Scottish Learning Festival 2015

Taking over most of Glasgow’s SECC, this two-day event ticks all the right boxes for who’s involved. Its programme ranges far across the issues associated with school education in Scotland, covering topics that tawse-wielding disciplinarians of the mid-20th century—let alone the dominie despots of earlier eras—would be amazed at, if not flummoxed by. Leadership in Gaelic Medium Education? That’s covered. Using games-based learning to support the development of the early year’s workforce? That too.

Over 100 seminars, with as many as eight on at one time means the 3,000+ ‘practitioners’ attending are spoilt for choice. From all that, you might assume that such a gathering represents the leading edge in education in Scotland, if not further afield. And yet, nobody in the whole two days appears to have addressed that PISA scores are static or declining, or that business leaders still complain that schools (let alone universities) are turning out uneven cohorts of school-leavers, some verging on the illiterate but a greater number verging on the innumerate. How far is #SLF2015 addressing that?

Out of two days of presentations and 100+ seminars, only one mentions maths: Magic of Music – Early Stages Literacy, Maths and Numeracy and Health and Wellbeing. One mentions ‘engineering’; two ‘technology’; three (including the one above) ‘numeracy’ and three ‘science’. By contrast, five mention ‘disadvantage’, six ‘whole school’; 20 ‘progress’ and 28 ‘partnership’. ‘Attainment’ rates in 30% of all events.

But words highly relevant to education like ‘performance’, ‘failing’, ‘underachieve’, ‘exam’, ‘PISA’, ‘difficult’, ‘exclusion’, ‘disruptive’, ‘test’, ‘league table’, ‘private school’, ‘early leaver’ or even ‘school leaver’ get no mention at all. It appears the last time anyone mentioned ‘private schools’ with a view to learning from them was Dr Avis Glaze’s talk two years ago—and she is Canadian.

It would appear that we have developed a phalanx of professional educationalists above and beyond the chalk face: the Fife Council Pedagogy Team are tasked with “developing Fife Education and Learning Directorate’s vision to break the cycle of disadvantage in Fife’s communities”. Which rather gives the game away. Valid though concern is for an obvious link between social disadvantage and poor education, the second-biggest education authority in the country sees children’s education as a branch of social work.

The context in Scotland has been a series of Education Ministers—both Labour and SNP—that have pushed through a number of reforms like the McCrone settlement and Curriculum for Excellence but have otherwise steered clear of upsetting powerful teaching unions like the EIS. Say what you like about slash-and-burn Tories, but England has had no such qualms.

It is unlikely that Gove’s belligerent position and Academies would gain much traction in Scotland. But a recent minister was Liz Truss who knew something about education and was also not one to be cowed. Truss announced proposals to reform A-Levels by concentrating examinations at the end of two-year courses. She sought to improve standards in maths for fear that children are falling behind those in Asian countries and led a fact-finding visit to visit schools and teacher-training centres in Shanghai to see how children there have become the best in the world at maths.

There is little evidence of any such pivotal initiatives here at #SLF2015, let alone in Scotland. Although obviously anathema to both teachers and the present government, private schools also have much to teach the rest of education, despite their odious social overtones. Forget the resentment; they are getting something right. The Spectator had a recent article, attempting analyse what that might be.

In 2014, 79% of A-level entries at English private schools were graded A*, compared with an average for all schools of 8%. Exam results are never the whole story, but measuring civic performance is never an exact science. But, as the article explains:

“Many private school teachers have degrees from top universities; a large number, postgraduate degrees. They are thereby able to stretch the best of their pupils and engender an intellectual curiosity in others.

They also work in larger teams and can bounce ideas off each other. Smaller state schools may have a physics teacher also taking other subjects and no ‘collegiate’ context. Because private schools can gather larger cohorts of able pupils, lessons crack on at a pace that leaves some behind. State schools go more slowly because of the much wider range in ability of the pupils. As a result, the better pupils go unchallenged and don’t provide the same examples to others.

But the Tory party’s policy on schools has a huge hole. It wants state schools to learn from the private sector, and yet it denies them the freedom to select their pupils on merit, which leading private schools do unapologetically. In Scotland, the result of state schools also sticking to that has been middle-class parents engaging with their children and thus giving them a de facto advantage over children whose parents are less engaged/ambitious for them.

The way out of such impasse is to allow streaming, if not selection, in state schools. This MUST involve a parallel path for crafts- or sports-oriented and artistic pupils who are no longer stigmatised by one-size-fits-all insistence that ritual exam-passing constitutes a proper education so we stop wasting a gamut of skills for which exams are no measure. It’s the only way to avoid losing leavers into a NEET wilderness after school.

Had #SLF2015 provided some elements that sought to explore, if not address such radical options, it might not pass unreported by the media—and grow beyond a familiar support social for educationalists—by thinking radical for once. Otherwise, the media will see SLF as a talking shop and mostly ignore education as not much more than a playscheme for rug rats and teenagers, enlivened occasionally by a spat over exam results.

And our PISA scores will continue to flatline against countries like Finland and Singapore. Such countries see educating their young well as an economic necessity and who are not averse to cracking a few eggs (not to mention heads) to make a decent omelette.

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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