Grrrr! Feck!

Of all the endeavours of government, the one that affects everyone and that for much of their lives—whether for themselves or for their children—is education. We may spend more money on health but a significant number of us never go near the health service, while many others use it as a breakdown service for bodily functions. But though health spending in the UK tops out at over £120bn each year and is beaten both by pensions and by welfare, education is not far behind in fourth place and around £118bn.

Education spending in Scotland this year will be just shy of £8bn or about £1,500 for every man, woman & child in Scotland. And, in case you think that’s not enough money, that sum has doubled since the Scottish Parliament was established. And, in that time, there have been a number of laudable initiatives, including inclusion, the McCrone settlement on teachers’ pay and GIRFEC—Getting It Right for Every Child.

The problem is, though, that despite getting all this attention and money, and despite slowly improving exam results, all is not well in Scottish Education. In fact, we have a number of mutually contradictory facts being slung about, partly by vested interests like government and opposition spokespeople and teaching unions and partly by business who staff up on the fruits of education’s labours. Teaching unions extol our quality; business complains of innumerate school leavers with atrocious communication skills. Most telling are the more neutral observers, such as PISA (Programme on International Student Assessment). They placed  UK pupils in 16th place in Science, 25th place in Reading and 28th place in Mathematics: soundly beaten by, among others, Hong Kong and Liechtenstein. And that’s before we even start on the UK’s miserable record of ability in foreign languages.

Now, had we ignored and underinvested in Education, we might thole such humiliation as our own neglectful fault. But in both Scotland and England, it has been the focus of fierce debate, not least because it is such a growing focus of public money in these times of economic stress. Not too much can be read into comparisons between Scotland and England as both have been fiercely proud of their independence and of the differing methods used north and south of the Border. But, putting it another way, they have both arrived at a the same miserable place by very different means.

Last Thursday, BBC Scotland’s Newnicht after a decade of schools development in England, latched onto the recently completed “London Challenge” as if this were some ‘magic bullet’ that Scots could fire to improve on their ongoing woes in school education. Flattered as I was to be asked on the programme, I was dismayed by the narrowness with which the twenty-minute debate was conducted. Much though I admire Gordon Brewer, it brought the sum of human knowledge little further and took me until now to calm down enough to write about it.

There seems no doubt that the London Challenge has been a success, especially in the more underperforming schools in the Imperial Capital. And , if there was a factor that made a difference in this ‘dahn saff’‘ it was teachers feeling empowerment and therefore engagement that made the difference. But what was unclear from the Newsnicht discussion was how this had been achieved. The difficulty, as I see it, is the old problem of blind men fondling an elephant and giving widely divergent reports.

So, smarty pants, what would YOU do to boost real achievement? My ‘Dozen of the Best’:

  1. Stop Treating Children Like Hothouse Flowers. While parents have every right to feel protective of their kids, they overdo it, freighting them to school by Chelsea Tractor any time it looks like rain. We should adopt Norwegian robust kindergartens where they are bundled up and out into the snow to play at age 3. They learn social skills, explore nature and develop robust immune systems.
  2. Start Treating Children Like People Early On. Many believe the most influentially formative years stop at age 7. Kindergarten and Infant classes should be small, stimulating and well supported for any child showing difficulty with learning & socialising. Infant teachers have a challenge to be so much more than just day care.
  3. Introduce a Foreign Language Early On. Doesn’t much matter which, as long as there is a sound basis on which to continue (e.g. town twinning; many Poles in town), although dauntingly difficult langauges like Mandarin make this more difficult. Real interactions with natives, news clips, media, etc essential to make it real/relevant.
  4. Get Back to Basics. One of the reasons British kids do poorly is their literacy and numeracy skills are shaky. Primary schools is where skills in spelling, punctuation, grammar and mental arithmetic should be grounded and built on. Like riding a bike, they are vital skills, useful the rest of your life, let alone in securing a job.
  5. Get Out of That Academic Rut. For decades, parents, teachers & governments have been colluding about exam results as if they were the only measure to value. While qualifications are important, take a leaf out of the German book where vocational, creative and sporting skills are all valued as much and a functional balance among all is regarded as the way to prepare young people for life.
  6. Everyone Isn’t a Winner. While care must be exercised dealing with fragile young egos, downplaying competitiveness (e.g. prizes) is delusional: not only does the world they will enter not work like that. But, if point 5 is properly addressed, there will be few who do not earn prizes in at least one area they are good at.
  7. Engage the Teachers as a Calling. There are plenty of good, dedicated teachers out there who engage with their charges, take on extra work, stay after hours. But you’d never know it from their unions. Of the ten reasons EIS gives to join, only one is about education; when you check their website for ‘policy’ most are political postures. We need the Finnish model where teachers are valued, autonomous, seen as royalty in society and consequently a hugely positive and productive factor in teaching Finnish kids (in PISA rankings: 2 in Sciences, 3 in Reading and 5 in Maths—see above).
  8. Cut the Cluster Some Slack. Rather than have local authorities steer details within each school, each cluster (secondary school, plus the primaries that feed it) should be managed both financially and academically as a single unit and given great latitude as to what they teach and how. Not just academic but vocational skills have differing use and importance all across the country.
  9. Get the Community Involved. We should have no delusions about the superiority of our education, having been overtaken by the English in terms of innovative thinking. Academies and Free schools may have been stealth measures for parent selection that don’t apply here but Scotland needs to learn from the London Challenge. By engaging the community, the extensive positive energy from parents and others can weave the school cluster into everyday life. Fundraising and interaction improves, support at home rises and even social problems minimise.
  10. Become a Part of the Real World. (and not just a Highers Factory). Take a lesson from the US where schools are involved in such pragmatic things as learning to drive or how to deal with their complicated voting system. There should be no need for local authorities to be running Adult Ed classes because schools should be doing this both as a part of being in the community and as a way of fundraising.
  11. Keep the Politicians At Bay. Not only are Education Committees rife with people with no qualifications but the bureaucracy at national level are forever foisting their latest fad in pedagogy on reluctant schools. As an example at the last Portfolio Questions at Holyrood (May 22nd) of the 22 questions almost all were local pork barrel issues or political grandstanding. Scrap any national curriculum: let schools have the initiative for once, which leads to the final and most crucial step:
  12. Shoot the Inspectors. With 12 years on an Education Committee and over 100 Inspection Reports under my belt, they were mini-monuments to conformity and clammy bloodsuckers on initiative. The Finns, among others, have done this. They maintain some rudimentary central awareness of what is going on across the country. But freed of the unconscionable volumes of time involved in inspection, imbued with a sense of self-worth and inspired to send their charges out towards the future as well equipped for life as they can, teachers there earn the respect and gratitude they once earned here—and could have again.

So, Mike Russell, are you growling/swearing or up for this? Are our front-line teachers, or for that matter the parents, ready to roll up their sleeves? Most importantly, are EIS, SSTA and the whole rest of the teaching unions who have been dictating an overly expensive education setup ready for something this radical? Or would they rather be remembered as an oatmeal-tie-and-baggy-cord-jacket reincarnation of the lost-in-last-century-thinking miners?

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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