel due to work commitments. Instead, and so as to still put it “out there”, I recorded a podcast of the talk which you can find over at AudioBoom:

The presentation text can be found on Evernote. What do you think? Comments welcome.

Educating for Social Justice

I attended a seminar last week that raised a number of issues for me in relation to social justice and the dangers of that agenda. There is a fuller account of the session on the wiki but I think it’s worth making one or two further points in this forum.

First, the tippy-toeing around extreme, illogical or simply stupid ideas in the name of religious tolerance. One of these days, the human race is going to finally rid itself of voodoo, invisible friends and the brutal intimidation inflicted on itself in the name of religion. If anything needs a cold hard critical examination, it’s this feature of our nascent society.

Second, alternate views do not become alternate-but-equal simply by being alternate. Jim Al-Khalili posted a great example of the difference between “a theory” like creationism and “a scientific theory” which makes this point well.

I will repeat again a question I have asked more than once this week:

Is there any evidence that an “equal playing field” is better than one that isn’t? Mother Nature’s not so keen – she has very effective ways of rewarding power differential and privilege. I wonder if we remove competitive selection at our peril.

Isn’t it time we stopped this conservative, white, naive egalitarianism? We could probably start with the pandas.

Declaration of Independence

Hoots, mon, old chap.

Hoots, mon, old chap.

A while ago, an old friend from my Sussex days posted on Facebook, “When are you coming home?”. My response, to the applause of the crowd, was, “I am home”. I love Scotland, or at least parts of it, and she has been quite kind to me since I came here in 1991 for what I had intended to be a maximum of 6 months.

I migrated involuntarily to Scotland 23 years ago out of economic necessity. My pedigree is not dissimilar to your average mongrel although I do have strong roots back 200 years through my American father’s line to the Hoods of Dumfries. I am as proud of my heritage as I am of anything else I have no control over, like my height. “Proud” in the sense that I recognise it as my good fortune and something I should (and do) take full advantage of.

Something else I inherited from my father was his intolerance of pretension, although I think I can run with a line so far, before rebelling (this trait from the Bourne family, my mother’s genetic base). This is what I often refer to as the “F*ck it” point.

I have reached this point in the debate over Scotland’s independence. Listening carefully to both sides of the argument, I have found no imperative nor evidence to support the action of severing the leg we stand on in the United Kingdom. Neither the leg nor the amputee would fare well, although I suspect that the economic reality of our population distribution, one-eighth of it in London and 91% not in the metaphorical leg, the UK-not-including-Scotland will survive.

The vote in September is going to be made with people’s heads, hearts and the (m)asses.

To intellectualise the argument, there is no economic or political advantage for Scotland to cede from the rest of the UK: our UK research investment, world investment, finance investment, European investment would be damaged substantially. Alec Salmond, clever cookie that he might be, has failed to convince anyone’s head that a Yes vote is in anyone’s interests.

Hearts will be bursting with nationalistic emotion, the halls and glens still echoing to the skirl of pipes and the choruses of “Caledonia” and “Flùr na h-Alba” at the end of the Glasgow games and the SNP will be hoping for a “games effect”  just in time for the referendum in September.

Finally, there is, despite all the hype, door-knocking, state-funded leafleting and propaganda, the most powerful political force of all: the disinterest of the masses. Here is the greatest vote, if not actually for the status quo, but against the change in it. For same reason I didn’t engage with the rubbish waiter in the rubbish restaurant I had lunch in yesterday when he asked if everything was all right, people don’t feel sufficiently interested in revolution or changing things for the better to engage in the argument. This is why you see a predominance of “Yes” stickers all over the place. There is the sense that to dissent from the nationalist zeitgeist is somehow anti-Scottish, not something to be in times of Nationalist fervour.

Well, I am at the F*ck it point with this debate. Blame my breeding. I am going to vote against independence: because I love Scotland (parts of it); because there’s no argument for it that even remotely sounds convincing to me; because as part of the UK, Scotland punches above its weight and I like that; and because it’s right to stand up against Nationalism in this insidious form. I declare my independence.