Tag Archives: Guest Articles

Scottish education: sleepwalking into the abyss⤴

from @ curriculum for equity

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by Gary Walsh

I am writing this post as a challenge to the narrative developing in Scottish education circles at the moment. I believe that we are in danger of sleepwalking into an abyss of ill-conceived period of reform based on an impoverished understanding of the purposes of education, confusion about the meaning of equity in that context, and a politicisation of the education system the like of which we have not seen in generations.

The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence was developed and indeed heralded as a radical programme for educational transformation. The original CfE document (published in 2004) remains the most purposeful document available to us. I would like to suggest that now would be the perfect time for the underpinning values of CfE and the Four Capacities to be reviewed and updated.

A lot has happened since 2004 and indeed the ‘National Conversation’ that preceded the CfE document. The global economic crisis of 2008 happened. The 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum happened. Now Brexit and Trump have happened. All of these represent key challenges that have tested and will continue to test Scottish society. The world is going through a phase of mass disruptive change: politically, socially, ecologically, economically and culturally. We are faced with some of the greatest challenges of our times including global inequality, climate change, social conflict and lack of cohesion, a failing economic system, as well as rises in global terrorism and right-wing political agendas.

This presents many challenges for education and lifelong learning, not least in terms of uncertainties about funding, leadership and administration, but it poses fundamental questions that have a direct impact on the purpose and meaning of education and learning itself: what is worth knowing and doing? What kind of world should we be trying to create? In an age of anger, mistrust and fear, how can education and lifelong learning help to cultivate compassion, trust and collective action? If ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, what kind of village, and how can it be done? What is the vision for society that we are aspiring towards?

The values that are inscribed onto the ornamental mace at the Scottish Parliament that apparently define not only CfE but the principles of society and democracy itself –  wisdom, justice, compassion and integrity – are fine words. I am astonished however by the number of people I have spoken with in recent years who do not know where these words came from. In a 2006 paper entitled ‘A Curriculum for Excellence: A Question of Values‘, Donald Gillies points out the truth which is that the values were chosen by the silversmith who designed the mace. Gillies suggests that this puts the whole basis of CfE, and the claims that it is designed around the principle of democracy, in doubt.

The slogans we call the Four Capacities – confident individuals, responsible citizens, effective contributors and successful learners – are certainly not beyond question either. Where did they come from and what do they mean? What vision of society are we expecting children and young people to confidently, responsibly, successfully and effectively contribute towards? Without a coherent vision for the kind of society we are aiming to create, the Four Capacities are meaningless.

Donald Trump arguably possesses all of the Four Capacities. He is certainly a confident individual. He is extremely effective in what he contributes. He has successfully learned how to do so. Is he a responsible citizen? A majority of the American electorate seem to think he is.

Mark Priestley and Walter Humes simply ask this of the Four Capacities: “Would it make much difference if the capacities were given as effective learners, responsible individuals, successful citizens and confident contributors?” (Priestley & Humes, 2010: 351)

It seems vital that we continue to develop and further embed CfE. The first step should be to scrutinise the Four Capacities (if not drop them completely) and re-visit the place of values by opening up a long-term dialogue about the meaning and purposes of education in Scotland.

There are many sources of inspiration that could help us to do just that. Professor Stephen Ball articulates the requirements for educative schooling and the education of democratic citizens as being “concerned with literacies for active, local and global citizenship, including a critical view of the world of work”, a “responsibility to contribute to the development of “high energy democracy” (Unger, 1994) in ways which draw upon ‘narratives of human possibility’” and a rethinking of “the relationship between education and opportunity, equity, and wellbeing”. (Ball, 2013: 26)

I would add social justice to that final list. We haven’t even begun to tap into the possibility of developing a shared understanding of these kinds of ideas. We could open up an empowering dialogue around the question of purpose, principles and values in Scottish education, and it would be especially fascinating to learn what children and young people think. Having developed a shared sense of purpose, we should then put our trust in the professional abilities of teachers, researchers, youth workers and lecturers to help us realise our ambitions, instead of allowing a situation to develop where they are completely entrapped by top-down bureaucracies. I am advocating that everybody – educators, children, young people and communities – can bring their collective knowledge, experience and expertise to the table and that together we can ignite education from the ground up.

Instead of clarifying our thinking around CfE and the purposes of education, we are currently doing the opposite. We are getting further and further away from the original intentions of CfE: so much so that its principles can scarcely be located in the National Improvement Framework. We are no longer engaged in a process of radical transformation – if indeed we ever were. Instead we are set to become entangled with a shambolic programme of standardised assessments and yet more benchmarks that will attempt to specify everything but will ultimately mean very little. 

A recent Statement for Practitioners from Education Scotland references the CfE principles and values, unchanged from the original 2004 document, in the appendix! Make no mistake about it: the bigger picture is not at the forefront of policy-makers’ minds. We have moved on from discovering and questioning the principles of education. We are now dealing in a crude game of gaps, numbers, graphs, comparisons, data and outcomes, all of which are politically driven and motivated by a desire for marginal gains designed to appease voters, in which the principles and purposes of Scottish education could be lost for a generation.

Which leads me on to the issue of equity. The narrow focus we currently have on the ‘Attainment Gap’ rather crassly presents poverty as a technical challenge to be counter-acted by increasing the effectiveness of teaching and assessment strategies. There is no doubt that effective teaching is part of the solution, but it must be understood in the overall context which is that teachers and pupils are working in the some of the most socially unjust circumstances in Western Europe.

Educational equity does not simply mean that everybody should get five Highers. If we are serious about equity being one of the core purposes of education we need to think way beyond academic attainment. Equity is about fairness, justice and inclusion. It is about ensuring that education serves to enhance the wellbeing of all of us and not just a few of us. It is about understanding and challenging the broader structures of power that serve to perpetuate various categories of inequality.

How then do we achieve equity in education? Here are some thoughts as a starter-for-ten:

  • All educators should be empowered and encouraged to actively advocate and campaign for the rights of children and young people, illuminating and challenging the unjust circumstances in which so many children and young people are living. This would involve supporting teachers, for instance, in refining their understanding of children’s rights and social justice issues, and being equipped with an in-depth understanding of the material and psychological impact of poverty on children and families. I would argue that the contents of courses such as Edinburgh University’s BA in Childhood Practice and University of Glasgow’s MSc in Youth Studies should be standard issue for all educators.
  • We need to develop a broader narrative that goes beyond issues of effectiveness in education. The pressures and disadvantages of ‘performativity’ in education are well documented. This means constantly revisiting the values, principles, purposes and meaning of education – and trusting educators to act on the basis of those principles, not just in response to targets, benchmarks and/or Key Performance Indicators.
  • Education policy should be understood as part of a broader project of social change. This means aligning education policy in concert with other policies that are designed to create equity across the system more generally and, vitally, eradicating poverty. The only way to do this is by implementing progressive policies that are designed to redistribute wealth more equally across society. In keeping with that overall mission, education policy should be developed on the basis of a social, humanistic model rather than an industrial/accountability model (these points are further argued here as part of the Common Weal Policy Lab on education and inequality).
  • During a period of politicisation of education, educators should be free to ‘get political’ in their responses. We cannot escape the fact that public state education will always be political. There are many educators in Scotland who would quietly subscribe to the theories of Critical Pedagogy and Critical Democratic Education – but I would argue that the associated practices are notably absent in Scottish education. We have a well-meaning but ultimately subservient group of professionals who are desperately trying to make things better by working within the confines of the status quo. We need more people who are willing to speak out against injustices, mis-guided political tinkering and anything else that is clearly not in the best interests of the children, young people and communities that education is supposed to serve.
  • We need a much more diverse group of professionals working in education (institutions and policy making) and a more diverse educational offer. Teachers and education policy makers tend to be people for whom education has ‘worked’. They have made such a success of it that they return to it as a profession. There is a lot to celebrate here of course, but does it not make the task of meeting the needs of young people for whom the current system does not ‘work’ much more difficult? Who is there in the system that can really understand the situation of these young people and can act convincingly on their behalf?
  • The status and role of early years practice, youth work, vocational learning, adult education as well as ‘atypical’ models of education such as Folk Schools, Place-Based Learning and Kindergarten should be examined and strengthened where necessary. Scotland has typically developed its education policy by consensus building (noting the ‘con’ in consensus). The resulting one-size-fits-all approach may have worked for us in the past but now it seems outdated and, like many education systems around the world, in need of a serious rethink.

I said at the beginning of this post that I wanted to challenge the current narrative in Scottish education. I have argued that we should get back to the basics of values, principles and purposes and I have argued that we need to get serious about the issue of equity.

Comments are very welcome below as are online responses to this post using the hashtag #ignitingeducation – let’s spark a more open and meaningful dialogue.

Thank you for reading.

About the author

Gary is the creator of the Curriculum for Equity website. He is a freelance consultant and facilitator with particular interests in values, character development, social/emotional skills and social justice. He is a founding editor of #ScotEdChat (a weekly chat on Twitter about Scottish education) and the co-author of Speaking of Values. You can use the contact page to contact Gary directly.


Social Engineering – part 2 of 2⤴

from @ curriculum for equity

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by Ed Cadwallader

In a previous post I argued that social engineering is what schools do and the specific features our school system installs are hierarchy, passivity and atomisation. I ended by asking the question ‘what sort of society should we engineer?’ In this post I argue that our schools should try to engineer equality, the belief that our fellow citizens are no more or less valuable to society than ourselves; autonomy, the ability to work and self-organise without direction from authorities; and community, the habit of forming connexions to those around us through enjoyment of shared activities.

To achieve this requires an adjustment to the curriculum but it also requires a more fundamental change to the ethos of schooling. At the moment the purpose of school is to obtain grades in qualifications and where possible academic qualifications, as vocational ones are predominantly offered to those who have not been successful academically. A clear line can be drawn from academic ability, to good grades, to higher earning potential and thus to higher social status. School in its present form connects academic ability, which strongly correlates with having educated parents, to high social status. In order to engineer an equal society this ethos must be replaced with the starting premise that although we may not be equally capable as workers or thinkers, we are equally valuable as citizens.

There is, and will always be, a wide difference between the best and worse academic performers so in order for the contention that we are equal to be credible, the curriculum must be broadened beyond academic study, for all children. Rather than a vocational component, that trains children for a specific occupation, this should be a practical one that, like its academic counterpart, provides children with knowledge and skills applicable to a broad range of future paths. For this, I propose that children should, in teams of four or five, set up and run small businesses. At primary level these would operate within school, using school issued currency then at secondary children would move on to the real world and make real money.

Running businesses would develop children’s ability to agree a shared goal and work with other people to achieve it, to organise themselves and to build strong relationships with clients, by making realistic promises and honouring them. Such a feature of the curriculum would help correct the natural inequality that bedevils school in its current form. Despite the worthy efforts of Growth Mindset advocates there is a weak relationship between effort and academic reward; a child with an IQ of 140 can, with minimal effort, outperform a herculean striver with an IQ of 70. In a practical endeavour like running a business the correlation between effort and outcome is much stronger, all children would grow up knowing that, whatever their natural gifts, they can be successful if they are prepared to work hard.

Fostering equality amongst members of a school community also requires changes to the way the academic curriculum is delivered. Not its content, all children deserve to study the best that has been thought and said, but its mode of assessment. Making grades the ultimate objective of study reduces the motivation of all who are given average or below average grades, with the strongest discouragement accompanying the lowest attainment. Grades should therefore be abolished. Exploring relationships and the mind through great works of literature, deepening our understanding of society by gaining knowledge of the past, stripping the world down to abstraction in maths and then testing abstract theory through scientific experiment, all this and more is its own reward and it is a reward we should not dare to taint with badges of inferiority.

I have heard it argued that as kids know who is bright and who is dim it makes no difference that these judgments are crystallised into letters and numbers. I disagree. Making what is implicitly understood explicit and public makes a powerful difference. Consider a football team. All the players know who the best and worst players are, yet all can enjoy playing together. However, if the coach gave each player an individual mark out of ten at the end of every game, the team would quickly fall apart, poisoned by envy and stigma that do not exist when players’ individual merits are left ambiguous.

The curriculum changes necessary to engineer equality can also be a driver for greater autonomy. Currently all work in school is set by those in authority and in the academic sphere this is, to an extent, inevitable. Students don’t know the best that has been thought and said and so cannot be expected to spontaneously choose to study it. In the practical sphere, in contrast, no such explicit direction is necessary. Students can be given a remit of deciding a shared goal, which could be to make money or launch a social enterprise, and the freedom to pursue it. The opportunity to choose what they want to achieve and to solve whatever obstacles the real world presented would show children that work does not have to be bestowed by those in authority, it is something we can define for ourselves.

Creating a student economy would also allow children direct experience of a fundamental right and responsibility of a citizen in a democracy, that of choosing a government with the power to tax and spend. Allowing students to confront in practice the questions of ‘how much of our earnings should we keep and how much should be dedicated towards a common fund?’ and ‘how can we ensure that the money we pool is spent wisely?’ would raise citizens better equipped to be full participants in our democracy by dispelling the notion, implicit in current school structure, that the world runs as it does because of the decisions of powerful others, made behind closed doors.

Many schools shy from student democracy, or permit it only in heavily constrained form, because of the antipathy of many students towards school. But that antipathy is a product of hierarchy, that tells a few they are bright and successful and most that they are average or worse. A school that treats its pupils with equal respect would face no such impediment to responsible student government.

School can engineer a sense of community by fostering connexions formed by enjoyment of shared activities. Having children work together, towards shared goals, rather than solely towards individual ones facilitates this. Schools could go further by using the arts as bridges to the wider community. Instead of using Art, Music and Drama lessons to produce work to be assessed they can be used to produce work to be displayed, played and performed. The point of the arts is not to master skills and techniques, doing so is a means to achieve a broader goal of expressing ourselves and congregating with people to experience the joy those skills allow us to create.

Student leadership in organising such arts events would develop the skills and habit of bringing members of the community together to celebrate our shared culture. The house system provides a further opportunity to develop this organisational capacity and to extend it to the sports field. Dividing students into teams (‘houses’) and organising competitions between those teams, rather than just having school ones, raises by an order of magnitude the number of opportunities to participate. More participation means more connexions, a broader set of people united by a shared pastime.

Communities are strong and harmonious to the extent that their members know and interact with each other, but such interactions do not always happen organically, especially when populations are mobile and have diverse cultures and languages. By making the development of those connexions, and the skills to carry on making them, an explicit goal of schooling we would make our society happier and more at peace with itself.

How we structure school has profound implications for the nature of the society we live in. Almost everything a child learns about the world beyond their family they learn at school. This learning encompasses what is explicitly taught in the curriculum and what is implicitly understood about our relationships with the authorities and one another. Therefore to work in Education is to be a social engineer, whether we balk at that responsibility or embrace its challenge. I believe we should engineer a society of people who respect one another as equals, who respect authority but understand it is their duty not to bow to it unquestioningly and who seek out their neighbours, knowing that the connexions they’ll form are the foundation of their security and happiness.

About the author

Ed Cadwallader is an Educational Consultant who advises schools on assessment and curriculum design. He is interested in history, economics and the dangers that lurk around the corners of modernity. You can follow Ed on Twitter @Cadwalladered and his personal blog is Kingdom of Even.

 


Social Engineering – part 1 of 2⤴

from @ curriculum for equity

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by Ed Cadwallader

To say that a policy is ‘social engineering’ is to say that it is bad, with no further explanation required. This strikes me as strange because social engineering is a very apt description of what schools do. The curriculum is a competition between individuals to see who’s top and who’s bottom. Children born to middle class parents are usually taught that they are at the top, their work is valuable and they can expect to have stable, well-paid employment in the future. Children born to poorer parents are far likelier to grow up with the mirror image of that experience, their academic performance denoting that they are inferior, less valuable citizens. School provides our formative understanding of how we as citizens relate to those in authority and each other. The way school is structured ensures three prominent features are embedded in these relationships: atomisation, passivity and hierarchy.

The overwhelming focus of our school system is exam results, that is the grades we receive to denote our individual achievement. Virtually all jobs involve working with other people towards shared goals, yet for the first fifteen odd years of our working lives we are taught to conceive of attainment in purely personal terms. Later on, our employers invest huge sums in making us more effective collaborators, effectively trying to unteach us the conception of work as a solo enterprise that we learned as children. Of course, schools to varying degrees engage their pupils in group work to try and foster these elusive team-working skills, but this if anything exacerbates the problem because the groups in question have no identity and their achievement no meaning. The lesson of group work is that working with other people is a means to achieve our own targets, the group is the tool of the individual rather than the other way around.

As well as raising us as atomised workers, school makes us passive ones. The tasks to be completed are defined by those in authority as is the quality of our responses. Pupils are taught in minute detail how to pass the particular exams chosen by their school. The lesson they absorb while doing so is that work means doing precisely what you’ve been to do, the way you’ve been told to do it. This passivity extends to disputes between pupils, as the correct response to any such disagreement is ‘tell a teacher’. The authorities at school assume the responsibility for all matters of student life, great and small. When problems arise in society, often problems caused by the way we as citizens behave, a cry goes up of ‘something must be done!’ This is the learned reaction of people who have formed their idea of how society works in a benign autocracy.

Atomisation and passivity weaken the fabric of society but their negative impact pales in comparison with the most damaging feature that school engineers into our relations with one another: hierarchy. It is simple to rank children based on school performance from best to worst. The language we use to describe them – ‘high ability’ ‘low attainer’ – makes this clear and it is a hierarchy of status, those we label as high achieving will gain secure, professional employment while ‘low achievers’ can expect insecure employment or none at all. A child’s position in the hierarchy determines their relationship with those in authority, as those treated with respect grow up to be respectful and those shamed with contempt become oppositional and defiant. The fact that the prison population is overwhelmingly made up of the latter group is usually explained by a deficiency of learning, lacking a good education these people turned to crime. But many people immigrate without qualifications and they don’t show the same propensity to commit crimes. Rather than what the lowest attainers didn’t learn at school we should think about what they did, the humiliating lesson they are considered the bottom of the social pile. If that was your formative experience of a society how much respect for that society and its values would you have?

Divisions of status harden into a class chasm because they not only affect how we relate to authority, but also how we relate to one another. Equality is a necessary condition for friendship and so the child who gets As is very rarely friends with her peer who gets Fs. As adults those who were successful in education and grew up to exercise control over the education system are untroubled by personal connections to those who are so ill served by it. Meanwhile, working class children who have the ability to succeed within the system are placed in the unenviable position of being asked to say to their friends and family ‘I’m going to leave you behind in poverty and go and join a separate, higher class of people’, if they are to pursue the social mobility that middle class system designers have decided they, but not their friends and family, deserve.

School engineers a divided society of citizens ill equipped to challenge established power structures, with fear and antagonism on both sides of the line that separates those who passed from those who failed. Social engineering is not an occasional threat posed by changes to university admissions procedures, it is a feature of modern society.

Though the responsibility is great and terrible the question educators must ask themselves is: what sort of society should we engineer?

About the author

Ed Cadwallader is an Educational Consultant who advises schools on assessment and curriculum design. He is interested in history, economics and the dangers that lurk around the corners of modernity. You can follow Ed on Twitter @Cadwalladered and his personal blog is Kingdom of Even.


Going up: Improving Scotland’s Attainment Levels⤴

from @ curriculum for equity

by Jackie Brock

Confession time. I believe fervently in the importance of attainment and achievement. I detest the way our education system marches our young people through an increasingly narrow range of options to the extent that on results day their learning journey – and its success – is judged by their grades at national and higher levels.

As a mum, my rhetorical views, have been challenged by this year’s Results Day and my child’s “disappointing” grades.

My rose-tinted assumption of a smooth journey to university was overturned. My annoyance that his school could have been more challenging and supportive clouded all the great achievements of the previous years.

Then, of course, we got moving. We explored all the options, identified a college course and life again feels full of possibilities.

But I don’t want to lose sight of how quickly my fundamental beliefs were challenged and, if I am not alone, how much we have to do to get behind the Scottish Government’s ambition to improve excellence and equity in our schools, early years settings, colleges and universities.

I have no doubt, now more than ever, that we need changes to be made in Scotland’s education system and changes in how we value and reward success among children and young people.

For me the question is who is our education system for? If it is for every child then how are we valuing the achievements and attainment of every child? Saying things like “university isn’t for everyone” or “there are some very good colleges”, is incredibly patronising and in no way demonstrates value. Beware: every young person and parent has antennae that can pick up tokenism instantly.

A critical starting point is the engagement of parents.

Recently I had the pleasure of chatting to volunteers who had been working in schools over the last year. One of those present was also the Chair of his child’s school’s parent council who said how pleased he was with his own child’s learning and the way in which teachers were monitoring and supporting progress.

I later outed myself as once being a civil servant who had been involved in the implementation of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). I told him that I had rarely heard a parent talk so positively and knowledgably and it was a great sign that progress is being made.

We always knew that once we reached a tipping point with parents buying-in to the benefits of CfE, we would have succeeded. While it’s great to have international recognition that our system is innovative – for me, nothing beats a child, young person or parent speaking passionately about the benefits of CfE for their learning.

The Scottish Government is right to focus on priority curriculum areas, such as those highlighted last year by the OECD – literacy, numeracy and the uptake of mathematics. The equity gap between most and least disadvantaged, as well as between girls and boys is also critical to address, which is why we need to retain our efforts to improve wellbeing. As well as all the other benefits, these are real, tangible improvements which parents can buy into and feel increasingly that Scotland’s education is doing right by their child.

Before the summer, the Scottish Education Secretary John Swinney published the government’s plan to deliver excellence and equity in Scottish education. Many of these ideas are reinforced in his formal Education Delivery plan. The extension of the Scottish Attainment Challenge is also underway.

Announcing the Programme for Government to Scottish Parliament yesterday, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also reminded of her promises around nursery provision, and school reforms. These include the provision of a qualified teacher or childcare graduate in nurseries in deprived communities as well as plans to consult on a new funding formula for schools in 2017.

These are all welcome developments but it is crucial that we take the action needed that will take forward the practical support required to support families and schools in areas of deprivation.

In early years we need to focus on reinforcing the opportunities for our toddlers to learn through play. We need to extinguish the notion that time spent playing is time wasted. It has very real and evidenced social and developmental benefits. We need to recognise this and enhance the opportunities available for some of our youngest learners. 

We need to support parents to support their children. Helping develop parents’ confidence will enable them to better support their children’s learning. Equally, secondary schools need to work closely with parents to make sure they know about their achievements as well as their attainment and make sure that parents can feel confident in how they can support their children around their choices and, particularly on results day, play their part in responding constructively and supporting options, if the results are unexpected.

School leaders must have the very best access to evidence for improving literacy, numeracy and health and well-being. We need to emphasise whole-school approaches and share more widely what’s working on a practical level, and what’s getting the best results.

We need to build on the best of the support currently provided, such as the brilliant work and support on offer from the Scottish Book Trust and the Paired Reading programmes provided through Scottish Business in the Community.

Finally, we need to reduce the bureaucracy which can inhibit school leaders working with the third sector. There are a number of wonderful resources available through the third sector but increased bureaucracy often means partnerships can be too difficult, cumbersome or simply too time-consuming for school leaders to negotiate.

By bringing together the coalition of partners who want to support schools, communities and families, and reducing bureaucracy in education, we can start to plan practical action that will help deliver in areas of deprivation and where the attainment gap is most evident.

These should in turn improve overall attainment levels for pupils in Scotland and increase the opportunities available to them.

If we are all better at navigating the education system, valuing every stage of the learning journey and engaged meaningfully with parents, it might even bring stress levels on Results Day down a notch.

About the author

Jackie Brock is Chief Executive of Edinburgh based charity, Children in Scotland. She took up post with the charity after 12 years in the civil service, during which she led on the development of Curriculum for Excellence in her position as Deputy Director of Learning and Support. Jackie’s key priorities are improving educational attainment, tackling child poverty and improving the early years.

Follow Children in Scotland on Twitter @cisweb, and Jackie @jackiejbrock


Tackling inequity is the responsibility of us all⤴

from @ curriculum for equity

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by Jackie Brock

I was delighted to attend Scotland’s education summit on 15 June. What a tribute to Scotland’s commitment to children, young people and their education. How many other countries would be able to bring together the leadership of all our political parties represented in our Parliament together with key professionals, parent and third sector representatives?

It was also timely and important to hear from Andy Hargreaves of the OECD that, internationally, Scotland is “well ahead of the curve” in relation to our progressive and far-reaching reforms, principally Curriculum for Excellence and achieving outcomes.

But, he warned, if we are to maintain this, Scotland must be bold and clear in relation to developing a system, which shows how effective every aspect of the education system is in securing improved outcomes.

I suspect that there will be considerable debate and discussion before agreement on this system is achieved, and for our part, Children in Scotland will work with its members on contributing to this. However, what provided most of us present with considerable food for thought, were the reflections of the Head Teacher of Craigroyston High School, who hosted the summit.

He reminded us that his school’s successful work in raising the attainment of young people was a single-minded focus on how the school could do their best to make sure that young people left school with every opportunity to fulfil their potential –whether through work, further or higher education. Alongside this, he reminded us that his day-to-day work involved engaging with the diverse range of community groups and employers who can offer the school support and resources. The school is the first point of contact when any of the young people have experienced any problems out of school – contact from local agencies is a daily occurrence.

It made me think about what we want from our schools and how we need to support them in the challenge of reducing attainment.

We heard from the First Minister and Deputy First Minister that while the reasons for the inequality faced by children are outside the school, the school is one very important route to remove these inequalities. So how do we support them better?

Firstly, it’s important to remember that every state school in Scotland faces inequalities. One of the fantastic aspects of Scotland’s education system is our commitment to comprehensive education. So, schools reflect their communities. But no matter how affluent their community, every school should review its approach to make sure that every child gets the same opportunities, no matter what their background or home address is.

Around a quarter of Scotland’s secondary and primary schools serve communities with high concentrations of multiple deprivation. That’s around 100 secondary schools and around 500 primary schools.

The National Improvement Framework and Raising Attainment for All has recognised this in its first tranche of funding. Funding is important – but it is so much more than that and the next steps need to look at the extent to which we are supporting the school leadership in these schools.

In our experience, the school leaders who thrive in serving these schools are those who are active and passionate champions for their children and young people. They are shameless entrepreneurs (in the best possible sense) – consistently seeking out opportunities to work with those people and organisations who will support their school and will lever in additional resources. They understand about partnership working. Equally, they reject the old image of a “Fortress School”. They actively enable leadership amongst their pupils, extending opportunities to the children and young people of their school to be leaders of their learning. They welcome and encourage parental engagement in all aspects of their school.

The school leadership are genuinely not just leaders in their school but are leaders of a school which is at the heart of its community – but are we providing enough support to them?

To what extent, do our expectations of school leaders and their training and development equip them for this community role?

What systems are in place within local authorities, community planning partnerships and within the third sector to enable the school leadership to exercise their role?

Do we make it easier or harder for school leaders to navigate their way through setting up an after school activity or bringing the very best employment partnership to meet the school’s particular needs?

There is so much to learn from the thousands of successful school and community partnerships. At Children in Scotland we recognise that if we can free up as much time as possible for school leaders, such as completing the paperwork for funding applications; organizing meetings; project managing, this then gives them the time to focus on making sure the support works for children. This is often overlooked by the third sector and we need to factor it in to our support. Never underestimate the relief we can provide by reducing any bureaucracy and making more time for teachers to be with children or young people, doing what they do best.

The Scottish Government’s Delivery Plan in this area is to be published by the end of June. A key element of this has to be about focusing on how we provide practical support to school in areas of significant deprivation – only through this targeted intervention, and sharing of the load, will we make a significant contribution to reducing inequality.

About the author

Jackie Brock is Chief Executive of Edinburgh based charity, Children in Scotland. She took up post with the charity after 12 years in the civil service, during which she led on the development of Curriculum for Excellence in her position as Deputy Director of Learning and Support. Jackie’s key priorities are improving educational attainment, tackling child poverty and improving the early years.

Follow Children in Scotland on Twitter @cisweb, and Jackie @jackiejbrock.


Do we really want equity in education?⤴

from @ curriculum for equity

by George Gilchrist

We are experiencing a time in education where equity and the closing of attainment gaps for those learners who are facing the most challenging of social circumstances, seems to be high on everyone’s agenda. Much research has been produced and papers written about the negative impacts experienced by young people from the most deprived backgrounds on their learning and educational achievement. In Scotland, the paper produced by Sue Ellis and Edward Sosu in 2014 Closing the attainment gap in Scottish education for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is but one example of what the research is showing us all. In  Scotland, we have established centres of excellence and research such as the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change set up within Glasgow University, which has a vision and a remit of promoting equity and social inclusion within education systems, both in Scotland and further afield. We have a first minister, and government, who have committed to eliminating attainment and achievement gaps that exist within our education system and who have produced various policy documents, such as Getting It Right For Every Child and a National Improvement Framework which set out their determination to tackle the problem of inequality of opportunity for many of our learners, raise attainment and close those gaps. A lot of the impetus for this has been driven by and  been influenced by what we have seen happening in the Finnish education system. Consistently near the top of international rankings, Finland has been seen to put equity of opportunity and provision at the top of its own rankings of characteristics that make a difference in their education system and schools.

What we have in Scotland is an alignment of policy, institutions and systems that all have the issue of equity at their heart. So it should be. I don’t know about you, but I never entered education thinking I was going to try and disadvantage a significant section of our learners, or society. Fortunately, I have never met many teachers or colleagues who have thought any differently either. We all came into education because of our love of learning and our desire to make a difference for all our learners, so how come these gaps exist and what’s the problem with where we are now in Scotland and elsewhere?

I would like to suggest that the gaps that exist are a result of a combination of factors, and not just educational ones. Though we do have to hold our hands up and accept a portion of the blame. I attended a lecture by Stephen Ball in Glasgow recently and he pointed out that the responsibility that could be laid at the doors of our education system and schools for the equity gaps that exist represented just 11 to 15% of the causes of that gap. The rest of it was attributable to societal factors such as poverty, the class system, government policy, health, culture, history and the like. Sue and Edward, in their paper mentioned above, noted that the OECD had already identified that socio-economic factors have a greater impact on educational attainment than the schools which learners attended. Both Ellis and Sosu, and the OECD, felt that education was still a crucial factor. There is no doubt that this is true, but we should listen to the caution of Stephen Ball and not be drawn in to laying all the blame, and the focus, at the door of our schools and our teachers. Many of the gaps, in terms of literacy, verbal reasoning and problem solving are already in place by the time children enter our schools, and we are playing catch up from that point. That said, we can make a difference and should never give up striving to make a difference for all our learners.

For too many years, some teachers and schools reduced their expectations for some learners purely because of their backgrounds, where they lived, and the socio-economic groups they came from. I actually remember being in a lecture as a trainee teacher in the early 1970s and being told that some learners couldn’t be expected to achieve as much as others because of their backgrounds. When I questioned this and said I didn’t think that was fair, I was laughed at and told that this was just a fact of life and of course we couldn’t do anything about it. Fortunately we are a bit more enlightened now and have moved on from such narrow thinking and, just like we now understand intelligence as no longer being fixed, neither should the link between attainment and socio-economic background be seen as predetermined or set in stone.

However, I do feel our systems, structures, practices and curriculum have put more barriers in the way of our most disadvantaged learners. Often these have been equal, but not equitable. For many years we have developed all these systems and structures in our schools and have expected all our learners to engage with them, and dare I say conform, in exactly the same way. If you got it, and it worked for you, then you succeeded, if not the opposite happened. Now, many of us recognise that when learners are not engaging with planned learning, it’s not their problem, it’s ours. We need to shape and structure our learning so that it is accessible to all, and that means we need to really know our learners and where they are in their personal learning journey. If we believe, as I do, that much of the curriculum and learning that takes place in schools is ‘hidden’ in the culture and ethos of the school, then we need to make sure all of this is accessible to all learners. We need to examine everything we do in school and ensure it is truly accessible for all. That doesn’t mean we stop doing things because some are unable to access them for economic reasons, but we should be aware of this and explore all ways we can to ensure everyone has the same opportunities, no matter their background and circumstances. We need to value each individual learner and what each brings and takes from every learning episode, some of which will be deliberately planned and some of it at a subliminal level.

Currently we have an awful lot of rhetoric around the issues of equity and closing of gaps. Trouble is a lot of the strategies that are being proposed and supported to achieve this in Scotland may do the opposite. Every educational system that has gone down the road of high-stakes testing, increased accountability measures and more top-down direction, informed by cherry-picked research, has delivered lowered attainment levels and widening gaps. If we look to USA, Australia, Sweden and England as examples, the harm of such approaches can be readily seen. So to see Scotland beginning to travel down the same road is concerning and dispiriting for what we are all trying to achieve. Add to this the fact that education budgets and resources are facing cuts of a severity that make it more and more difficult to support all those who need and would benefit from it, and the impacts could be catastrophic. We see local authority after local authority cutting support available to our students, removing qualified teachers from nurseries, closing libraries, cutting home-school link workers and more, whilst still ratching up the accountability demands on teachers and leaders. The media is full of sound bites and more rhetoric about what is going to be demanded of teachers and schools, when the reality is that the people and resources to deliver on this is being cut deliberately, or by stealth. How can we get it right for every child, if we can’t support the ones who need it?

Add to that depressing picture the fact that those families and children most at risk are facing another barrage of cuts and financial stresses at home, and I am concerned about our ability as a society to meaningfully address this issue. In the face of changes in support and benefit systems, rising prices for food and accommodation, wage stagnation, attacks on the National Health Service, the rise in the use of food-banks and the almost demonisation of poverty by some media and politicians, it can feel in education  like putting your finger in the dyke with regard to trying to close gaps caused by disadvantage. If we are really serious about this, it requires political, social cultural and system change. Is everyone up for that? I don’t think so, not yet. There are significant vested interests that will be adverse to this disturbance of the status quo. So, whilst we may look and sound as though we are tackling the issue, in reality there is a lot of tinkering at the edges and not enough real and meaningful action. The fact that the dialogue by so many is solely focused on schools and education is another distraction that Stephen Ball cautioned against. But, I suppose, it deflects many from the real causes of, and actions required, to address the issue of equity and closing the gaps. At the moment it feels like schools and teachers are getting all of the blame, but I wonder who will receive the credit if anything actually does happen to those gaps? If they really do close in a meaningful way, everyone will deserve credit, because it’s only through changed thinking and actions of all that this is going to happen.

Let’s get on with it!

About the author

George Gilchrist is a primary school Headteacher based in the Scottish Borders. He is a Fellow of the Scottish College for Educational Leadership and a member of the Board for the Scottish Parent Teacher Council. He thinks, writes, speaks and blogs about education, leadership, learning and how we might improve. You can follow George on Twitter @GilchristGeorge and his blog School Leadership – A Scottish Perspective.