Monday saw the publication of a report much anticipated in parts of the education fraternity but which largely went unnoticed by anyone else. This is a pity. The independent think tanks CSPP and Reform Scotland had joined forces to create a Commission of School Reform. Chaired by the former Director of Education in Clacks, Keir Bloomer By Diverse Means: Improving Scottish Education is the most pivotal contribution to the debate since the McCrone Agreement over a decade ago—probably more so, as it debates educational theory rather than terms and conditions for teachers.
Set up in November 2011 and consisting of 14 others with varied backgrounds in and around education Scottish, the Commission has produced 125 pages detailing how they find its health and, finding a mixed picture, make 37 recommendations how that state of affairs could be improved. Since their intermediate draft report came out last year, there has been some discussion of their proposals and the main parties at Holyrood have made positive noises about it but it looks as if this is going to be kicked into the long grass.
Which is a shame. First of all, Scottish education is not in the glowing state that those with a vested interest in it still maintain. While exam results continue to improve, no-one has yet proved that this is not ‘exam creep’ where it is in everyone’s interest—pupils, schools and examiners (who are almost all teachers) to look good. This is countered by significant numbers of primary pupils entering high schools effectively illiterate, innumerate or (worst of all) both, which nocks on into universities and employers complaining that new recruits need remedial courses before they can do their jobs.
That it is not entirely to do with the deprivation cycle that most apologists bang on about is emphasised with data on destinations for school leavers in East Lothian also published this week. The two schools covering such areas of deprivation as East Lothian has (Preston Lodge and Ross High) are improving in both pupils sent to university and those achieving ‘positive destinations’, totaling around 92%. Yet Musselburgh Grammar, the biggest school in the district, languishes at 83%. That translates into fifty Musselburgh ex-pupils in who are NEET (not in education, employment or training) and therefore kicking their heels and getting the worst start in life we could give them.
This is compounded by industry’s inflation of qualification requirements for new hires. SInce there are many unemployed graduates, they ask for degrees. Shelf-stacking and other such tasks does not need a graduate, but it avoids the need to train. At the same time, it removes once-plentiful relatively menial jobs from the less qualified who would use them to brush up their training, work their way up the ladder and generally keep themselves out of the clutches of the burroo.
The report sticks to things educational and academic and avoids commenting on the difficult socioeconomic background in which it operates these days. So, while it makes positive noises about the Curriculum for Excellence and encourages teachers to be more independent in their manner of teaching, it makes little reference to the role of society, most especially parents, in the equation. Whereas a good number of middle class parents are deeply (some would say obsessively) conscious of the key role a good education plays in many prosperous careers, this is not generally shared by those not in professional jobs.
The report makes little mention of the cultural context but even a cursory study of Asian, especially Chinese and Korean families shows a very high level of encouragement and support—in vocational as well as academic disciplines—that push their children to achievement in a manner that makes best use of their skills, rather than conforming to some fixed academic standard (c.f. school ‘league tables’ that feature so much in parental evaluation of schools here).
What the report does articulate is the pivotal role of early years. It is centuries since the Jesuits first coined the phrase “give me a boy until he is seven and I will show you the man”, so ably demonstrated more recently by Michael Apted’s brilliant series of documentaries “Seven Up”; “Fourteen Up”; etc. Western society, especially since the industrial revolution has largely attempted to fix education shortcomings later on and Scots have been particularly thrawn in avoiding languages until pupils are in secondary ad wondering why we are so poor at communicating with Johnny Foreigner unless he/she speaks English.
However, as both nursery and primary school teachers are overwhelmingly women and the vast bulk of officials and union representatives aren’t, little debate is heard from this vital sector of education while much focus descends on the relative importance of subjects taught at secondary level, where men predominate. This may explain why the main teaching unions have such an antediluvian attitude to what matters in education—endless fixation on hours worked and prep time and perceived status and/or privilege appears to be of far higher priority in any negotiations than useful and uniform universal education and how it might be achieved.
Indeed, the worst criticism I could make of the report is the total absence of any obvious participation by any of the teaching unions—the ATL being an honorable exception but not representative of teachers in Scotland. In this, it is difficult to blame the Committee because the main teaching unions are habitual in their affection for the militant attitudes that blighted seventies Britain and in their apparent disinterest in contributing to real advancement in education. If the EIS or SSTA or any other major union has ever made thought-provoking proposals how to put our youth at the pinnacle of world education, then I must have missed it in the flurry of wage demands, conditions complaints and the ever-burgeoning pensions burden on which they fixate.
Which truly is a shame. The report makes a big play of redoubling efforts to support education in areas of deprivation. But that is really code for engaging parents in those areas where children face their education with little or no support from their parents. Throwing money at they problem through welfare and benefits appears to have not only failed in that laudable aim but has created a permanent underclass and damaged Glasgow’s well earned reputation as a place where world-beating things happen. Whether more welfare will help kids seems dubious, although early years work may prove the exception.
But what point is there to engage parents when teachers are encouraged by their unions to be clock-watchers? What message does it send to young minds when after-school activities are curtailed because it’s lousing time? An, with many of our schools now in PPP hands, even parents organised enough to take up the slack face ludicrous charges to use these public facilities that lie empty between 4pm and 9am and deserted for 200 days in the year?
I have yet to hear a coherent explanation why Health & Safety paranoia bundles our kids into superheated rooms at the first snowflake while Swedish 4-year-olds are running about in the snow and bouncing off trees in outdoor kindergartens. Worse yet, I have yet to hear a teaching union official aspire to propel their pupils to the top PISA ratings—as Finland does. Maybe it’s because a Finnish teacher is on 80% of the wage of a Scottish one. What compounds that obduracy is Finnish teachers have neither curriculum nor HM Inspectorate to contend with; they teach as they think best—and best is what their pupils come out as. Is that not something for our ‘professionals’ should aspire to?
The report does refer to such radical examples as given above, even though no real reference is made to teaching staff who would be pivotal (less not assume obstructive) in such changes. And, as such, it provides a good basis to advance the debate. But unless teachers stop believing they are as hard done by as their unions claim and start to assert the level of professionalism they claim they deserve, Scotland will slide because standards will slide because those with an interest (teachers, pupils, government & unions) all want a good news story. Exam results up? Everybody’s happy.
Except the employers appalled at standards of numeracy and literacy and the one-in-five youngsters who find themselves unemployable and are thereby condemned to provide the next generation of unemployable. It’s in all our interests for those in education to crack this cycle of denial that sometimes verges on self-interest. This report represents a well intentioned start.
But all the story we get from teaching unions is a hackneyed version of the emperor’s clothes.