Our children’s future at stake

I’m glad that I don’t have a child in secondary school right now.  In fact, I’m hoping that the current furore over Curriculum for Excellence and the shift to National examinations will have become a folklore legend by the time the chicklet arrives at the big school.

But there must be many parents and carers – and young people – out there feeling awfy nervous right now.  Recent chatter suggests that the new system is not ready to go and currently who is to blame resembles a game of pass the parcel.

It started with East Renfrewshire council seeking to delay implementation of the new exams which are due to kick in for current S2 pupils in the next school year.  Then we had the SSTA – which represents only a third of secondary school teachers – doing the studio rounds, talking up the concerns on radio phone-ins.  The Education Secretary, Mike Russell, was then grilled on Good Morning Scotland on the back of a handful of texts and emails purportedly from worried and stressed teachers.

Of course, Labour got in on the act.  In a recent Scottish Parliamentary debate, Hugh Henry, the party’s education spokesperson, suggested that his party was “speaking up for the thousands of teachers and parents across Scotland who are expressing fears and concerns.”  He added, somewhat superfluously, that “we cannot afford to gamble with the future of our children“.

On this he is dead right.

So I do wish he, his party, the teaching unions, the media and the rump of malcontents in the teaching profession wouldn’t try to.  For good measure, I’ll throw in the national education bodies – take your pick from the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Education Scotland, the national curriculum and inspection body – and local education authorities.  That’s the councils to thee and me.  If we are not ready after eight years of planning and preparing for the final countdown, then what on earth have they been doing?

Everyone is determined to whip up a storm on this one, with hyperbole being scattered around and facts thin on the ground.  Many are working to their own agenda, losing sight of the fact that in the eye of the storm, are children and young people, who frankly deserve better.  As is too often in matters like this, the best interests of children get marginalised.

Far too many news outlets reported the media release issued by the EIS on the back of its “major poll” the other week without bothering to check whether the stats stacked up.  Only 2700 out of a possible 10,000 member teachers in secondary schools bothered to take part in the online poll.  That’s 27% or just over a quarter, which by most standards is a pretty poor response rate.

80% of respondents considered their workload increase to have been very high or high as a result of preparing for the final push in implementing Curriculum for Excellence – the introduction of new exams – but their point is?  Is a high workload increase by itself a bad thing?  Or simply what we might expect at a time of wholesale change in education? And why has the workload increased so greatly in the last year, when this shift has been gradual?

This is where questions should be asked of education authorities.  Directors of education are paid handsomely to plan for and execute education policy and in particular, to turn policy into practice.  If a small number of teachers – and it is a small number as will become clear – are struggling under workload, feeling stressed and unable to cope, then that is a problem.  So what is being done to address it?

Mike Russell has instructed an audit of all secondary schools to test readiness and good on him.  But he shouldn’t have had to – that information should have been being tracked and fed back to the Scottish Government on a regular basis.  Does Education Scotland not know which schools are good to go and which are not?  And if it does not have this information to hand, why not?

The level of panic that has been suggested, even fostered by the media, needs a reality check.  The headline finding from the EIS was that “only five per cent of its members were very confident of being able to deliver the new courses in the next school year”.  This is misleading.  It is not all members but only the ones who took part in the poll.

It is worrying that over 70% are barely confident or not confident at all of being able to do so, but it amounts to only 1890 teachers, an average of 5 per secondary school in Scotland.  Hardly the meltdown being portrayed.  But if there are teachers struggling, what is being done to either support them or show them the door?

After all, our children’s future is at stake here, as everyone keeps reminding us.  And it really is too precious to be risked by a small number of teachers who are unable to make the grade on implementing Curriculum for Excellence.  All our children deserve the same chance at success with this exciting shift in the way learning is planned and taught.  If some teachers cannot or will not, then they should not be allowed to damage the life chances of the children in their care.

Harsh?  Maybe. But whose interests come first here?  And it’s not as if there are not plenty of unemployed newly-trained teachers desperate for a chance to make their mark and their skills to the test.

Where there are failings in the support structures, these should be found and sorted.  If it requires heads to roll in these bodies, then so be it.   If there are teachers who are toiling, let’s sort that too.

But the bellyaching and scaremongering must stop.  This policy has been eight years in the making;  everyone has had plenty of time to get ready;  now is the time for action.

Everyone in Scottish education has a duty and a responsibility to make Curriculum for Excellence work and to ensure that our children have the best start in life and are ready to succeed.

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Teaching our weans how to be Scottish

We’ll ignore Scottish Labour’s puerile contribution but in sending Ken Macintosh homewards to think again, he might want to ponder this post on the journey.  As well as generating a considerable amount of debate, the Scottish Government’s proposal to introduce Scottish studies into the school curriculum has prompted some meanderings through my own experiences of education for evidence of Scottish cultural input.

Constantly, throughout my childhood, we were corrected if we used the dialect and idioms of Galloway Irish;  indeed, I recall classmates being belted for it.  At the same time, in primary five, we were taught about the wars of independence and Galloway’s role in these was given pride of place.  The literature we studied throughout secondary school definitely had a Scottish flavour – Edwin Muir, Robert Burns, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Sunset Song all featured.   But history offered little beyond the agrarian revolution;  geography a smattering of topological input, of which raised beaches running all the way down the Ayrshire coast is about all I can recall;  and in Modern Studies in sixth year, we studied Scottish aspirations for devolution through a distinctly Labourite prism, courtesy of the teacher and despite my best efforts to disabuse him of his prejudices against the SNP.

The Big Yin, by contrast, whose education is much more recent, had very little study of a Scottish flavour, except perhaps in geography where I seem to recall the topology and geology of the Highlands boring him endlessly.  None of his texts were Scottish, history still covered the same topic areas as in my day, although Burns featured briefly in January and all things Scottish around St Andrew’s Day.   The chicklet is just at the start of his educational journey and frankly, apart from Scotland’s annual outing in November, I’m toiling to see any evidence of his being given a sense of his Scottishness so far, except for one episode when he came home drawing the Union flag and declaring it “Scottish” as taught by the teacher.  A bout of intensive home work soon sorted that one.

So why the difference?  Well, having got to know some of my teachers in later life, it is clear that their own patriotism influenced the approach they took to teaching.  Their love of country and its culture and heritage was something they clearly wanted others to share.  Moreover, they probably had greater flexibility in how they taught the curriculum than now.

Of course, a fully rounded education must offer much more than Scottish content.  As a firm advocate of the Curriculum for Excellence, I believe our children and young people will get the values, skills and knowledge they need to *fulfil their potential* and have *improved life chances*, despite the disdain with which others treat it.  The problem is that much of the current commentary around education past, present and future is led by some of the old Scottish comprehensive education system’s successes.  Those of us who saw education as the route to life’s choices and riches, who stuck in, who excelled at exams, who liked to study and learn for the sake of it.

That ain’t the world our children face or despite our best efforts, the attitude they display.  At the age of twenty, young people face at least another fifty years of work ahead of them before retirement.   The environment in which they work and live will shift constantly, perhaps even more so than in the last twenty years.  When I was at university, PCs were cloistered in a special room and students like me who could type were everyone’s best pal in the last few weeks of each term:  today I met an eleven year old who got an ipad for his birthday.

To ask, therefore, callow fourteen year olds to pick the subjects that will govern their direction and work pattern in adult life is just plain daft.  With fifty years’ prospect of work, young people need to be equipped with a core of skills and knowledge that will enable them to have two, possibly three different careers or types of work in their life.  With jobs for life a thing of the past, our young people need to leave school with an all-round knowledge about many subject areas, but most especially, a set of transferable skills.  We want them to be competent, confident and resilient, to be capable of investing in their own wellbeing, of analysing and solving problems, to show initiative, to work as a team, to know how to adapt, to direct and manage their lives – money, family, work and relationships – effectively and successfully, and to know their rights but also accept their responsibilities.

Which brings us to the current proposal to *teach* Scottish studies to school children.  It is sad that it has come to this really.  That those nine years and more that our children are shoehorned into schools currently contains little that enables them to appreciate from whence many of them came, from what the country they live in is made of (in the fullest sense), to feel pride at what Scotland has contributed to the world by way of discovery, literature, art, invention and medicine and to give them a sense of who they are and who they might be.  But when you marry this with the skillset we need to imbue our children and young people with to succeed as adults, it suddenly makes an awful lot of sense.

You can also find this blogpost at Herald online – where it also, rather niftily, links into Sean McPartlin’s post on the same subject.  Good huh?

Educational reform that looks forward and not back

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.