Going to school should not be a risky business

Every day, we assess and manage risk.  If we are crossing a road, we look for oncoming traffic in both directions, before deciding when it is safe to step off the pavement.  We look in the fridge and decide whether or not to something cooked yesterday or which is a day past its use by date is safe to eat.

Some of us are more prudent than others: the canny will consider available income before splashing out on a desired item.  The rest of us tend to just close our eyes and hope that as a result of our splurge, we don’t run out of money before the month’s end.

Of course, some love the thrill of taking a risk. Hence, the willingness of so many to take on seemingly impossible and/or foolhardy activities, pitting themselves against nature in scaling sheer precipices, ski-ing off piste or throwing themselves out of a plane with only a parachute for company.  Frankly, if we were to assess the risk of every activity properly and fully, some of us would never bother getting out of bed.

Which is one reason why assessing and managing risk in organisations and businesses is a discipline requiring highly qualified individuals with a seemingly endless enthusiasm for spreadsheets and jargon.  It is also in many areas, a required activity in law and in practice.  Failure to do so adequately can result in regulatory reprimand:  where the risk is of a suitably serious nature it can shut down operations and worse, result in tragedy.

But what leads to tragedies like the death of Keane Wallis-Bennett is not the failure to assess and manage risk but the failure to address it. Doing the former has become a multi-million pound business:  like most local authorities in Scotland, Edinburgh City will have a team of people and a slew of software, processes and procedures which generate a highly detailed and complex register, requiring regular reports to key personnel.  The annual cost of all this activity across all public sector bodies?  Tens of millions.

Yet, the management of risk is not, by itself, an exact science. Judgements on the likelihood of risks together with their likely impact/consequence and whether or not they are likely to happen are subjective. Human nature is an influence: the risks adults face and the consequences of not managing or addressing those risks will feature more frequently simply because it is adults who make the decisions.  Financial considerations play a role, as do politics, even if at a sub-conscious level:  elected members being lobbied by vociferous local communities for improved street lighting, pothole filling or dog poo bins will feel the dread prospect of votes lost if they fail to act. And the cost of addressing such risks will also be pretty small beer – making straitened budgets go further is always a consideration. Especially if that council has had to settle eye-watering compensation claims for vehicles damaged by poor local roads in recent years.

Then there is the absurdity of the current financial approach. There is an annual ritual of roadworks in the last two months of every financial year as local authorities rush to spend out capital allocations before they disappear.  Partly this is because the process from identifying budgets, agreeing spending priorities, tendering for work, committing funds to contracts and timetabling activity can, and does, takes months.  But it also results from underspend arising from such programmes, particularly winter maintenance revenue budgets, and the dread silo approach, where few councils insist on taking all repairs and maintenance budgets back into the centre to determine on council-wide rather than department-focussed priorities. Ultimately, there is a pressure each and every year to spend out rather than save up.

This maelstrom of competing factors and considerations helps to determine which risks need to be mitigated by action.  Sitting looking over the shoulder of it all is health and safety law, which many have developed into a reason to prevent things from happening.  Too often, health and safety law provides lazy and lame excuses for disallowing activity which is considered too hard to make happen.  Thus, some councils might ban the visiting of farms by young school-children on the grounds of risk to health, yet those same councils will allow those same children every day in life to use toilets which lack hot water, contain cracked sanitary ware and are not cleaned (in some cases) every day.

In the public sector, the burgeoning of risk assessment and management across organisations neatly highlights some of the key arguments for reform. Millions are spent at not making issues go away and on producing nothing very useful to citizens but white collar jobs, infrastructure and systems are invested in and sustained in order to enable and feed all this circular activity.  The financial framework  drives short-termism so that strategic analysis of the failure to address risk over the long term is often absent.  And those with little voice, those furthest from power and influence, find that the risks to their well-being are the ones least likely to be addressed.

For if none of that were so, top of any local authority’s risk register would be the need to invest in providing every child in Scotland with a high quality space in which to learn and to spend the 30 or so hours a week they are entrusted to the council’s care.  They would not have to suffer sitting in classrooms draughty through metal window frames long past their replacement date;  they would not have to eat in shifts, or corridors or in some cases, outside;  they would not have to listen to the constant plunk of dripping water into buckets from leaky roofs, upsetting their ability to concentrate;  they would not have to take in their own drinking water because water fountains are broken or considered to be germ factories;  we would not have disabled children being changed on floors because of a lack of accessible facilities; we would not have parents fundraising furiously to make playgrounds fit for playing in;  we would not have children suffering back problems due to a lack of locker space.

We would not have any of this if we applied the same rigorous requirements to schools as we apply to our own, adult work spaces.  And if we did, we would have spaces which encourage and enable children to learn and to flourish, resulting in improved educational attainment and enhanced life chances for all. Given what we know about the influence of environmental factors on performance, why is a high quality learning place for every child not the highest priority for all councils?  Take a look at any local authority risk register and the potential for our children to fail in life as a result of a crumbling school will not feature as a risk.  And I doubt if the likelihood of a school in a poor state of repair and condition to cause the injury or death of a child is probably at the top of the register either.

Because if it was, we would not have poor conditions in any of our schools.  And even if we did still have wobbly walls in gyms, we would not wait until a young life is tragically, needlessly lost before requiring them to be fixed.


Councils: they couldnae run a bath (4)

Not done one of these in a while, though not because councils have somehow got their act together.  Far from it.

Tales of woe, incompetence and bureaucracy reach the burdz ears regularly via friends and family.  Is there much difference around the country?  Not really, though some clearly are better than others.  And if anyone wants to share good things about cooncils, then feel free.  I’d be glad to post, to relieve the unrelenting gloom of waste and bizarre decision-making.

But while we wait for such a one to reach this blog’s shores, allow me to share this little gem with you.  And hopefully reassure teachers, that while, like many, I have some “issues” with the quality of education imparted these days, actually I reckon you do a great job, sometimes made a whole lot harder by the planners who plague your lives.

The closure of a local school caused not a little local difficulty.  The community rallied, packed out consultation meetings, and organised the usual, futile protest.  Yes, the roll was falling but the solution was to rezone the catchment areas to take pressure off the surrounding schools which were running – then – at over 80% capacity.  The closure plan did not really take account of future population:  the area had been a magnet for first time buyers and young families and would continue to be so.  Local school rolls were likely to increase in the short-term and the council’s demographic modelling did not stack up.

In any event, closing that one school would result in capital and revenue expenditure for the other schools – there would be no savings if new nurseries and extensions would have to be built.  Moreover, none of the teachers at the closing school would lose their jobs, they would simply be redeployed.  The local population looked at the figures and scratched their heads.

And lo, all that they had foreseen, has come to pass.  Less than two years after the school closed.

One got a new purpose-built nursery school to free up the main school building for an extra Primary one class.  The nursery resembles a battery farm – square block, minimum footprint, tiny wee windows facing away from the natural light – and was thrown up in a summer.  Having operated at full capacity ie with as many children as could be squeezed into the space made available, for a year, it now transpires that demand is exceeding supply.  There are too many children wanting places whose families will now have to transport them at least two miles to another nursery.  Which is within the rules, as there is no catchment for nursery education, but not very clever.

This is a brand new building that should have been future-proofed.  It is less than two years old and already it is not fit for purpose.  What a waste of money.

But the real headache caused by this school’s closure is that the surrounding schools are now bursting at the seams, due to the population growth the local community forecast and the council ignored.   One school is increasing from two maximum-size primary one classes of 25 to four – three at 25 each and one composite also at the legal maximum of 25.  The infant block only has space for two classes so some wee primary ones will be mixing with the big boys and girls.  The school is losing either its computer suite or its library – stocked with resources fundraised for by families – to accommodate the extra class.  The children at this school will be disadvantaged compared to peers elsewhere in terms of access to resources.

Other classes will also be operating after the summer at the max.  The primary three class starts the new school year with 31 pupils – one over the statutory maximum.  Go figure.  The two composites are at 25.  The average class size in the P4 – 7s is 31.  The primary four class is now within the statutory limit for the first time in those children’s academic career, but only because said limit increases from 30 to 33 due to their age.  No, I’m not sure what difference six weeks make here either.

There is the grand total of ten spare places anywhere, in any class in the school.   If any new families move into the area over the summer, they could be toiling to get their children into the catchment school.

And of course that then influences whether or not a family does move into the area.  In a few years, the school could go from weans swinging from the rafters to ghostly corridors as families vote with their feet and move to areas where schools have space for their children and class sizes are smaller.  Such are the vagaries and consequences of ill-thought out council planning.

Are there extra resources coming to help ease the load?  Dinnae be daft.  The curriculum budget has been cut so less money is available for classroom materials, though admittedly all these extra weans will result in a wee filip to the school budget.  The numbers of classroom assistants has already been reduced.  Classes with significant numbers of children with additional support needs do not have an assistant assigned – they are all peripatetic now, spending only a few hours every week even with pupils who clearly need full-time one to one support, flitting constantly between classrooms.

If the prospect of the new school year is distressing to parents, it will already be gnawing at teachers.  The summer holidays will never have seemed so short or so necessary.  So to teachers at this particular school – and elsewhere – enjoy your break.  Please do recharge your batteries – you’re going to need as much energy as you can muster.

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.