Scottish education: sleepwalking into the abyss

profile_pic2

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 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 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.

Curriculum for Equity is a collaborative blogging platform – if you wish to write a blog for the website please get in touch.

Tackling inequity is the responsibility of us all

jackie_brock

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.

End Child Poverty

robfmac

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.

View original post 925 more words

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.