Thursday, 15 March 2018

Next Steps for Curriculum for Excellence - Scotland Policy Conference

I have recently pondered on the fact that in the past few months I have spent more time considering the curriculum, the attainment gap and all matters on educational policy than I ever did during my years of teaching. Perhaps that is because, like colleagues across the country and the world, I was so busy with the everyday lesson planning, target setting, marking and well-being of my pupils that the policy-building side was something abstract and distant. Often you go through the motions without asking the bigger questions - the why. The "how do I do this" was always there, but the "why do I do this" was missing, the wider picture. Being a reflective practitioner is something teachers are always encouraged to be but all too often workload and time restraints do not allow for the amount of reflection that is really needed. 

When the Curriculum for Excellence was introduced just over a decade ago it was met with much fanfare as being revolutionary in its thinking and how it would change the way education was delivered, children learned and open up endless creative opportunities within the classroom. However, whilst politicians are more or less unanimously agreed that CfE should remain in place, there are increasing calls for a radical rethink and reconsideration of its delivery and a need to ensure it remains relevant in an ever changing world. Falling exam performance, declining PISA scores,  excessive mountains of paperwork, jargon, lack of clarity between agencies (think SQA and Education Scotland) have all left many a teacher demoralised and many a politician calling for the need to depoliticise (irony?) the curriculum and get education fully back on track. 

Tuesday's policy conference in Edinburgh was entitled: Next Steps for Curriculum for Excellence - supporting teachers, tackling the attainment gap and priorities for the Education Bill. The conference was opened and chaired by Liz Smith MSP, Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills. A morning of robust debate and discussion with a panel of guest speakers made for much thought and reflection. Whilst it could be entirely possible (given the way I like to write) for me to write pages and pages on the conference, instead I have picked out some of the key themes discussed and attempted to outline parts of the narrative and then my thoughts. The full recording of the conference can be found on - (currently awaiting online upload to the RSE website - see here - )

Prof Graham Donaldson spoke of the danger of the "improvement trap" - there is a better understanding of high quality learning at both the local authority and the national level and collaboration but the risk is that all the work is for a set of purposes that are now less relevant therefore, there is a need for continued debate and review. The global pace of change means that change must continue to happen at the educational level, it must be an evolutionary process and with increasing both interdependence and competition the employment prospects for school leavers continue to alter - the curriculum has to prepare young people for that. One of the first questions posited to the audience was - what do young people become as a result of all the learning - or how do we balance the small world of curricula with the big world of learning? Which goes far beyond the school and learning is, indeed a life-long process. I cannot provide a one paragraph answer here and nor did the panel, it was more open-ended up subject to thought, consideration and to take away and reflect upon. 

Whilst the "attainment gap" and the closing of it is a common and central theme now of any educational policy discussion, what I hadn't heard discussed before was the "experiential gap" - the experiences that young people have that develop their understanding of the world, their relationships, their aspirations and their own characters - in many cases, due to family circumstance, this is only available to be developed at school - is school always doing that? Is it the right environment to do this or does more have to be done to work with families to close this gap? Again, this isn't an attempt to answer a question it is more to think and reflect. 

The "future direction" of Curriculum for Excellence was addressed by a lively and informed panel which drew on an eclectic mix of members - there was Mark Stewart of the Scottish Youth Parliament, the headteacher of Clifton Hall School, a former headteacher and Neil McLennan - a senior lecturer at Aberdeen University (again, watch the recording to see the full commentary). The panel opened its discussion with again the need to update, change and being evolutionary, Neil McLennan referred to an "egalitarian meritocracy" - how do you square that?... 

One point that came across succinctly was that we need a national conversation not a debate. I would agree, there has been too much debate, too much arguing and too much of the Scottish Government "do as we say" top-down approach. Young people themselves, being the main stakeholder, teachers and headteachers all need to be included in that conversation. I would also argue that industry needs a place at the table too - as the market and supply and demand changes, the curriculum whilst developing key skills in literacy and numeracy must also adapt. Nothing should be static. 

Experiences & Outcomes - anyone who has taught in Scotland in the past decade will know this term only to well, commonly referred to as the "Es and Os". In any walk of life if we are to have an experience can we determine the outcome prior to the experience? Therefore, why is the Curriculum for Excellence loaded with pre-determined outcomes to all experiences? That question was posed by head of Clifton Hall School, Rod Grant. We appear to be evidence driven with targets and outcomes - there is more of a focus on the outcome than the learning. I felt like shouting out - yes, this is exactly what I was saying particularly in the two years I was teaching prior to being elected. Working in education for youngsters with additional support needs (ASN) there was a focus on life skills, on giving the youngster the experience. Many ASN children will not ever be able to live fully independently and many will have limited experiences of the workplace. This is not to say we should not work to realise their full potential, but the development of life-skills are just, and I would argue, more important, than ensuring they have ticked the box to have achieved National 2 Maths. I often found that in the drive to complete the paperwork, to tick the boxes much of what I was doing when teaching in ASN was to push pupils to get their National 2 English and Maths - and to what end? The stress that it often caused them without a full understanding of how this would future proof their work prospects? "Teaching to the the test" we kept being told is not what we were there for. More often than not it felt like that. A list of short and long term targets of where they were at point X they outcome they would reach at point Y and as a result progress to Z. No. Life is not like that and particularly for the differing and varying of complexity of additional support needs the youngsters had. Data collection kills learning - how gladdened I was to hear those words expressed. 

I was particularly pleased that Keir Bloomer, Convenor of the Education Committee of The Royal Society of Edinburgh, was to address the conference. I have read quite a bit of his work and heard him speak in his capacity on Reform Scotland's Advisory Board. More can be found on his work here - 

A key point from his speech, which is, in my view, particularly relevant at the present time as the Education Bill comes before Holyrood; there has been a neglect of piloting when introducing initiatives. The first thing that sprang to mind was the proposed Regional Improvement Collaboratives - read more here on my thoughts -
The question was asked, why are there now fewer qualifications studied than pre-CfE? The narrowing the of the curriculum has reduced both opportunity and breadth - exactly the opposite of what this curriculum was supposed to see as its outcome...

The Welsh Perspective
Again, without producing extensive detail, I would really recommend watching the recording, we were given a presentation on a similar initiative to the improvement collaboratives, that is now in play in Wales. Wales has 22 local authorities and 4 consortia. Arwyn Thomas of GwE took us through the key points to bear in mind when establishing this model:
* Purpose
* Trust - a strong relationship with the local authority
* Joint service
* Clear governance
* Financial procedures
* Accountability
* Middle tier
* Developing national policy locally - in the Scottish context, will this remain?
* Strong leadership at all levels

All of that made for positive sound-bites but again I pondered, where was the accountability? Perhaps the Wales initiative has worked. Currently I am not in possession of evidence to determine if that is the case. However, cautionary notes were - the consortia must have a local flavour. Voices must be heard - parents, teachers, communities - as so often in education - communication is key. Does competition and competing aims and objectives get in the way of collaboration? There has to be a balancing act between meeting the needs of the individual school and at the same time one coherent, workable message to all within the consortia. Are the local authorities priorities still met? What is the role of locally elected representatives to scrutinise policy? Next week the Kirkcaldy Area Committee will sit and the papers bring an annual report on Attainment & Achievement - elected representatives scrutinise these papers, we ask questions, we seek answers. Will this still happen once the Regional Improvement Collaboratives are established and the only link with the local authority is the chair/convenor of each Education Committee in the collaborative? Again, thinking of Keir's comments - why no piloting? Perhaps because piloting never fits comfortably with a top-down approach.

A number of other topics were considered, including early years provision, which I believe is central to many of the building blocks of education and was pleased to see it be given the coverage it has lacked for too long. However, I would prefer to write a separate post on that as I feel it does not do the sector justice to cover it in a few lines here - what appeared to be an argument for formal provision was given and a counter-viewpoint that excess hours in a formal setting is not always conducive to the development of a child. 

A couple of concluding remarks that leave some food for thought are:
* 69% of teachers would not recommend it as a career (presentation by NASUWT)
* The three biggest concerns to teachers are - 1. workload 2. Behaviour 3. Pay  
* Poverty is a major factor in the drive to close the attainment gap but schools cannot do it all - breaking up of local authority services is difficult to understand (there is more I can comment on this)
* Parental confidence - this apparently lessens as children move through school - why?
* Accountability is dominating everything
* Experiences & Outcomes - the focus appears to be on the (pre-determined) outcome

Tuesday was undoubtedly the type of day I enjoy, when not out in my Ward and meeting and talking with constituents. It had a flavour of academia which to me, is always a valid and valued way to spend the day. Indeed, I began this post talking about life-long learning and the quest for knowledge and answers probably explains so much about my chosen career as a teacher and then going into politics. No doubt this year will bring much more thoughtful and fruitful debate and discussion as the Education Bill moves its way through parliament.


Friday, 9 March 2018

Single-Use Plastics We Would Like Fife Council To Lead The Way

Yesterday my colleague, Cllr Darren Watt and I brought a motion to the full Council meeting asking for the transition away from single-use plastic products in both Fife House and Rothesay House - the two main buildings of Fife Council (both in Glenrothes). The text of the motion read as follows:

"Council recognises the devastating impact plastic pollution is having on our environment and the escalating costs of recycling such materials. Council acknowledges we must lead by examples, step up our own efforts and encourage others to follow suit.
Fife Council will begin by transitioning away from single-use plastics commencing at Fife House and Rothesay House, Glenrothes."

Proposed by Councillor Darren Watt
Seconded by Councillor Kathleen Leslie

Unsurprisingly, the SNP-Labour Administration put up an amendment. It read:

"Council welcomes the growth of community-led strategic to combat the spread of the use of plastics in fife such as the pilot project proposed by the Cowdenbeath Area Committee which, if successful, could be rolled out to every community in Cowdenbeath/Lochgelly area.

Council agrees, whilst local initiatives like the compostable carrier bag scheme are welcome as is the elimination of plastics straws and cups from premises occupied by the Council and the Sports and Leisure Trust, that the impact of plastic pollution can only be effectively countered by a Fife-wide strategy.

Council notes that a Council wide Zero Waste Resources Strategy will be considered by the Environment, Protective Services and Community Safety Committee when it meets next week, and that preventing waste, particularly single use plastics, will be fundamental to the implementation of the Strategy, as it may be agreed."

I have since looked at the upcoming Committee papers and see little that offers any real commitment or timescale. 

Given the precise and non-politically aligned nature of our amendment we approached the SNP proposer of the amendment and asked if it would be possible to conjoin our motion onto theirs. We felt that their amendment failed to address the specifics of the issue and that by conjoining it we could have consensus. Instead we were advised that our motion could lead to job losses and was not possible. We were shocked by this as this was not our intention nor do we believe it would be the outcome. The text of our motion read "begin transitioning away from single-use plastics" - "begin" - as in there is plastic cutlery available in the Council's restaurant but there is also stainless steel cutlery, so why not begin with that? Then move onto looking at encouraging staff to use in house cups/mugs for their coffee and tea, rather than the difficult to recycle cardboard/plastic takeaway cups? Then look at the water dispensers provided and instead of using the small plastic cups, bring your own cup - given that some local authorities do not even provide water dispensers this was no big ask. Many just have the taps in the kitchen! As one SNP councillor was keen to point out yesterday - Scottish drinking water tastes better than water elsewhere (I do not happen to disagree). 

It seemed that if we pushed for no single-use plastics then it would put people off going into the restaurant and the knock on effect would be job losses and possibly an end to the restaurant! I find this quite incredible given that up and down the country the overwhelming majority of people try to recycle as much as possible and reduce their plastic waste and many coffee chains are now offering discounts on "bring your own" coffee/tea cup (the ones that you can easily carry on the go) - are Fife Council staff such that they wouldn't use the restaurant if they couldn't get a plastic knife and fork?! Is that really what some Councillors think? If we were to believe that then surely when supermarkets introduced a 5p plastic bag charge everyone would stop shopping in them?! 

No, that is not the case. Nor do I believer that either Labour or the SNP are so naive as to believe that moving away from single-use plastics in two Council buildings would result in the doom-filled scenario presented to us yesterday. Given the SNP Scottish Government has continued to push for a Zero Waste Scotland which will include a reduction in landfill, increased recycling and introducing the 5p plastic bag tax, I really find it difficult to believe there was anything to oppose yesterday. 

Well except one thing - the motion was a Conservative one. That in itself ensured it could not be allowed to be passed. After all, Conservatives couldn't be seen to be leading the way in protecting the environment, could they? This was nothing but petty party politics and was particularly unfortunate considering that during my research of the motion I discovered other Scottish Councils where there appears to be some cross-party consensus. 

I spoke yesterday (text below) about how Fife Council has been a leader in waste reduction strategy and recycling which has therefore, doubled by disappointment at the outcome and added to that by an email update this morning which reminded councillors of the reduced opening times of recycling facilities in Fife. Read of that what you will. 

Here is what I said yesterday (below the text please find the relevant links to this story).

Single-Use Plastics

"First, I would like to thank my colleague, Cllr Watt for bringing this motion to Council today. Single-use plastic products have long been a bugbear of mine. Therefore, I was pleased to see him take a lead on making progress to move away from such products in both Fife House and Rothesay House.

Around a decade ago I watched a documentary on what is referred to as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, I am sure most of you will have heard of it. I was absolutely shocked and disgusted by the fact that such accumulation of plastics – the majority of them single-use, from around the world, had formed on the ocean’s surface. An area is now reckoned to be possibly around twice the size of France. There have since been discovered to be similar formations in both the North and South Atlantic.

The damage this has caused to marine life continues to grow – seabirds and whales washed up on beaches with stomachs full of discarded lighters, bottle tops, plastic bags and other plastic debris – estimates are around 1 million seabirds a year die globally as a result of ingesting discarded plastics. David Attenborough’s Blue Planet in December horrifyingly illustrated the damage being done by plastic, the team filming it said there was very rarely a time they filmed when they did not come upon plastic in the sea.

A recent study by Newcastle University found that such is the scale of the problem, that microscopic animals in the deepest trenches of the Pacific Ocean, some 11km down, had traces of fibres that had originated in plastic bottles and packaging. Dr Alan Jamieson who led the study has stated that an estimated 300m tonnes of plastic now litters the oceans, with around 5 trillion plastic pieces floating on the surface.

What can we do? To introduce a move away from single-use plastics here in two Council buildings may seem a small and inconsequential step, given the information I have just provided. However, Fife is already a leading local authority in promoting recycling of household waste – including plastics, our schools through programmes such as Ecoschools, teach environmental awareness from an early age – I believe 79 schools in Fife currently have a Green Flag. Council facilities such as libraries provide recycling facilities as does the FSLT – much progress has been made.

Single-use coffee cups are notoriously difficult to recycle due to them being made of mixed materials and we really don’t need plastic cutlery when there is already an alternative provided. Instead of using throwaway plastic cups for water why not bring a refillable water bottle, they are cheap to purchase and provided they are BPA free and cleaned properly, they can last for years.  With the best will in the world not all of these end up being recycled and find their way into landfill or discarded where they end up in the sea.

Therefore, let us continue to be a leader and reduce the damage being caused by single-use plastic products simply by moving away from providing them. I ask you to support this motion."

Cllr Kathleen Leslie

Relevant Links:

Monday, 5 March 2018

Update - Post Snow

I have to say, it may be Monday evening but I am still feeling a little out of sync as regards what day of the week it is. Last week's arrival of the "beast from the East" saw huge parts of the country grind to a halt as snow seemed to be tipped from the sky for hour after hour...and then it seemed, day after day. Well perhaps not that many days, but it certainly began to feel like it. Building snowmen and drinking hot chocolate whilst huddled under a blanket in front of an open fire may be the stuff of romantic novels and Christmas cards, but when it begins to interfere, hold-up and negatively affect everything we pretty much take for granted (that would be getting to the shop for bread and milk, being able to hop on a bus or our car and visit family and friends and those who are alone) that is when it isn't quite so much fun. Indeed, if any. 

Wednesday last week saw snow, blizzards and high winds and by the close of Thursday rural and isolated communities were cut-off. I was particularly concerned about the closure of the A921 into Kinghorn from Kirkcaldy and that Burntisland was completely cut off on all 4 approaches (one of course being the Loch Road). That is when it becomes frightening. Communities cut off by road means elderly and vulnerable people cut off from essential services, such as meals on wheels, hospital appointments and visits from carers. Fife Council did grit the roads and I would like to take this opportunity to thank them for the work they did - it was above and beyond. Drivers worked through the night to ensure that primary routes had some access. However, I cannot help but feel this move towards centralised services in Glenrothes has left many rural areas isolated and I do believe questions need to be asked. Weather of such extremes is relatively unusual here, it is around 7 years ago since we had such a terrible Winter, however, simple things such as the removal of grit bins in communities did not help. I witnessed, read about and saw on TV endless examples of communities coming together to clear sections of road and to help each other out and that is fantastic - including Burntisland Primary School offering lunch to residents on Friday and TRAs in Kirkcaldy assisting with getting shopping for residents who couldn't go out. What is not so fantastic though is when a grit bin has been long since removed and once you clear that street there is no grit to put down on it to keep it relatively cleared and safe. 

Community Councils over the next number of weeks will play an invaluable role in providing extensive feedback to councillors as to how resilience plans played out and what went right and what went wrong, who was reached, who was not, what the biggest problems were. I know I will be listening carefully to what Community Councils have to say along with all the feedback via email, social media and telephone that I have had from residents. 

In the meantime, continue to wrap up warm, continue to look out for each other and keep us councillors posted. 

This week there is a full Council meeting so I am currently preparing for that. Therefore, the remainder of this post is just some extracts on various local matters that I have had coverage about in the media. Most of which I have posted on my councillor Facebook page. Once again, please do not hesitate to get in touch with any questions or concerns.

Frank's Law
Last month I attended the Conservative Women's Scottish Council AGM in Perth where the lovely Amanda Kopel and Miles Briggs MSP spoke about the progress of "Frank's Law". Amanda has long since campaigned for free personal care for the under 65s in Scotland - as the law stands anyone requiring personal care who is under 65 is unable to access this for free. Amanda's late husband, the footballer, Frank Kopel, was diagnosed with dementia at 59. Amanda's story is well documented, therefore, rather than me attempt to provide a summary here, which would not do it justice, more of it can be found at -  

BiFab - Uncertainty Again
February also saw renewed worry and concern for employees at Burntisland based BiFab with the threat of redundancy once again on the horizon. If the yards are to close this will be a devastating blow to the workforce and also the local community in Burntisland. Local businesses have voiced concerns about the impact on shops and retailers in the town. I am continuing to monitor the situation and both the Scottish and UK governments have been seeking a positive outcome.  

Just before the Council set its budget for this year I had a visit to Strathallan Primary School to speak with the headteacher, Mrs Logan. This was very informative where myself and my fellow Ward councillor had an opportunity to ask lots of questions and also receive an update on school priorities, PEF, attainment, successes and parking! I am pleased to note that I have had positive meetings in schools in the Ward and have found them to be both informative and insightful - we have many fantastic places of learning in Fife. There is much to be proud of. 

Invertiel and the Litter Problem - Solution!
Anyone who has been following this blog will know this is very much an ongoing situation - but here I have some very positive news! I had some coverage in the Fife Free Press last week in regards to the ongoing situation with litter around Invertiel - or as the case may now be, the reduction in litter. This was a bit of positive news story and I am looking forward to providing further feedback to the TRA later this week - watch this space! 

Dog Fouling - There Is NO Dog Poo Fairy - Clean It Up
Rather than go on a rant here, which is entirely possible I will just once again issue a plea - if you have a dog and it poos (and yes, they all do!) then CLEAN IT UP - your dog cannot and you are creating a health hazard and could be fined. I have had an ongoing case in Kinghorn whereby a number of residents have contacted me deeply concerned about some grassy areas being used on a daily basis as some sort of public toilet facility for dogs. Just DO NOT do it. 
My letter to the Fife Free Press

"Dear Sir

I noted that Safer Communities officers blame the dark nights and mornings for the increase in complaints of irresponsible dog owners who allow their pets to foul public parks and pathways (FFP 15/2/18). Whilst Fife Council has done much to address this environmental and health hazard it is worth noting that in the Kirkcaldy Area only 3 Fixed Penalty Notices were issued in the April – September period last year.

The current legislation makes fining relatively difficult, wardens have to witness the offence taking place. Whilst this can make it seem a very arduous process to be resolved it is perhaps time for more innovative approaches to be taken. Currently only enforcement wardens can issue penalty notices so it may be worthwhile looking at training other Council officers to also do this.

Over the past number of weeks, I have had several residents in Kinghorn and Burntisland contact me regarding dog fouling, in one case where the same person is allowing their dog to foul on a grassed area near the beach where children play. Irresponsible owners are a minority but by allowing their dogs to foul in grassy areas, parks and the beach they are leaving children susceptible to disease and demonstrating a complete lack of respect and regard for their community.

The majority of dog owners are responsible and do clean-up. However, if you are one of those who do not then it is time to start doing so. There is no excuse not to. Bins are provided along the majority of footpaths and beaches. Cleaning up your dog’s poo is part of being a dog owner, it is that simple.

Every single time you see an offender do contact the Safer Communities team, with information on time and any other noticeable information. That way attention can be focused on the worst affected areas and persistent offenders will be caught and fined."

Mystery Noises
I received an email around three weeks ago from a resident in Raith Estate in regards to a mysterious noise that sounded like a gunshot and was being heard at regular intervals throughout the day. Over the course of a week that one email rapidly expanded to emails and 'phone calls. Such was the coverage the Fife Free Press ran a short story asking people if they knew what it was. Now though it seems the mystery has been solved and it is some sort of bird scaring device to keep the birds away from crops. Now that may all be fair and well but the level of disruption and noise pollution that is not only affecting residents but upsetting pets, means this needs further investigation. I am currently awaiting an update from the relevant officer - rest assured, I am onto this...

Save Our Surgeries - Street Stall
Two weeks ago the Fife Conservatives held a street stall on Dunfermline High Street which was attended by Miles Briggs MSP - Shadow Secretary for Health. We had many wonderful responses and conversations with residents, not only from Dunfermline but from across Fife. The common theme was - lengthy waiting times to see a GP. I am keen for residents to let me know their experiences of waiting times at their local GP. Unfortunately this past decade the SNP Government has not forward planned and put sufficient infrastructure in place to address the increasing crisis in the NHS. Along with education, policing and other services the NHS has suffered due to a government that has only been interested in the one issue of independence and absolutely nothing else. 
Here are a couple of links worth checking out -


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