Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Education - Are We Getting It Right? - Considerations

GIRFEC - the all encompassing mantra and acronym currently à la mode within the Scottish educational establishment. What does it mean though? Getting It Right For Every Child. Now, lets just stop there. First point, how do we know we are getting it right for every child? What are we using as our benchmark criteria? Over the past decade Scottish education has been subject to an enormous overhaul and re-branding exercise. Re-branding may be a strange word to use in the context of education, however, that is what I shall refer to as here, simply put because soundbites are the raison d'être of this Scottish Government when it comes to education. Indeed soundbites are what the past decade in Scotland has all been about. Substance though, is where we are lacking.

In this post I intend to discuss the state of Scottish education, in terms of a curriculum that appears to be, at least in part, failing and then the proposed changes to governance that will see new powers seemingly granted to head-teachers. When in fact the opposite is true, kit is is simply another SNP power grab by this lack of imagination Scottish Government - centralisation is the name of the game, lets not be in doubt about that. I will also consider what I would like to see as a way forward, some of which falls within the proposals by the Scottish Conservative Party on education and some of which are my own views. 

As I have stated in other articles I have written, at the heart of this there is one group of key stakeholders; the young people. Whilst politicians may ponder and pass laws, and whilst local authorities may implement those laws and allocate resources (another sore point in Scotland, where spending on education is lower in real terms that it was a decade ago) children, are not statistics. For every fall in international league tables, for every school that lacks sufficient teacher numbers, for ever politician who wishes to espouse their belief/idea/opinion on the way forward and what is right and what is wrong - there are thousands of youngsters, all entering the sausage machine of compulsory education from the age of 5 and re-emerging (hopefully full of knowledge and skills) at 16, if we do not get it right it is them we have failed. All of society has a responsibility and successive governments, both north and south of the border have tweaked and revamped curricula, qualifications and delivery of education, much of it being, to be blunt, experimental.A great deal of it formulated and executed by people who are completely removed from the everyday situation in a classroom and the worries, fears, concerns and hopes of young people. I write this as a former teacher, who has only been away from the classroom for a matter of months, so I am not, at this point, far removed from what is happening. 

On that note, let us begin. The embryonic form of what was to become Curriculum For Excellence was first considered in 2002 which led to four key strands that Scottish education would oscillate around - successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens & effective contributors. From the outset I was minded to think these were just words that could be interpreted almost anyway one chose to interpret them. The very naming of the curriculum set many an educational specialist on edge. As one friend pointed out to me - when you have to incorporate the word "excellence" you just know it will be anything but that (given that friend is a graduate of Cambridge and tutored Advanced Higher Maths students due to the lack of schools able to provide adequate supervision for students who aspired to, what would be termed as, elite universities, I did tend to think he was correct). CfE takes pupils up to the age of 15 and whilst it may claim to arm them with a set of "skills" from the four strands, the reality is somewhat different. Some of the data that we now have available tells a different story on its supposed "success". The percentage of pupils doing "well" or "very well" in numeracy is down for P4, P7 & S2 between 2011-2015 (note this is in the period following implementation). Data for P4, P7 & S2 in literacy shows a decline since 2014 and the percentage of pupils in S2 who are not where they should be in literacy and numeracy has gone from 7% in 2012 to 16% in 2016. This is not good enough. Remember what I said about pupils not being statistics? The bottom line is, that whilst this mess is examined and social scientists and statisticians deliberate the data there is a whole generation of pupils making their way through the education system who are not performing as well as they should be - it is failing them. Which in turns this will affect their future life chances and opportunities. It is meaningless to talk about closing the attainment gap when literacy and numeracy rates fall, action is what is needed. 

Lets turn now to the new National qualifications. Everyone remember the old Standard Grade? I went through the system with it, it didn't serve me too badly at all. Final grades were ranked with 1 being at the top all the way down to a 7. Everyone sat an exam, which meant that everyone had a sense of achievement - it was a benchmark to let individuals see what they had learned and achieved, it also meant that for teachers there was some clarity on what had gone well, where pupils needed to focus the next year and what could be done to provide support. Now we have a new qualification where pupils who read for a National 5 take an external exam, whereas pupils considered to fall short of that sit the National 4 - a qualification that pupils themselves are well aware of as not putting them in an advantageous position should they then choose to leave school and seek employment. The National 4 has no benchmark exam and the "assessments' can be taken time and time again until they are correct. Leaving both teacher and pupil unsure as to what exactly has really been "learned" and what is just the result of constant follow ups of "this is what you need to write". 

Having laterally taught pupils with Additional Support Needs (ASN) I became increasingly frustrated and infuriated by being asked at the beginning of the year which National qualifications the pupils were going to be working towards, then having endless page after page of paperwork, that on the majority of occasions appeared more to satisfy slightly senior staff members who wanted to be able to produce folders full of words rather than anything on what the pupils could do. Working in ASN it is very often more about developing the basics in literacy and numeracy and working on life-skills to give youngsters confidence and to hopefully set many of them up for at least partial independent living. Instead it was ticking boxes exercises and drilling pupils that they were now working on a National 2 in Money - when in reality, it would have been better to spend the time working on practising over and over how to count out simple amounts of money and using role play exercises. To add - experiential learning is very much of the ASN experience, there is a lot that schools get right. Where it goes wrong, is in the drive to satisfy local authority statistics, pupils with ASN are being directed to "pass" National 2 and 3 qualifications, with many of them not grasping the concept of what this piece of paper that would arrive through their door some months later supposedly meant. One size does not fit all. It is about equity in education and the current curriculum and qualifications claims to allow for a more creative learning experience when in fact the absolute opposite is what is happening in schools. 

So, how are teachers finding this brave new approach to education in Scotland? Only this week I read of a teacher here in Fife who had chosen to go public about the abject failings of the system and the demoralised feelings amongst teaching staff. Any number of blogs, online forums and newspapers will tell you how teachers in Scotland are feeling about the direction of travel. The Dunfermline teacher chose to forgo anonymity and wrote that an education system that is "utterly broken" - extremely damning words, but words I cannot disagree with. He writes that education here has gone into "unprecedented decline" and described the curriculum as "sub-standard" and a "disaster" for pupils He is far from the only one, incidentally he is also a former member of the SNP. I know enough former colleagues who have been summing things up pretty much exactly the same as that, with many desperate to get out of the system. Imagine how parents across Scotland must feel reading those words? The system is a "disaster" and "sub-standard"? That is where we are. Scotland, once a world leader in education rankings (now falling down the International PISA scores) is failing its young people. 

Now to further compound this disaster a new flagship policy is being rolled out by the SNP Government which claims to give "sweeping new powers" to head-teachers, but will in fact do the opposite. The proposed new Regional Collaboratives will see regional directors for huge parts of the country (Fife for example is to be bunched in with Edinburgh, Midlothian, East Lothian and The Borders) who will report back to Education Scotland. Education Scotland? Yes, a quango of the Scottish Government - the organisation that also carries out HMIe school inspections. How convenient, directors will report back to the Scottish Government and there is no independence or system of checks and balances anywhere. Whilst the Scottish Conservatives have long considered that head-teachers should have more powers but these should give them some autonomy - not in turn just make them part of the food chain that leads right up to the door of the Education Secretary and in turn the SNP Government. (See the link to my earlier comments on this -

Over the past few weeks I have listened to proposals being floated by the Scottish Conservatives on the way forward for education and where our policy should go. The following are my thoughts, some are broadly reflective of my party's policy on education, some are my own opinions. Whatever avenue, we as a party, choose to pursue my word of caution to all policy makers is, and I speak here as a teacher, is we absolutely must keep in mind who will be directly affected by further change. We currently have a demoralised and demotivated teaching population, a shortage of teachers in key subjects, failure of a successful recruitment strategy and ridiculous bureaucracy on who can teach in Scotland (by an organisation that seems to be run with an attitude of downright arrogance towards anyone who did not qualify in Scotland as somehow not being quite up to standard). On that note I would like to see a revamping of the Curriculum for Excellence, I do not, at this stage advocate scrapping it, due to the aforementioned reasons. Soft-edged terms such as "successful learners" and "confident individuals" mean absolutely nothing if your child cannot read, write, add, subtract, recite and utilise their timetables and fluently speak English (and yes, here I refer to these absolutely ghastly attempts to impose some form of "Scots" as a spoken language rather than a dialect, onto pupils when they cannot even spell their name correctly). The overall holistic approach to teaching is important but if they are not up to scratch on literacy and numeracy when leaving primary school the reality is they are at a disadvantage. Life is tough, we need to equip youngsters for the world not for floaty ideals that do not work in the fast pace of industry. 

The National qualifications need a complete overhaul and rethink. In Scotland, unlike other parts of the world, we do not have more than one examinations board. Like everything else in Scotland we are in some sort of ongoing mindset whereby "one size fits all" is getting it right. Why can we not have differing examination boards? The current SQA sets exams then doesn't seem to know the criteria themselves for the standard required - I remember the example last year of a certain Arts subject (I shall define no further given where I worked is well known) whereby the Principal Teacher contacted the SQA asking for the standard for a pass at National 4 and the SQA was batting it back at the teacher, asking to see the work so they could see what the teacher was thinking a pass was. Is this really getting it right? The National 4 internal "assessment" should be scrapped and like the National 5 should have an external examination so that pupils have a sense of purpose, drive to achieve and a competitive edge (and yes, life is competitive), it gives all pupils a chance to really push and excel themselves. It also means that employers know that some sort of assessment has actually been completed. 

The suggestion has been made of schools, where they wish to, taking themselves out of local authority control. That I am deeply uncertain about. Whilst there is precedent for it in other parts of the UK I am left with concerns of the creation of a two-tier system that may discriminate against vulnerable pupils. If the money follows the child, as has been suggested, then there is the potential for it to work. I do believe it could but it goes back to by earlier point - any changes to the education system affect teachers and pupils, we need to err on the side of caution. It also raises concerns as to what happens to pupils with additional needs? Where will they go if a school opts out? Currently in Fife a system is run whereby ASN pupils are often taught in a Department for Additional Support (DAS) in the high school. This means there is inclusion where possible and it gives the possibility of ASN pupils accessing mainstream classes where appropriate. At this stage I would prefer a policy that will begin with a re-formulating of the Curriculum for Excellence, external examinations sat at the end of S4 in the National 4 qualification and a rethink on having pupils with additional needs being herded through National 2 & 3s which are often not conducive to their educational experience and their wider needs. 

I do believe head-teachers should have more power within their individual school. However, that has to come with a well-entrenched support structure for new head-teachers, it cannot be used as a stick to "blame" where the attainment gap is not closed according to the statistics of the day. Regional Collaboratives are centralisation by another name (centralisation being the pièce de résistance of the SNP Government) and are only going to engender less individualism and less creativity within a school. 

The challenges for the future of Scottish education are enormous. At the heart of it though, as I stated at the beginning of this article, is the young people themselves. They get one go at the educational journey and if government does not get it right for each and every child then that is failure. Failure that I do not believe can just be measured in abstract terms of quantitative data - it is failure for that individual and the consequences may last a lifetime. All politicians need to keep that in mind. 


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