It’s important to stress, as I’ll go on to discuss Water Humes’ recent article ‘Seven reasons why Scottish education is under-performing’ , that I don’t think that our education is failing. However, that it is ‘under-performing’ may or may not be up for discussion and it would be difficult to argue that it has been flawed in its implementation. I tweeted last week that I agreed with each of Humes’ seven reasons but I want to go further by dealing with each in separate posts. These are just a collection of thoughts, so please argue with me if the need is there.
1. Failure to learn from the past
I’m cheating slightly here but I wrote about this very subject about six years ago. There was a danger of us ignoring the voices of ‘previous reforms’ at the time, something I compared to ‘The Diderot Effect’. The Diderot Effect stems from a short essay called ‘Regrets on Parting with my Old Dressing Gown’, by French Philosopher, Denis Diderot. In it, the writer contemplates his life choices after the gift of an expensive new dressing gown plunges him into debt and despair. He’s delighted with the new gift but starts to believe that this beautiful new thing has begun to make everything else look dreary and old. The essay deals with his quest to replace his possessions with shiny new things, in the hope that his new gown won’t seem so out of place. He descends into poverty and ruin.
It seems to me that part of the difficulty in ‘implementing’ the Curriculum for Excellence, or any shiny new curriculum really, has been the assumption when any great change takes place, that everything that came before it is now defunct – dreary and old, in effect. Experienced teachers have every right to feel slighted by this, even if it is only a perception. A situation should never arise where previous practice is dismissed, whether that is done mistakenly or not. Effective ways of informing, collaborating and engaging with teachers have been missed. Communication has come across as flawed but it is not too late. The biggest challenges still to come are surely in preserving the best bits of what is happening and merging them with newer ideas.
There are those who may cry ‘I told you so’ but we ignore experience at our peril. This ‘arrogant sense that the past has little to teach us’ has come to pass but it is not too late. A mature and robust education system must be able to admit that mistakes have been made: if there are flaws then we can fix them. But let’s not ignore the voices who’ve been though change. Diderot’s character merely changed a dressing gown. We have so much more to lose.
On the first day of teaching practice in 1998, in the school at which I still teach, I entered the staff room nervously, eventually sitting down beside a kindly gentleman who greeted me warmly. We chatted for a while before he offered me some advice: get your jacket on and go and do something else. Teaching will ruin your life. Of course I was shocked and outraged; I looked upon what I assumed to be a cynical old fool and vowed that that would never happen to me. We went on to be friends over the next few years until he retired, but I never got over that first meeting, especially when I got to know this brilliant man who had been worn down by the education system.
Twenty years on and I can understand what he meant. Continuous change is exhausting and often demoralising. It often feels – like a repeat of ‘It’s a Knockout’ (wee joke for the kids) – that, while we’re trying to do our jobs there seems to be buckets of water being thrown over us from all angles. It’s so easy to allow yourself to become cynical and forget the younger teacher who walked in to the staff room for the first time. But we have to try. It’s why I like to mentor new teachers; they often remind me of me.
I wrote a post yesterday about where I thought we should be going in Scotland and what it might take to get there. I wanted to make the point that we should be prepared to push aside all of our resentments and gripes, all of our reasons to be cynical – of which there are many – and be prepared take control of our curriculum. It will take a huge shift in policy and approach to allow us to do that and it may well be naive; but whoever got anywhere without a bit of that. They may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one…
I hope that message came across in the post but I’m not sure I made that totally clear. I’m not asking for time; I’m not asking for a period of stability; I’m not even asking for any specific changes to the curriculum. I want to see a period where we take what we have now and start to talk about how it fits the needs of our children. We can debate forever whether the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence has been good or bad, how we’ve spent an inordinate time on S4-6 assessment, whether consultation has been non-existent or not. I’m bored with that. It’s like a revolving door of resentments – perceived or not – and it’s getting us no where.
So in a year where we will have pay discussions, we should, as part of a modern day ‘McCrone Settlement’ be prepared to demand a say on the future of the curriculum. We should make promises that we will engage with research if we are given the space to do so – more teachers required please. I understand that there’s a lot of resentment out there, often rightly so, about time wasted. But if there’s a real chance of a curriculum approaching anywhere near ‘Excellent’ then it’s worth fighting for.
A few years ago, I bumped into that crusty old teacher. He’d gone back to Uni to study something he loved and he looked twenty years younger. He’d been burned out by the system. I don’t want that to happen to me. I want to look back and be proud that I was part of something special.
There’s a tendency to slip into absolutes in education: this works, that doesn’t; this has failed, that’s a success. In Scotland, it’s remarkable to notice that if , on Twitter, you make a positive comment about our curriculum, the same people will retweet and ‘like’; similarly, if you tweet a comment seemingly negative about CfE, there are the same names who jump in behind it. It’s not an especially healthy forum for debate. And, while we convince ourselves that, no matter what ‘side’ we’re on, we are right, it’s likely that both sides are probably wrong. Is there a point where we have to sit down and talk about why we might be wrong if we really want to make things right?
That situation is not helped by overblown, hyperbolic headlines about betraying a generation; I see enough wonderful things happening in our schools to know that that is nonsense. But to bury our heads in the sand and ignore our responsibilities to discuss the direction of travel is worrying. This week Professor Walter Humes threw his twopence into the debate. Seven Reasons Why Scottish Education is underperforming It raises a host of difficult challenges which may rest uncomfortably with some, but I find it difficult to agree with most of it.
Of course it is easy to dig our heels in and ignore these questions; after all, we often dislike to venture outside of our comfort zones. But to see these issues not as criticisms but genuine attempts to take us on to the next stage, with unity and purpose, is an opportunity not to be passed aside. There are incredible things happening in Scottish Education, inspirational. Our focus on Health and Well-Being is truly a wonderful thing; SCEL is changing the way we learn as teachers; and many more. But there are undoubtedly issues with Literacy; there are issues with how we look after our teachers’ Health and Well being and how we allow them to take part in the process of change. It would be foolish to ignore those.
Teachers’ disquiet stems from a long term perception that our own knowledge and skills and experience are often by-passed by the next strategy or next ‘big thing’. We work ourselves into the ground for our pupils but, while we are allegedly ‘consulted’ about changes in the curriculum, things come to us from above, with an edict to implement. We may have been involved in the process of implementation but our views on pedagogical relevance are rarely sought. We have no emotional involvement in changes, no awareness that our prior experience has been taken to consideration. It’s not difficult to see why as professionals, we feel deflated and marginalised.
Real change takes hard work; it’s not a document or a directive. As teachers we should be taking more responsibility to try and make sure our voices are heard on pedagogy. We are a talented, professional and vastly experienced work-force. However, it is essential that we are also a questioning profession. That doesn’t mean we don’t like what’s going on; it means that we want our say and we want to be a part of the process. In a year when teachers’ pay is once again about to be a huge focus of the public discourse, our ability to shape our own future is more important than ever. If teachers are given the time and space to shape the future of our curriculum, unlike in the shallow, piecemeal way we’ve had for the last few years, then we are capable of shaping the the futures of the children in our classrooms. And, remember, they deserve no less.
Get past this first paragraph: it’s not what you think.
I have a really nice house and have just had and incredibly comfortable, happy Christmas break. I’m dabbling with learning to play piano and often listen to Jazz, classical music less so. I try and eat healthily, for the most part, and have money in the bank. I enjoy gardening have a season ticket at my football team, occasionally listen to Radio 4 and get annoyed at Question Time. I am, to all intents and purposes, living the archetypal Middle Class Life and, while I grew up in a reasonably comfortable working class background, I recognise that I have ‘escaped’ a life I could have had.
I teach in the area in which I grew up and would have attended this school. I see problems with inequality all the time, recognise the poverty gap and want to support our Government’s attempts to narrow that gap. Inequality means we have a huge imbalance in our society: an imbalance of wealth, opportunity, services, voice. While school is a core part in society it must never be seen as the hub of all our problems but we do have our part to play. As an individual I have a responsibility to do what I can to help alleviate society’s problems. But what am I prepared to do?
Those in poverty very often see schools as the enemy; that might seem extreme but it’s true. Parents who’ve had generational resentments of authority see us offering something which is not for them. Families with unemployment running through generations look upon educational aspiration as a middle class conceit. They don’t believe that their cultural heritage- whatever that may be – is valued and see themselves being mocked and derided; the fast food they eat, the TV they watch, the way they talk. To say that education is the way out of that mindset is naive and misguided.
As educated professionals, it is easy to think that we have all the answers, that we know what’s best. What if we gave up that ‘voice’ in order to listen to the problems of our communities? How often do we really listen to the concerns of the parents of our students, instead of voicing annoyance when they don’t turn up to Parents Evenings? How do we create communities where teachers have to give up some of their free time to go and listen to these communities? Would that be a sacrifice? Would that help us understand?
Would we be willing to pay a little extra in tax if we we’re convinced that it would improve the lot of our poorer communities? We see high tax societies working well in Scandinavia but shudder at the thought of paying more here. Why is that? Because we’re not convinced our Government would put it to good use? Because we don’t see evidence of it yet? What would change?
If we are serious about alleviating poverty and improving the lives of those who live in poorer areas then how much are we really prepared to do? How much are we willing to sacrifice? As educators we have the knowledge and the tools to help but need to involve ourselves in the lives of our students and their families. Otherwise the gap will widen. And keep doing so.
If we are serious about closing the attainment gap and alleviating poverty then those of us in a position to do so will need to make some sacrifices. It’s not enough to get annoyed at Question Time or, dare I say it, write emotional blog posts. Otherwise let’s stop wringing our hands and pretending we care.
As we enter 2018, wearily and warily, we face up to the prospect of new Scottish Government proposals for Education reform. At this stage, these proposals look something like this:
• Creating a Headteachers’ Charter (more autonomy for headteachers)
• Increased parent and community engagement in schools
• More pupil participation
• Regional Improvement Collaboratives (a way to help local authorities work together)
• Creating an Education Workforce Council for Scotland (to replace the General Teaching Council for Scotland)
Of course, this all stems from a very worthy policy of closing the attainment gap. However, I struggle to see how any of these ideas move beyond the concept of ‘sounds like a good idea’, and if there’s anything we really need to avoid in Scottish Education is a range of strategies which sound like they should be good.
I’m very privileged to be a teacher: I love my subject, get paid comfortably well, despite below inflation pay increases for too long to remember, my holidays are great. But, as a profession, we are overloaded with change, weary with the next thing. Perhaps what is most frustrating is the lack of real consultation – asking us to participate in something when we’re neck deep in work is not an acceptable scenario – about what we feel about that change and how we help bring it about rather than just as part of a delivery system. Without that, any reform is bound to get bogged down.
So where to now? What might be my suggestion? If we’re serious about narrowing the gap, serious about attempting to eradicate poverty, or at least alleviate it, then education is part of the solution, of course. Where we fall down is an ability to really come to a consensus as to what our curriculum means, what the key aims for Curriculum for Excellence were really all about, especially in the Broad General Education years, upon to the end of S3. What do we want for our children? Where do we want them to be? What do we want them know or be able to do?
Dozens and dozens of E’s and O’s – experiences and outcomes – are not helpful. They lead to confusion and misinterpretation. We need to nail this curriculum once and for all. Get educators in schools to sit down and talk about what it is. Get it in writing on one side of A4, ten bullet points at most. That’s all. Own it. Then stick to it, never veering off the page. Every school can then work out a path to achieve what’s on that page, creating local solutions to local problems. But never veer from that page. Keep BGE separate from exam years by all means, but BGE must be leading the way, not the other way around.
Of course, if we genuinely want to ‘close the attainment gap’ then we need to resource our curriculum properly, whatever that may take. If tackling poverty is a genuine aim then we need to throw everything behind a movement that will do that. If that means a move towards health and well-being issues for a time and less of a focus on the academic side then do it. But own it. There will be criticism; there will be a firestorm from those who will claim that it will be a race to the bottom. But what I’ve found in my time as a teacher is that unless we are united behind one way – and telling us to just get on with it never works – then it will be doomed to disappointment. There is a lot of good will in classrooms around Scotland; we want this to work. But we do have things to offer to the debate. Just give us the opportunity and listen.