It’s hard to believe, but I rather think John McTernan has engaged in a little mischief-making at the Scottish Government’s expense. His Scotsman article last week, Educational Reform is the Priority, dredged up somewhat embarrassing comments made some years ago by Mike Russell, former and possibly returning Cabinet Secretary for Education, and Joan McAlpine, newly elected MSP and potential star in the making. I suppose all tactics are valid in trying to further an agenda for educational reform.
Yet, he is very wrong in his assessment of the Curriculum for Excellence and I wish he – and other doubters – could have seen the showcase my son’s class presented last week. Last term, the class undertook a project around Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the showcase was for parents and carers to find out all that they had learned and achieved. The children had written themselves scripts and in small groups told us what they had been doing. Thus, we learned how they had to dream up new recipes for sweets which they then made, wrapped and sold to us, having worked out the cost of their materials and how much they had to charge each of us to break even (and in fact, make a profit). They had designed and made a new hat and candy cane for Willie Wonka. They had to imagine what all the rooms in the factory might look like and create these using craft materials. They wrote reports on all the main characters in the story, which was read to them everyday at story and milk time. They created their own poems about sweets and the taste sensation they might cause – onomatopoeia featured heavily. They explored 3D images by creating cylindrical and rectangular models of equipment. They painted and drew a huge mural of a key scene from the story, and they learned to tell the time by designing clocks for the factory working day. They examined Quentin Blake’s original illustrations and then drew similar ones. The showcase culminated with a Powerpoint presentation which the children had designed and put together themselves, and a song they had written and rehearsed.
Every child in the class came home regaling us with tales of what they had been learning everyday. None of us had ever known them to be so enthused or engaged by a project, and every aspect of it. It was also a remarkable leveller, as evidenced by the showcase, where the less confident children, and those with additional support needs shone as brightly as the most able ones. No child left out, each one striving and displaying how much they had learned and how much they had enjoyed it. It was a joy to behold.
Far from “condemning a rising generation of Scots to educational failure”, Curriculum for Excellence and its commitment to active learning, of enabling children to learn skills AND knowledge, will raise standards – something which is indeed required. For boys in particular, it may bridge the gender gap in attainment and moreover, enable children with additional support needs the equality of opportunity to fulfil their potential.
But if it is to work, the incoming Cabinet Secretary for Education needs to get tough. This class of 26, which until recently had been 30, are crammed into a tiny space which is a hothouse on sunny days and a draughty cold room in winter. The class has several children with particular support needs, yet no dedicated classroom assistant. The computer suite in the school, with equipment fundraised for by families, may be lost because in August the school receives three Primary one classes (due to another local school being closed despite a growing population of young families in the area) and only has space in the infant block for two.
Despite record amounts of in-service time, detailed guidelines and stacks of new online and other resources, still teachers – particularly at secondary school level – moan about what they are expected to deliver and how onerous the changes are. They see the problems and the burdens without sensing the opportunity and seizing the challenge. Teachers should be incentivised to deliver, but the Scottish Government should make plain the consequences of failing to step up to the mark. There are after all, plenty of newly qualified teachers without jobs and frankly, our children’s future is too precious to be sacrificed on the altar of can’t do.
There are areas requiring reform, particularly to make the school year and day much more child-centred and to make education fit more realistically with modern-day life. A legislative duty could provide guaranteed outdoor play, more physical education and longer lunchtimes so that eating is enjoyed as a social and not a rushed experience. Is it too much to ask for a school year that begins and ends at the same time all over Scotland and has statutory term holiday dates for Christmas and Easter so that children and families can all be off together no matter where they live and work in Scotland? Does a six, seven and sometimes eight week summer break still benefit children?
We must also examine forensically why spending in schools varies so widely and which management structures deliver the best support most efficiently: such a review is a prerequisite to any proposals to reform structures. Finally, we must consider an end to placing requests. Children should go to the school in their catchment area, with some prescribed exceptions, and with less choice not more, we would end the stigma of failing schools and under and over capacity squeezes. It might take a bit of hard selling but the benefits would far outweigh the downsides.
We do not need to reform the curriculum but we must look forward, not back, Mr McTernan. That means modernising and investing in our education system, not the curriculum, so that it provides the supports our children need to succeed. As learners and as adults.