Illuminate the Darkness – the need for Critical Pedagogy

tait coles @Totallywired77 - PuNk Learning

It has recently been brought to my attention that a Guardian piece I wrote over two years ago has resurfaced. Similar to when it was first published, there has been mixed responses to my writing, both in agreement and in opposition.

The idea that our education system is unfair has been supported by a recent CentreForum think-tank survey. It is important to consider the insidious use of data here to convince the humble consumer of fact that ‘our’ schools are failing ‘our’ kids’ – for ‘our’, read white. A discourse about how the use of data can be strategically used in the context of race and education is vital one; one that I am not going to attempt here. But, for reading on the subject please look no further than this piece by David Gillborn ‘The Monsterisation of Race Equality: How Hate Became Honourable’ in, The Runnymede School Report: Race…

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“Mind the Gap!” by Ken Cunningham CBE


by Ken Cunningham CBE

Visiting with some Texan friends in London the other weekend, I was forcibly reminded of a phrase that you can’t ignore as you travel round the London metro system – “Mind the gap” – spoken and frequently writ large! It all washed over me but to my American friends it was intriguing from several fronts. One because ‘gap’ does not necessarily mean the same to them and, to their added surprise, the gap they had to mind was never constant if indeed it was even there.

You can’t go far in Scotland these days without ‘minding the gap’ either. Hardly a day passes without some reference in education to ‘closing the gap’. Article after article; political volley after political volley; news report after news report. It has become the stick with which to beat a range of backs and upon which the credibility of the reigning powers will depend. Shame on all counts. Like much in politics and education, aspiration is quite a different beast from reality. Like motherhood and apple pie, Named Person and closing the gap, there are few who would disagree with the sentiments. However, many will argue over delivery and probably even definition. A bit like my American friends, there is no defined ‘gap’ as such, well none that doesn’t leave more questions than answers anyway, and the gap indeed is variable, often depending on who’s measuring and what, where you are, who you are and what you are.

And the reason for raising the issue is obvious. Therein lies equity’s greatest challenge. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Gary suggested in this first blog (maybe last depending on reaction!), I say something about my background, how that has been impacted by ‘curriculum and equity’ and some initial thoughts around its main challenges (I might have to do a second blog to deal with that…)

I’ve had a privileged and long career in education and every position has been impacted by the recognition of the effect of poverty, background and circumstances on the life chances of young people. And my very working class upbringing likewise. Having passed my ‘qualifying exam’ I was sent to the local senior secondary which delivered a wide range of courses allowing me access to university. After that brief stint at uni (another story), at the age of 19 I had the opportunity of teaching in a local junior secondary where I quickly realised just how big the gap in aspiration and ambition was.

That drove me into teaching as a career where I worked in a range of comprehensives with by far the greatest diversity of opportunity being in the city and including as an Assistant Headteacher in one of the poorest housing estates in Europe. It was a steep learning curve. When I moved into the Advisory service (as it was then), my Headteacher very wisely counselled me to work out quickly in my new post what real difference I would and could make to young people’s lives. That challenge never left me. I have seen it through that post, then in succession, directorate, inspectorate, head teacher and principal, General Secretary of School Leaders Scotland, and also Scottish Qualifications Authority throughout in various guises. But I have also seen it through a range of other third sector roles including as a Director/Trustee of Notre Dame Child Guidance, of Young Enterprise Scotland, of Children’s University Scotland, of the ICAS Foundation and most recently of Children 1st (RSSPCC). Every one of these exists for the main purpose of righting wrongs in children’s lives and improving equity. Different challenges; different issues; different responses; different measures for all of them.

If we get to a second blog, I’d like to explore these issues in their contexts. But let’s leave this with one thought. The biggest single difference ever made in lives were at an individual level, with individual interactions and a huge personal commitment from the teachers and workers who spent hours with each young person. The reinforced message: the quality of the professional at the point of contact makes all the difference. I’ve been blessed to have had the privilege to have seen many in action.

About the author

Dr Ken Cunningham CBE BEd MEd(Hons) DUniv FRSA FSQA is the former General Secretary of School Leaders Scotland. He has spent most of his working life in education having held a range of school posts as well as those of adviser, inspector, Chief Examiner and in local authority directorate. He was appointed General Secretary of School Leaders Scotland in 2008. He has Chaired and been a member of a range of Government Task and Steering Groups as well as Chair of Educational Broadcasting Council for Scotland, former Director and Vice Chair of Young Enterprise Scotland and Notre Dame Child Guidance Boards, a member of the Qualifications Committee of SQA and the SCHOLAR Advisory Board, and a Trustee/Director of ICAS Foundation, Children’s University Scotland, and Children 1st. He was for 15 years the Head and Principal of Hillhead High School and its learning community, during which time he oversaw the merger of two large secondary schools. He was awarded a CBE in recognition of his services to Scottish education in 2002.

Excellence with Equity: An Educational Imperative by Avis Glaze

by Dr. Avis Glaze
Edu-quest International Inc. Canada

As an educator for almost four decades, one of the areas that has concerned me most is the question of whether or not we can achieve both excellence and equity in school systems today.

I have a strong belief that we cannot truly say that we have an excellent school system if there is a long tail of failure, and, when we disaggregate the data, those at the bottom belong to specific demographic groups. These include boys, immigrants, girls, children from low socio-economic backgrounds or children with mental health concerns, to name a few. If some or any of these groups are clustered at the bottom of the achievement ladder, we cannot say that we have an equitable and inclusive system. That is a key measure of equity. For me, we cannot have excellence without equity.

Societal expectations are very high. In a recent discussion with Michael Fullan, I asked him what his thoughts were about school improvement, given his statement some years ago that schools should achieve 90-95% success. Michael’s response was that “The new mission for schools is to achieve 100% success, and to have specific explanations and strategies for addressing any figure that falls short of full success.”

I have long felt that the days of making excuses for low performance are long gone. We have the knowledge and skills to improve student achievement. If this is the case, the question has to be: Do we have the will? We know what works. We now have to build upon what we already know and have already done in many of our schools, to take the education systems as a whole, to new heights. We need to learn with and from our colleagues. In every system in which I have worked across the globe, there are many schools that are achieving the expected outcomes. But we need to refocus our efforts on building capacity, developing our leaders, establishing networks and spreading successful practices across schools.

Recently, I was asked to address the question: What does it take to improve student achievement? I identified 7 of the strategies that contribute significantly to improving student outcomes, which I will de-construct in another issue. These are, in random order:

1. High Expectations for Learning with Growth Mindsets
2. Effective Instruction in the Digital Age
3. Early and On-going Assessment, Interventions and Support
4. Inclusive, Culturally-Responsive Pedagogy
5. Innovation, Creativity, Entrepreneurship and Career Education
6. Leaders as Co-Learners, and
7. Character Development

Another Critical Factor

There are many other important factors that contribute to student outcomes. I would like to add another to the list above. It is the issue of teacher quality. We know from many years of solid research in education that the strongest factor in determining student achievement is not school size, accountability measures, standards, social-economic status or even the aptitude of students. In fact, researchers such as Wise and Liebrand (2000) have concluded from their meta-analysis of standards and teacher quality that well prepared teachers have a greater impact on student achievement, are more attuned to students’ needs, and are better able to devise instruction to meet individual needs. Another popular researcher, Linda Darling Hammond (2000) in discussing the notion that investment in teacher quality pays off, concluded that the greatest predictor of student achievement is not student demographics, overall school spending, class size or teacher salaries. She asserts that teacher quality is the variable that most influences student achievement. Other well-respected researchers Kenneth Leithwood and Doris Jantzi (2000) said that leadership is second only to classroom teaching as an influence on student learning. So let us continue to invest in and build teacher and principal capacity in order to improve our schools.

I hope you share my optimism for the future of education and the confidence that today’s educators will achieve both excellence and equity. We have the will and the skills to realize this promise. I encourage you to draw upon your rich repertoire of knowledge and skills and to focus on what works. We must build upon our successes and continue to improve our schools – with a sense of urgency. Parents are expecting it; politicians are demanding it; the community-at-large deserves it. But most importantly, as educators, we want the best for our students. We do not want to truncate their life chances or future possibilities. That’s why we accepted the challenging roles of teaching and leadership. As true professionals, we will redouble our efforts to make every school an excellent school in every neighbourhood.

In sum, we want all students to be successful so that they live happy, productive and self-sustaining lives. We want to improve our schools and ensure that all students, especially the most vulnerable or disadvantaged, graduate from our schools with confidence, high self-regard and concern for others. These imperatives are grounded in moral, demographic, enlightened self-interest, community health, social justice, global competitiveness and human rights expectations. We want to unleash student potential and motivate them to do their personal best regardless of the background factors that locate them in society. We want to build teacher and principal capacity leading to the instructional and leadership effectiveness that are necessary for systems to thrive.

Our goal must be to work quickly and effectively while always being mindful of the fact that we will not achieve excellence without equity. Let us re-affirm our commitment to improving our schools with a sense of urgency. Let us redouble our efforts and draw upon our rich repertoire of knowledge and skills to get the job done.

The children cannot wait.


About the Author:
Dr. Avis Glaze is one of Canada’s outstanding educators and a recognized international leader in education. From classroom teacher to Director, she was appointed by the Premier as the province’s first Chief Student Achievement Officer and Founding CEO of the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat. Avis played a pivotal role in improving student achievement in Ontario, Canada. Currently, she is President of Edu-quest International Inc., offering a wide range of educational services and speaking engagements across the globe.
Avis co-authored Breaking Barriers: Excellence and Equity for All (Glaze, Mattingley and Levin) on the high impact strategies to improve education systems in general, and schools in particular. Her most recent book, High School Graduation: k-12 Strategies that Work (Glaze, Mattingley and Andrews), identifies the research-informed strategies to improve graduation rates for all students regardless of socio-economic or other social or demographic factors.
A few years ago, Avis’ international contributions to education was recognized in Scotland when she received the Robert Owen Award from Mr. Michael Russell, former Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning.
Visit her website at:


Darling -Hammond, L. (2000) Teacher Quality and Student Achievement: A Review of State Policy Evidence. Education policy analysis archives, [S.l.], v. 8, p. 1, jan. 2000. ISSN 1068-2341. URL:

Glaze, A. (2013) How Ontario spread successful practices across 5,000 schools. Phi Delta Kappan, November 2013 vol 95, no. 3, 44-50. DOI: 10.1177/003172171309500310

Glaze, A., Mattingley, R. & Andrews, R. (2013) High school graduation: K-12 strategies that work. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin

Leithwood, K., Jantzi, D. (2000) The effects of transformational leadership on organizational conditions and student engagement with school. Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 38 Iss: 2, pp.112 – 129. DOI:

Wise, A.E., Leibbrand, J.A. (2000) Standards and teacher quality. Phi Delta Kappan, vol 81, no.8, 612-621. URL:

Getting involved with Curriculum for Equity

Curriculum for Equity is an experiment. The idea is to find out if and how a collaborative blog for educators, researchers and other professionals could contribute to the aims of equity and social justice. See About Curriculum for Equity for more details.

If you are a researcher/academic interested in this area, you could submit a piece that signposts readers to your findings and examples of practice you have uncovered in your work. A great example is this paper from Richard Niesche and Amanda Keddie of University of Queensland, Australia: Foregrounding issues of equity and diversity in educational leadership. The paper outlines one secondary school’s approach to equity, including an ‘Equity Action Group’.

If you are a practising educator (all those from formal and informal settings are welcome), you could share stories, ideas and practice, you could ask questions and share the findings of your own enquiries. A great example is this article from Robert MacMillan (Principal Teacher of Social Studies at Lochgelly High School in Fife, Scotland) in his address to the Scottish Secondary Teacher’s Association: End Child Poverty.

Pieces like these are the inspiration for the creation of the Curriculum for Equity website. It is so easy to feel dis-empowered by the prevailing lack of fairness and justice. We can get run down dealing with the very effects of inequity in our day jobs, we can get fed up with politicians using terms such as ‘social justice’ in order to further their own agendas or careers, and we can feel overwhelmed by the global scale of the challenges facing us.

This is why sharing these thoughts and engaging in dialogue is so vital. We are one, global and knowledgeable community with a common goal in ensuring the best for children, young people and indeed people of all ages. We need to get better at challenging the status quo and being active, critical advocates for equity and social justice.

This website could just be the thing that connects an educator with a researcher, resulting in meaningful collaboration towards that common goal. Or it could result in an idea such as an ‘Equity Action Group’ being created in a school on the other side of the world.

Please leave a comment anywhere on the site or send a brief message via the Contact page if you would like to write a piece for the Curriculum for Equity website. You could also suggest a potential blogger, a topic you would like to see covered, or a question you would like explored.

Let’s get cracking.


End Child Poverty


Remarks in Moving Motion L

SSTA Congress May 2014

In welcoming the publication by the Scottish Government of the 2014 revision of the Child Poverty Strategy with its emphasis on reducing the attainment gap affecting pupils from the poorest backgrounds, Congress notes that simply amending institutional practice or seeking change without accounting for the impact on those delivering public services of recent and continuing cutbacks will fail to see the goals of the Strategy achieved.
Congress therefore calls upon both the Scottish and UK Governments to make ending child poverty a reality together with resourcing public services with the necessary tools to end the attainment gap for the poorest pupils.

Fife District

President, Congress.
We live in a country that is rich in natural resources, rich in its history and rich in its internationalism.

We claim for ourselves a character based upon education, tolerance and looking after the Common Weal.

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A Curriculum for Equity: Part 1

by Gary Walsh

Chris, Croissants & Oysters

I attended the rather excellent SELMAS 2015 conference in November. You can read a summary of the event as it happened here. In this post I would like to offer some reflections I have had since it took place, and to provide some context for a concept that came from the event: a Curriculum for Equity.

[Having just read that the OECD Review of Scottish Education is calling for a rename of CfE and has in fact proposed “Curriculum for Excellence and Equity”, this has suddenly become a lot more relevant!]

The SELMAS conference took place in The Caves, Edinburgh, one of the homes of the famous 18th century Oyster Club that entertained the literati of the time including Adam Smith, David Hume, James Hutton and Benjamin Franklin (men only, of course). Oyster Club meetings took place weekly and discussions ranged from the arts, sciences and economics.

I found myself being struck, unusually for me, by a rather cynical thought: that it must have been easy for such people to gather, eat oysters and drink wine, and occasionally express powerful sentiments concerned with the blight of inequity and injustice – I imagined this as indulging in a kind of ‘underground hypocrisy’. I wondered whether I was about to indulge in such hypocrisy myself in the Caves, expressing roughly the same concerns as these moral philosophers from the past (though perhaps not so eloquently), the only difference being that instead of oysters, we were gorging on the frankly enormous croissants* provided by the venue when we arrived.

This is probably quite unfair and overly guilt-ridden of me. However, there is some truth in it. It is too easy to console our own consciences by articulating well-meaning concerns for those in need, while not admitting to ourselves that we are, all of us, complicit in the very inequity we claim to want to tackle.

Chris Kilkenny (@KilkennyChris), one of the most engaging speakers I have heard in a long time, laid bare that hypocrisy for us all to hear and feel. If you haven’t heard his presentation before, in which he describes his experiences of living in poverty and articulates the deficiencies of our system for supporting people in circumstances such as his, you can see a previous version of it here introduced by the inimitable David Cameron. Please find a quiet corner sometime and watch it:

(Thanks to @dgilmour for sharing this clip)

All of the speakers at the SELMAS conference were excellent and I don’t want to attempt to summarise their various inputs here.

I wish to focus instead on something that was mentioned during the event, as I think it neatly summarised one of the main challenges with relation to equity in Scottish education.

“In our school, we don’t talk about deprivation”

This was a well-meaning comment made by a headteacher during the event. The reasons given for this approach were positive and laudable: the school focusses on achievement and standards in an effort to secure a positive and sustainable destination for all its pupils. It is part of a genuine effort to ensure that deprivation does not define the pupils’ potential.

Despite that, the comment troubled me to the extent that it remained an uncomfortable source of opacity for the remainder of the day and since. It left me with many questions. If teachers in schools don’t talk about deprivation, how do they make a professional commitment to social justice? Aren’t they simply denying themselves and their pupils the opportunity to talk about the sources of injustice? How could they be certain that they are not seeing and responding to the pupils “hiding in plain sight” as Chris Kilkenny described? If pupils can’t talk about deprivation in school, where CAN they talk about it? If we focus relentlessly on achievement and standards, are we not succumbing to the terrors (or indeed the charms) of performativity at the expense of more socially pertinent values?

It should also be said of course that some schools not only talk about deprivation but do inspiring things do tackle its effects. See this as an example from St Eunan’s Primary School in Clydebank.

If we are to make any headway in terms of equity in our system, we cannot afford to ignore the root causes of inequity, which largely come down to our collective failure to curb the existence of poverty. If we cannot demonstrate equity at the outset of the learning journey for children, it will be almost impossible to demonstrate it at the end of their school journey (a wise comment I read recently from @GilchristGeorge), perhaps apart from hailing the occasional outlier who rises above it against all the odds in the style of the classic neoliberal success story.

Aspiring to a tale of ‘Rags-to-Riches’ is not a way to achieve equity. Not only is it a fool’s errand, it levels the responsibility of ending poverty on the shoulders of its victims. The message here is “you live in poverty and you need to work your way free of it”.

Basil Bernstein is often mis-quoted as having said that “education cannot compensate for society“. These words are clearly not true: education can change the world, of course it can. While it is not up to schools alone to rid Scotland of poverty, I would argue that it is a responsibility of schools and indeed all of us to identify what we can do in aid of that goal, and to get very, very energetic about it. Focusing on standards of achievement is an important part of what schools can do, but it isn’t the only contribution schools can make.

Talking openly about poverty, its effects, and how it could be undone would be a fine start.

In Part 2 of this blog, I will explore a half-baked idea that has been in my mind for a while now that might just help to get this dialogue going. The SELMAS conference speakers and delegates enabled me to articulate the idea in a way I couldn’t have done otherwise.

It is an idea for a people’s movement called A Curriculum for Equity: a vehicle for sharing and facilitating interdisciplinary practice, projects and dialogue aimed at achieving equity in Scotland, such as the project mentioned above at St Eunan’s Primary.

The curriculumforequity site will be a community-based Open Educational Resource. This means that is freely accessible, openly licensed and the content on the site comes from its own community. I would love it to generate its own momentum and really take off as a grass-roots movement involving pupils, teachers, parents, supportive organisations and whole communities.

Please look out for information about how to get involved in Part 2.

*By the way – just as I was about to leave the Caves, a staff member there encouraged me to take some of the left-over croissants away. There were about 30 or so sitting on a tray. I asked her if it is possible to bring the leftovers to a shelter in Edinburgh’s city centre or to a foodbank (a quick search indicates that there are five Trussell Trust foodbanks operating within 4 miles of the Caves). She said that they are not allowed to do that themselves because of food hygiene policies. She was clearly upset about that. I asked her to put them all in a bag and I said I would do my best.

I left the Caves and spoke to a homeless man on the Royal Mile. I explained the situation and I asked him where the nearest shelter was. I had never done anything like that before and I felt like a desperate fool speaking to him. He was very kind and pointed me in the direction of the Salvation Army Hostel on Cowgate. I walked down St Mary’s Street and dropped the bag off at the centre. While the staff there seemed really pleased that their guests for the evening would have a nice treat for breakfast, I still haven’t shaken off that feeling of being a hypocrite.

Good deeds won’t end poverty. This will only be achieved by critiquing and actively challenging its very existence.