Gold standard for Scottish education?

The First Minister has made education, specifically the closing of the ‘attainment gap’, the priority of her five-year term of office. She has chosen her ultra-loyal and highly experienced deputy, John Swinney, for the education brief – aka the poisoned chalice.

Well, it’s always a bit risky for the Principal or Head of an independent school to dip their toe in the waters of state education but here goes.

My view of state education essentially comes from three sources:

  •  The media
  •  The views of colleagues in the state sector expressed directly to me and
  • The views of parents in the state sector expressed directly to me as they try for places at Heriot’s

This latter group does not give a fair or representative view of state education. Prospective parents with children in state schools have either always intended to seek entry to independent education at some point, or else, often unwillingly, have to make the move because they feel state education is failing their son or daughter. What is striking about this group is two things – firstly, that it is increasing in numbers, particularly at the S3 point of entry, and secondly, that the reasons for transferring are almost always one of two: the failure of schools to stretch able children, or bullying.

For S3 entry in 2015, we had a record number of applicants (25) for the small number of new places we offer. For S3 entry in 2016, that figure has gone up to 45, and other independent schools report a similar increase in demand. This, almost entirely, comes down to parental dissatisfaction with the ‘Broad General Education’ now insisted upon in Scottish Schools as part of the Curriculum for Excellence package.

Drop broad education for S3

This policy – that children should continue with a broad education (as in S1 and S2) into S3, rather than selecting seven or eight subjects to study for two years for certification (at Nat 4 or 5) at the end of S4, has always been deeply perplexing to me. It was an old saw of teaching for decades that the year in which children learnt least was S2, because many of them had established which direction they wanted to go in, in terms of subjects, by the end of S1, and they thus lost interest in subjects they would not continue with. This has now been extended into S3 and, further, means that the number of subjects which can be studied in S4 itself (now being one year courses) has dropped to five – or, if parents really fight about it, six.

My first concrete suggestion would be that the policy of Broad General Education in S3 should be dropped. I think this would be very attractive to informed parents (few in number as most, I suspect, don’t really realise what’s happening just now) and would improve standards in literacy and numeracy (since pupils would spend more time on English and Maths). But other thoughts arise about what, borrowing from Jim Callaghan’s Ruskin speech of 1976, one might call the Great Debate about Scottish Education.

Here the Scottish Conservatives’ paper on education, the Gold Standard, seems to be going broadly in the right direction. I think there are five emergent themes in the Scottish educational debate, and these are echoed in the views of parents and teachers alike. Both these groups – and I include head teachers in this – are, however, frightened (and I don’t think that’s too strong a word) to rock the boat, no matter how much they perceive it needs rocking, because the educational establishment in Scotland (which – and I realise there is an irony in my saying this – is increasingly removed from the real world of schools) does not respond well to criticism.

The first of these concerns that ‘attainment gap’. I’m taking this to mean the following: that two pupils with equal potential, but from different socio-economic family backgrounds, should, ideally, prosper equally well at school, but, currently, all evidence suggests that they do not. This is clearly wrong – it should be the duty of any education system to bring out the best for all its pupils, and the desire to close this gap is laudable.

The gap is narrowing

However, the evidence  – both anecdotal and from the recent OECD report – suggests that this gap is narrowing because pupils at the ‘bottom’ end socio-economically are doing a little better and those at the top end are doing less well (substantiating the views of lots of parents that their children are not being ‘stretched’, including, in fact, children who are bright but not at all well off). There is, in other words, a move towards the middle. This is a very dangerous direction for Scotland, famous historically for excellence academically from all sectors of society, to move in.

Very briefly, I believe this will only be sorted when there is much more variety in our educational provision, a greater concentration on vocational education, and much less emphasis on entry to Higher Education as the be all and end all of measures of success in secondary schooling.

The second area is ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ itself. I note that the Conservative paper (correctly) says that there is no evidence, one way or the other, that it’s working. I think it depends on what is wanted from schools and teachers. My personal view is that the aspirations of CfE (to produce ‘successful learners, effective contributors, confident individuals and responsible citizens’) are fine; however, it is a huge stretch to say that schools, in the limited time available, should dole out the curriculum in equal parts to meet these aims. That is, schools need to concentrate on the ‘successful learning’. Currently (and teachers are constantly talking about this) there is a buzz-wordy concentration on areas like sustainability, Personal and Social Education, outdoor learning, Health and Well-Being. All of these are excellent things, but it may be that their profusion in schools is beginning to obscure essential skills in language and numeracy and – at the other extreme – what one might best characterise as ‘scholarship’.

While the early CfE days of inter-departmental work have become more muted (one school had a ‘Spots and Stripes’ day where every lesson had to feature these), there is still, in some schools, less emphasis on subject-specific delivery; this has the eventual effect of limiting the curriculum in terms of exam options further up the school.

More money for schools

The third area is the centralisation of Scottish education into the vast monolith of Education Scotland. Certainly, the inspectorate should be independent, and thus able to comment on the effect of central education policy on schools, rather than being there to ensure that it’s in place. In truth, there is much too much money being spent on ‘education’ in Scotland (including the secondment of senior staff from schools to do questionable jobs at Education Scotland) and not nearly enough money being spent on schools, where Head Teachers and their staff feel increasingly powerless. Colleagues in the state sector, old and young, are scared to raise their heads above the parapet. To undo this would be a radical step but it is, in essence, the root of the problem.

There are two further things I would like to comment briefly on. The first of these is low-level indiscipline, which is further affected by the policy of inclusion. Really, there need to be systems in place to ensure that there is a learning culture in every classroom. I see far too many prospective pupils, particularly bright, hard-working girls, who do not like to put their hands up in class, and who are, to all intents and purposes, ignored by teachers while they deal with much more difficult educational or behavioural cases, all in the same classroom.

Finally, teachers everywhere – uniformly throughout Scotland – would welcome greater support from political parties on SQA issues, particularly on the workload problems caused by the new exams. Teachers nationally seem to me to be under more stress, because of this and the constant flood of other new initiatives, than they have been at any point in the past 36 years – my time in education.

Image by Louise Bichan courtesy of Scottish Government

Cameron Wyllie, Principal, George Heriot’s School, Edinburgh, writes here in a personal capacity.

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