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.

SQA briefing event for ITE

Together with colleagues from teacher education institutions across the country, I attended a full day of workshops and briefings hosted by the SQA at the Glasgow Hilton. The event was opened by Teresa Moran, convenor of the Scottish Teacher Education Committee (STEC) whose short introduction showed the endemic blindness of many of our educational leaders to the significant independent sector and the important role they play in developing our teachers. In sketching the partnership of teacher education she, like others would throughout the day, mentioned only “Local Authority schools”. SQA and GTCS representatives use the same language consistently when talking about teacher development: it may be that their model only includes those who follow the teacher induction scheme (TIS, or one-year probation operated by LA schools) but this is only one way to achieve qualified teacher status in the Scottish system.

HMIE’s Elizabeth Morrison painted a picture of the support system that continues to be rolled out in support of curricular reform in Scotland. Key elements of this include:

  • The senior phase benchmarking tool, Insight. This is a tool for all teachers to use to inform their own practice and measure impact and performance. In responding to questions later in the day, Colin Sutherland, the government advisor on Insight, made it clear that giving ITEs access is not a priority and that when it is given, there would be a data anonymisation exercise to be done first.
  • The self-evaluation and inspection framework How Good Is Our School (HGIOS) version 4 is online in draft at the moment (although I can’t find it), to replace HGIOS 3 that was published in 2007.
  • The GLOW refresh of October 2014
  • Inspection Advice Notes are updated annually (2014-15 version here)

Similar questions were asked throughout the day by delegates about the access that ITEs have to key features of the support systems in place for teachers, such as GLOW, SQA Secure and Insight. Answers given were non-committal, going no further than “talk to somebody”. Personally, as an ITE tutor, I do have access to some of these through arrangements made by colleagues within Moray House.

Ronnie Summers of the SQA gave us a presentation that some delegates thought patronising, perhaps because it seemed to be targeted at people who have no idea what CfE is. One expects this, perhaps, if the intention is to provide a briefing on CfE, but there were a number of indications that the SQA assume that teachers – science teachers, specifically – don’t keep themselves up to date with developments in education. If this was gratuitous, then the suggestion that he made that “PGDEs don’t have pedagogical knowledge” deserved the hostile reaction it got from the delegates, forcing him to attempt a back-pedal, claiming “it isn’t a criticism.”

By the time we got to the coffee break it was clear that some delegates had decided to bail from the event and go and do something more productive. I took the opportunity to enjoy a professional conversation with some primary colleagues from schools in Fife who were there to share good practice case studies: I attended the secondary equivalent of this session which was frankly uplifting.

Two secondary head teachers shared how they are implementing CfE through highly appropriate curricular models that were well-crafted to meet the needs of their young people. This session was introduced by Fiona Robertson of Education Scotland who drew our attention to the emphasis being given to the importance of measuring the impact of curricular change. This is, to a casual observer of education, a no-brainer but lack of evaluation has characterised some initiatives in schools. Not so the two schools in the case study workshop: Karen Jarvis of Linlithgow Academy described her principled approach to curricular reform, founded on SHANARRI, the four capacities of CfE, the seven principles of curriculum design, the scope of the curriculum from BTC and the entitlements of the broad general education. Karen described her model in some detail including how learners progress within it, stressing strengths and some of the issues the school faces in the changes that have been made, and that will follow from the impact evaluations.

CHS

Steve Ross of Craigroyston CHS in Edinburgh followed with a description of a different model for a different context: one in which destinations of young people has been a concern for the local community. This model makes use of the extensive SQA vocational catalogue, local partnerships and the flexibility and commitment of teachers to cross discipline boundaries in order to deliver a rich and relevant curriculum that the children of this school can and do enjoy. Evidence of impact is clear: S4s making the transition to S5 have gone from about half the cohort to 86% in a year. Steve says that behaviour issues in the senior phase are almost non-existent – the young people clearly value the opportunities they are being given through this model. A key message for student teachers entering the workforce now is that you have to be prepared to be flexible: you can’t box yourself into your subject area and think that is acceptable. Personally, I find this encouraging: I brought a lot of experience in programming and project management to teaching and have often felt that it is not only of no interest to schools, it is about as welcome as a slideshow of “pictures of our grandchildren” at a dinner party. Finally, teachers who bring “something else” are being valued and asked to put it to good use.

There was a great question raised at the end of Steve’s presentation, which had focused, rightly in his context, on employment and destinations. The question was about the purposes of education: there had been evidence from a number of speakers that a belief is held that the purpose of education is to prepare children for employment destinations – and nothing else. Clearly, this goes against some very deeply held principles.

After a very nice lunch, those of us that remained were given presentations on Glow, Insight, and DSYW which told us about the national professional learning community, nothing new, and nothing, respectively.

The afternoon workshop was billed as, “New qualifications, assessment and quality assurance to support the senior phase of CfE”. It was given by John Allan and John Lewis of the SQA and was not really as advertised. There were group activities, the purpose of which was not at all evident. There was for me, absolutely none of the detail on assessment principles, frameworks, procedures or methods that I attended the conference to hear. Presenters and delegates seemed to lose patience with each other and neither really had much to share of value to the other.

The final talk was given to the handful of remaining delegates by Tom Hamilton of the GTCS who, like some of the other speakers today, seemed to have been given the wrong brief and spoke to a target audience that wasn’t us. Either that, or he, like others who spoke today, seems to hold the belief that ITEs had not yet started updating themselves and their courses in preparation for the launch of CfE.

The event was closed by Teresa Moran who, according to one delegate, encapsulated the tone of much of the day when she read, “have a safe journey home” from a piece of paper.

Was it a wasted day? Certainly not. I had the opportunity to speak with colleagues in the other ITEs, teachers and head teachers about the reality of how the new curriculum is being implemented in primary and secondary schools and how prospective teachers are being prepared for our Brave New World. I was significantly impressed and encouraged to have it re-affirmed that there are very many people who are dissident and principled enough that our young people are in good hands. I would have liked to have heard more of these people speak today.

This is a text

Electric_chair

“… a text is the medium through which ideas, experiences, opinions and information can be communicated.”

So runs the CfE definition of a text. Therefore, this is a physics text. In the hands of a competent physics teacher, this image, of the first electric chair, tells the story of the current wars in which Westinghouse and Tesla fought Edison over which type of current would deliver energy from the generation plant to consumers: AC or DC. Edison secretly paid Harold P Brown to design and build the electric chair, to show the lethality of alternating current. He promoted the phrase, to be “Westinghoused” to mean executed by electrocution. In the event, the first electrocution failed to kill the prisoner, William Kemmler, due to a miscalculation. Westinghouse remarked that they would have done better using an axe.

With the right text, sufficient knowledge and passion, the competent teacher can bring even the dullest curriculum alive. Consider National 4 Physics Key Area: “Advantages and disadvantages of different methods of electricity generation and distribution.”