Response to the National Discussion on Education

As I’ve left responding to the consultation to the last minute, I am no doubt guilty of the same resorting to rhetoric that I accuse others of.

I’ve noted each question and my response below.

1. What kind of education will be needed by children and young people in Scotland in the future?

A curriculum that is focussed on humanity. A curriculum for citizens, rather than a curriculum for consumers.

The question at the centre of its development is: “How will this facilitate the next generation of children and young people to take the power that belongs to them, to make their world a better place?”

This means that we must stop pretending that the curriculum is somehow neutral. You cannot have social justice without economic justice.

‘The curriculum is never simply a neutral assemblage of knowledge, somehow appearing in the texts and classrooms of a nation. It is always part of a selective tradition, someone’s selection, some group’s vision of legitimate knowledge…’ Apple (1993)

It means developing a system that judges young people, not by a number or a letter on a certificate, but by the content of their character. We must end the tyranny of the exam system – assessment must be the servant of the teacher not their master.

This should mean grade-related criteria and a mixed economy of assessment forms. You cannot have individualised needs being met throughout their learning journey only to end with throwing each learner into a bell curve. We must forever remove the principle that all else being equal, the same percentage of students should get the same grades as last year.

2. How do we make that a reality?

Stop pretending that this can be achieved on the cheap. You cannot have a champagne service on an Irn Bru budget.

It means a multi-generational commitment.  It must go beyond rhetorical and electoral kite-flying schemes that achieve nothing beyond a press release or a parliamentary statement.

Teachers should be supported to take ownership of the curriculum, but that cannot be reduced to having to reinvent lesson after lesson, course after course, year after year. Similarly, it cannot be done by imposing a centralised resource. Teachers need to be able to work collaboratively and with criticality in developing resources and pedagogy for their learners. Taking teachers to their maximum class contact, teaching classes at their maximum size, with ever-decreasing resources, will achieve nothing.

As a secondary teacher I have to pay attention to the priorities of: SQA, GTCS, Education Scotland, Scottish Government, local council, council Education Directorate, Education Officers, Head Teacher, DHTs, Faculty heads/Principal Teachers, colleagues…and myself. 

Which priorities should I pay most attention to? We must reduce the complexity of this situation in order to achieve a better classroom experience, a fairer education system and indeed, a fairer Scotland.

3. How can every child and young person’s individual needs be supported and addressed in the future?

You cannot put 33 children in a class with one teacher and expect the meeting of individual needs. You cannot have a widening diversity of needs met with a reduction in resources. Further, you cannot impose upon the one main resource (the teacher) an increasing burden of tasks that are not directly related to meeting the needs of their pupils.

There will always have to be aggregating of needs however, unless we bring in lower class sizes, meeting those needs is fantasy.

However, please spare me the rhetoric of meeting individual needs whilst the system ignores the needs of individuals.

4. What is one thing that needs to stay and why?

Children and young people at the heart of what we do – because the pessimism of the answer to 3 above, must always be met with the optimism of our will to do whatever we can within the resources available. That optimism however, must be realist rather than fantasist.

5. What are the most important priorities for a future Scottish education system?

Teacher working conditions are pupil learning conditions.

End the indifference towards teachers and the reality in which they work. This is one of, if not the cardinal sins of educational leadership. Aspirational standards can only be achieved through enhancing the classroom reality.

We must end the era of the Managerialism Industrial Complex that demands performativity over everything else.

We need to take steps that will stop allowing people to buy their way out of the comprehensive education that is needed to achieve social justice and help further community cohesion.

6. How can we ensure that everyone involved in education in Scotland has a say in future decisions and actions?

Develop 360-degree review mechanisms. If there is to be any sort of ‘inspectorate’ that too has to be accountable. It would be relatively easy to create panels that judge each aspect of any inspectorate – and publish their judgements.

Any agency, any initiative, any policy must be judged on how it helps contribute towards meeting the needs of learners.

Those historically excluded must not remain underrepresented.

7. How can children and young people be cared for and supported in the future? (i.e. physical and mental wellbeing)

Start with the family and the community.

You will not close a poverty-related attainment gap whilst perpetuating the very poverty that is responsible for that gap.

The adoption into law of the UNCRC should refocus and repurpose society towards caring for our children and young people. However, is our politics, our media our ideology, up to that task?

8. How can the right of every child and young person to have opportunities to develop their full potential be achieved in future?

Frankly, it’s difficult to see this being done without a fundamental redistribution of wealth, power and therefore opportunity.

9. How can children and young people be helped to learn about our changing world, so they feel able to positively contribute?

Media criticality is vital. Technological advances in society must be reflected in what pupils experience. However this must be designed to promote the agency of children rather than the habits of consumers. 

10. Do you have any other comments that you would like to provide about a vision for the future of Scottish Education?

Something is seriously wrong with education in Scotland. It is not that schools have broken down, or that services have stopped functioning. The trouble is not so obvious as that. It is rather that the education system as a whole is not working properly – it is not doing the job that it out to be doing.

But it’s ok, as staff are mediating this by working above and beyond their contractual obligations. And, the demands increase.

Why? Because our system takes ideas that are great at inception but which falter at implementation. We steadily add-on to education rather than build-in to teaching and learning. We give space to novelty and call it innovation.

Yet, the same leadership class in education that has brought us to this point, is charged with taking us forward.

One of the main errors in the implementation of curriculum for excellence was the failure to involve teachers at each part of the design stage. Teachers were all-too-often seen as a problem to be ignored. Where is the evidence that this reform will not similarly be foundered upon the same issue?

After all, if the paid apologists of the status quo retain their power and prestige, they will keep the system going.

Or rather, will keep the illusion going.

Finally, let us turn on its head, the Scottish educational tradition of dictating to pupils the answers to questions that they had not asked.