Educating a nation

Education and schools in Scotland in 1999 seem like a world away from where they are now.  Some of the changes have been for the better; some have not.

Attainment continues to rise, and that is welcomed by all, although its paramount importance as the measure of school success might sometimes be questioned.  School exclusions have gone down substantially, a function of teachers and schools becoming better skilled in behaviour management.  Schools are far better engaged with the skills curriculum than in the 1990s – without the denigration of vocational qualifications in which Gove has indulged south of the border.

The great symbol of recent changes however is Curriculum for Excellence.  Hailed by some as the great radical paradigm shift and by others as old ideas rehashed, it suffered from the outset from an absurd title.  A curriculum for excellence literally implies an elitist concept, for in Scottish education excellence has always been a normative judgement, the achievement of the very small minority who excel, who surpass the great majority, those few who are better than even very good.  That linguistic faux pas however is part of a regrettable public relations approach to public services in which all initiatives are dressed in exaggeratedly aspirational language.

The shame of it is that Curriculum for Excellence contained the seeds of a sensible revision of the Scottish curriculum, an attempt to escape the subject-silo mentality and to connect learning across subjects in a way that would be meaningful to learners.  It also chimed with one of the great successes of recent decades, a new generation of teachers for whom pedagogy, the skills of teaching, were of paramount priority.  The days when teachers would describe themselves as ‘a classicist’ or ‘a physicist’ (not even a teacher of classics or of physics) have thankfully gone and a fresh cohort of young professionals who see themselves as teachers first, is making classrooms more relevant and engaging for young people.

The morass to which our schools have moved however is in respect of both the new exam system and the very imperfect experiences and outcomes, both of which have generated an enormous additional workload for teachers, breeding anger and resentment in the teaching profession as classroom practitioners have to turn a grand theory into practice while simultaneously maintaining the upward trend in attainment.  It might also be suggested that Education Ministers in the early days of the Scottish Parliament would have handled such feelings with more sympathy and nuance than Mr Russell.

In 1999, teachers’ perceptions of their professional status were upbeat.  It is not only CfE but cuts in services, reorganisation and closure of schools, reorganisation of the promotion structure and changes to pension conditions, which have left teachers feeling under-valued and loathe to go the extra mile in respect of curricular reforms which, in principle, many would welcome.

If schools today are less happy places than they were a decade-and-a-half ago, the responsibility lies at least as much with local leadership as national.

In 1999 I was briefly out of school, working as Edinburgh’s Special Schools and Social Inclusion Manager.  Working in head-quarters provided a wide-vista on the educational world which served me well when in 2000 I returned to school as a headteacher.  The culture of municipal education departments then however was substantially different from today.

Firstly, there were  Education Departments, not the multi-function organisations which exist today.  Secondly, they were managed by Directors who, overwhelmingly, had come through the teaching ranks and saw themselves as educationalists first and last.  They perceived their jobs as supporting schools to deliver high quality teaching and sound learning.  A major priority was to fight the battle for schools and teachers within the corporate structures – and they did so with skill.  They were supported by professionals from non-teaching backgrounds, in finance and personnel for example, but these professionals were based in Education and knew it inside out; they were not generic finance or personnel officers, ignorant of how schools work.

Today the world of municipal educational management has been turned upside down.  Very few local authorities retain an education department.  It has been merged with social work or libraries or leisure or other service deliverers and those who lead the new mega-departments perceive themselves as corporate managers first and educationalist, if at all, as an add-on at the bottom of a long-list of professional descriptors.

The impact on schools has been horrific.  A plethora of paper-chasing exercises, either gathering statistics for endless reviews or ensuring a pedantic obedience to the minutiae of usually unnecessary regulations, has paralysed school managements.  At a time when the experts call for greater autonomy for schools to develop local solutions to local problems, a risk-averse managerial culture pays lip-service to such diversity but stifles it in practice.

When there are insufficient jobs for the present workforce (Note the ads for teaching jobs in the middle east and elsewhere which are attracting unemployed Scottish teachers!) and when household budgets are tight and getting tighter, industrial action by teachers, threatened though it now is, seems unlikely.  Were that not the case, those who manage the present municipal empires would be looking fearfully over their shoulders.  They may yet do so.

 

The above article was first piublished in Holyrood Magazine on 17 June 2013.

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