In the past week I’ve spent time in the company of educationalists of various types. Education faculty staff from universities, head teachers and teachers. Their prevailing view is that the Scottish Government’s decision to reintroduce standardised national tests is, as some put it, “a return to square one”.
One academic summed it up: “The politicians have bottled it,” he said, “they’ve given up on the basic thinking behind the Curriculum for Excellence.” After all, a major impetus for the reform of Scottish education was the desire to escape from tests and a narrow focus on academic skills and to replace standardisation with learning more appropriate to specific circumstances.
As Danny Murphy, author of a great Postcards from Scotland book Schooling Scotland,* pointed out in a recent blog, the issue is not standardised tests. It’s the intention behind the testing and what’s done with the information which matters. Danny’s mantra is ‘test the children, not the schools’. Indeed in his book Danny recommends that schools implement standardised literacy and numeracy tests (along with self-assessment and well-being measures) on an annual basis but that these tests should be carried out like health checks. In other words, the information should only be fed back to the teacher, parents and child. This would not only guarantee privacy but also a non-judgemental approach to test results, as is the case in a medical setting. Tests carried out in this way would be diagnostic – designed to evaluate how a child is learning and developing in comparison to their peers so that remedial action can be taken if necessary to ensure the child’s future development. With the right educational support this would stop any child leaving primary school without having mastered basic skills.
With the system Danny proposes the Scottish Government could look at anonymised aggregate national data and this would allow them to chart progress from year to year. But that’s not what is proposed. Speaking to journalists after her speech in Wester Hailes, where she announced the introduction of the new National Improvement Framework, Nicola Sturgeon said:
The idea – particularly in the age of Freedom of Information – that you could gather information like that and not publish it would not be tenable.
She also said to the press that while her government would not produce league tables.
I’m not going to stop you guys … trying to put it into league tables. But that’s not the purpose for which we’re doing it.
Teaching to the tests
If the press do create performance tables of this kind, and they will if they can, their findings will travel round the country accompanied by that sorry, but all too familiar, pair – judgment and blame. Very quickly parents will start poring over lists, asking ‘what’s wrong with our school?’ and local authorities will start judging schools and teachers as ‘substandard’ and failing. Given all this, who could fault teachers and head teachers if they try to protect themselves by focusing on improving results by teaching to the tests.
The Curriculum for Excellence was supposed to stop all this. Yet this is the trajectory we will soon be on. It does not augur well for Scottish education.
Interestingly none of the education people I spoke to could understand why the Scottish Government was reintroducing tests. The move is not underpinned by sound educational theory. They could not think of a single educational theorist who would recommend such a course of action.
I for one believe that Nicola Sturgeon genuinely wants to ensure equality in education and is personally affronted by the yawning, and growing, gap in educational performance between rich and poor. If she cares about Scotland she has to do something about this.
It is very easy for her political opponents to insist that, since the SNP have been in power since 2007 and the figures are getting worse, her party is responsible. However, in my view the reasons for the poor attainment figures are deep seated and predate the SNP’s time in office. The 2007 OECD report into the quality and equity of Scottish education questioned the Scots belief in the equality of opportunity afforded by our education system and highlighted the growing divide in the educational outcomes of students from different social classes. The authors wrote:
Who you are in Scotland is far more important than the school you attend so far as achievement differences on international tests are concerned.
Social class, the devastating effects of poverty and the expectations and values inherent in our education system and wider society play a major part in the Scottish figures. I believe that, unwittingly, the Curriculum for Excellence may have undermined expectations even further – a topic I may return to in a future article.
So if I were the First Minister the last thing I would do is bring about standardised national testing. That type of top down governance, with its capacity to alienate, threaten and divide, is destined to backfire.
The oblique approach
In 2010 the economist John Kay came up with a great concept which is very relevant here – ‘obliquity.’ Giving a variety of examples from business, public and personal life Kay argues that goals are more likely to be achieved obliquely:
If you want to go in one direction, the best route may involve going in the other. ‘Paradoxical as it sounds goals are more likely to be achieved when pursued indirectly. So the most profitable companies are not the most profit-oriented, and the happiest people are not those who make happiness their main aim.
Obliquity is particularly relevant in complex systems which “change as we engage with them.”
Obliquity is relevant whenever complex systems evolve in an uncertain environment, and whenever the effect of our actions depends on the ways in which others respond to them. There is a role for carrots and sticks, but to rely on carrots and sticks alone is effective only when we employ donkeys and when goals are simple. Directness is appropriate. When the environment is stable, objectives are one dimensional and transparent, and it is possible to determine when and whether goals have been achieved. Obliquity is inevitable when the environment is complex and changing, purposes are multiple and conflicting, and when we cannot tell, even with hindsight, whether they have been fulfilled.
This insight is pertinent to the reintroduction of standardised testing in Scotland. While it might notionally improve results, any small gain would come at the expense of wider educational goals and pupil and teacher motivation. In health, some professionals have described this type of top down initiative as “hitting the target but missing the point”. Schools in areas of deprivation and those with a significant percentage of pupils from poor backgrounds will be particularly hurt by these comparisons, thus undermining the equality agenda. What’s more, in the long run middle class parents wouldn’t allow their children’s performance to drop and they would simply invest even more money in tutors and coaches. This may drive up results but it could widen the attainment gap and would not help the assessment of school performance.
Raising performance on standardised tests may initially help to get the Scottish Government off the hook with school figures but it would do little to address the real issues underlying Scotland’s educational attainment gap. In 2013 the NUS in Scotland published a report called ‘Unlocking Scotland’s Potential: Promoting Fairer Access to Higher Education’. The authors state:
Scotland continues to have the poorest rate of access to university in the whole of the UK for students from poorer backgrounds. While there has been progress in higher education participation in recent years, this has primarily been as a result of increased numbers in college higher education, where 23.3% of students are from the most deprived communities, compared to just 11.6% in universities.
Since then there has been more Scottish Government activity and some progress but it’s painfully slow. According to The Herald’s education correspondent in March 2015, Scotland “still lags behind the rest of the UK both in terms of widening access and drop-out rates.”
Where the real fault lies – and some solutions
The SNP’s political opponents want to pin the blame on them for the recent drop in school attainment figures. Given they have been power for over eight years I think they are responsible to some extent. But the growing inequality in Scottish education reflects badly on Scottish society and institutions as a whole. How has the land of Robert Burns, with its proclaimed commitment to equality, allowed this to happen? How can we think our equality credentials are so much better than those south of the border?
To reinforce her commitment to tackling the figures Nicola Sturgeon has asked Scots to judge her personally on the country’s future education record. I’m sure she did this for the best of reasons. But it may be counterproductive for her to make out that she, single handedly, can solve the problem.
The Scottish Government have awarded more money to schools in poor areas and that is welcome. But if I were Nicola Sturgeon I would do four additional things. First, I would launch a large-scale national consultation on what’s underlying Scotland’s educational inequality figures and what needs to be done to remedy them. The priority here is to involve and listen to those parents and youngsters living in areas where the figures are so poor. I’d also get feedback and suggestions from individual teachers and their organisations and other professionals working with young people. The point of the exercise is to cultivate a real sense of involvement across Scotland in this vitally important agenda.
There is a great appetite for this involvement. On the 11 September the EIS published a paper called ‘Face up to Child Poverty’. It contains suggestions for ‘poverty-proofing’ the classroom. Clearly, they are so keen to be involved in this agenda that they are already showing leadership and initiative. The Scottish Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society (SELMAS) has already held one meeting on “the challenges of equity in education” and more are planned.
Once people are talking about the issue more I’d encourage lots of different school initiatives to see what makes most of a difference. The Scottish Government’s job would be to help the dissemination and cross fertilisation of ideas and practices.
Secondly, I would look for some oblique solutions to Scotland’s educational inequality problem. An easy way to do this is to pay attention to some of the other recommendations made by Danny Murphy in his book Schooling Scotland: Education, equity and community. For example, he argues that no child in Scotland should go to school before the age of five as this particularly disadvantages youngsters from deprived areas. Aged seven would even be better according to the new Scottish campaigning organisation Upstart.
This leads to my third recommendation. I would learn from the country which is the best in the world for education – Finland.
A couple of years ago Alan Little did a TV programme on Finland and the section on education was so fascinating I wrote a blog on it. Finland scores best in the world for education but this isn’t achieved through competition, inspection or academic hot housing. Indeed what we saw in this documentary was the exact opposite of that. Finnish kids don’t start school till they are seven and don’t sit an exam until they are in their mid teens. This is obliquity in action.
The ethos of Finnish schools is very different from the UK’s – no school uniforms, endless play outdoors, and pupils taking lunch with teachers with whom they are on first name terms. The emphasis is on bringing the best out of every child and on equality. There is no streaming, setting or constant tests. Bemused by this, at one point Alan Little asked the head teacher of the school he was visiting how they dealt with the fact that some children are more intelligent. The head teacher looked slightly puzzled and replied that this simply didn’t matter.
The footage of the kids contained so much smiling, hugging and playing that you got the feeling that this was an education system which really puts child well-being at the core and isn’t just saying this because it sounds fashionable or aspirational.
Finally, I would not attempt to increase control from the centre. Children are pre-programmed to learn and grow and they will if the circumstances are right; the vast majority of professionals want to do a good job and make a difference and often it’s the system which stops them. If I were the First Minister I would start trusting people more. This may sound revolutionary. But wasn’t building trust one of the original, if unspoken, intentions of Curriculum for Excellence? And isn’t Finland evidence that it works?
*Declaration of interest: I am Commissioning Editor for Postcards from Scotland and I also edited Schooling Scotland.
This article first appeared as Carol’s blog on the Centre for Confidence and Well-being site. Her views are her own and not necessarily those of the centre.
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