(* Who Teaches the Teachers?)
The AS Report
Despite the cacophony of political hounds baying for Nicola Sturgeon’s blood for “misleading parliament” over Alec Salmond, they did squeeze in a debate about education in Scotland on the last day before it broke for the May election. Audit Scotland’s Improving Outcomes for Young People Through School Education report looked at improvement since 2014. That was when Nicola Sturgeon staked her career on closing a glaring attainment gap between pupils from the least deprived backgrounds and those from the most deprived. Even before Covid muddied educational waters last year, scant progress had been made. The proportion of school leavers achieving five or more awards at level five differed from 82.7% in least-deprived areas, to 46.5% in most deprived. This gap of 36.2% remains uncomfortably large.
Audit Scotland’s reports generally offer resolutions to problems highlighted. Unfortunately, those are often boilerplate flannel: they sound good, but their vacuousness permits ministers to suck teeth, sound stern and promise action. However, little happens, public gaze moves on, and all concerned keep their jobs for another cycle.
In the case of this report, Audit Scotland thinks the Scottish Government should:
- “ensure a coordinated policy response within and across government when planning to improve longer-term outcomes”
- “promote the importance of the different pathways, qualifications and awards available to young people with parents, carers, politicians, and the media”
- “councils should work with schools, involve young people and parents in planning and help schools build their data analytical and quality-improvement skills”
It is hard to find substance in such fluent ‘Bureaucratese’. To a non-educationalist, it sounds like a counsel of perfection. Educators and politicians alike seem reluctant to learn from educators elsewhere. Occasional media coverage highlight PITA scores showing a Scottish decline. But analysis of leading to action to improve seem absent.
The Rest of the Iceberg
Four areas of China deliver PISA scores shaming all other 78 participating education systems. In fact, the most disadvantaged pupils there out-performed average pupils elsewhere. Only Singapore come close. Seven years ago, alarm bells were already ringing here. Scotland had already lost its historical edge of which it had long been proud. In 2016, even within the UK, comparing results a decade before (source NFER Education Briefings ISBN 978-1-911039-34-1):
- England had the highest percentage (12 %) of top performing students in science, despite scores dropping from 515 to 512
- Scotland had 8% of top performing students in science, its score dropping from 512 to the OECD average of 493
- England had the highest percentage (11 %) of top performing students in maths, despite scores dropping from 516 to 512
- Scotland had 9% of top performing students in maths, its score dropping from 512 to 497
- England had the highest average reading score at 500, up from 499
- Scotland’s average reading score had dropped from 499 to the OECD average of 495
Commenting on this, University of Edinburgh Professor Lindsay Paterson said: “These mark the worst news for Scottish education in my 30-year career.” John Swinney, at the time only seven months in post as Cabinet Secretary for Education, agreed, declaring “radical reform is needed.”
So, in May 2017, John Swinney launched The Pupil Equity Funding, which was to be “additional funding, on top of the existing almost £4.5 billion invested in school education annually.” The Scottish Government paid this to councils by ring-fenced grants, to be allocated directly to individual schools, as designated by them. There was no latitude for councils; they were simply conduits.
Six years further on and PISA scores remain disappointing, to say the least, as evidenced graphically by these charts on performance over time on each of the three main measures.
(Insert Reading chart)
Where the Buck Stops
Despite high-minded speeches and good intentions, it is hard to see the sad story told by those charts as anything but failure. Responsibility for not just a failure to improve, but clear backsliding must be laid at John Swinney’s door. BAD enough that other countries have improved, relative to Scotland BUT Scotland has been unable to keep pace with its own past performance. A number of factors seem to have contributed:
- John Swinney’s three predecessors (2007-15) barely served 2 years each, and so failed to make impact beyond the “revolutionary” Curriculum for Excellence, which disrupted teaching patterns without notable improvements.
- Labour predecessors (1999-2007) negotiated the McCrone Agreement (May 2000), boosted teacher salaries and career options, but secured little in return
- Teaching unions—EIS; SSTA; AHDS. Despite McCrone discussion with them revolves around pay and conditions, with little on improving education.
- PPP/PFI The £9bn capital spending spree councils indulged to rebuild school estate 2000-2007 were presented to them as “the only game in town” and have siphoned off an ever-larger portion of stagnant budgets for 30 years.
- A fall in revenue funding in real terms. Secondaries fell from £7,145 to £6,880 per pupil. Primaries fell from £5,411 to £4,984. John has been complicit in acceding to this, so his party loyalty bears some of the blame.
- A growing disparity between haves and have-nots, mirrors disparity in parent involvement and encouragement. This pushes the attainment gap wider, despite education authorities seeking to close it.
John Swinney is conscientious. He must read Audit Scotland’s critical reports. Yet he seems little disturbed by Liz Smith MSP, the Opposition Spokesperson of Education, who should be his nemesis with ammunition like that to fire. Although she does put in the hours, she spends them on much else beside education.
Pedagogy, not Demagogy
Though no seasoned educationalist, this writer served 18 years on an education committee, while attending four school boards/councils each month, met with head teachers and hired five of them, and feels qualified to comment. That experience leads to suspicion that there is a cosy conspiracy that afflicts education here in Scotland that goes something like this:
- Teachers do not just teach. They are also youth social workers, are burdened by inclusion, GIRFEC and other buzz words. Their disciplinary options have been curtailed, while pupils wax ever more vocal about their rights, often backed up by unquestioning parents
- Motivated parents badger the school and blame teachers for children failing to make academic progress. Many other parents regard school as nursery to keep their kids occupied so they can work/socialise/relax.
- Education Scotland and the SQA suffer from ‘silo mentality’: only illuminati such as they can develop policy.
- Politicians fixate on positive publicity. In the absence of positive results over which to crow, Plan ‘B’ is to invent some nifty initiative and throw money at the problem. The £4.1bn education budget of 2014 became £4.5bn…but only because of a ring-fenced Pupil Equity Funding.
- Media and voters who follow it are equally complicit. They demand sound-bite reporting, with simplistic analysis. Announcements with large numbers of £000s attached are preferred. Follow-ups to see how it worked are rare.
Eclectic incantations and endless acronyms among priests of educational policy meshes nicely with superficial reporting and scrutiny. Education is trapped in a vortex of politicians, educators and unions more concerned with £ signs and not getting their jotters than sending well equipped kids out into the world. Even health, where they “follow the science”, is not treated as the political plaything that education is.
So, what to do, besides throwing more money at the problem?
The solution may be found in Swinney’s own nomenklatura. His main civil servant, his “Director-General Education, Communities and Justice” is Paul Johnston. That title makes sense. Each school is (or should be) a hub for their community. Once, there were all kinds of meetings, societies and activities there. That was before PFI contract “bean counters” drove them away by charging an arm and a leg for access.
Forcing contractors to return schools to their communities would be a start. But it is not enough. Most Scottish councils are too small to run education well, especially when government ties their hands with ring-fenced funding. If region-scale is good enough for the a-political NHS Health Boards, it should be good enough for large a-political education authorities. Such bodies could handle a large degree of autonomy to adapt policy to local requirements, while still conforming to examination standards.
Within them, a good deal of autonomy could be devolved to the cluster, if not the school level, taking a leaf from the private schools’ book, being guided by a small board supervising operational running, financing and, for the benefit of all, integration into its community.
There will be protests of unfairness, of the affluent disadvantaging deprived communities. But shackling together in comprehensive schools did little to advance anyone. After decades of trying to level the playing field, it is timeto ditch centralised diktat and put schooling back where it belongs: in the community. The Africans were right: “It takes a village to raise a child”.
Miners were once regarded as deprived communities. But many miners had as strong and vocal ambition to educate their children well as any middle-class matron. Given the chance, so-called ‘deprived areas’ could lead the way to giving vocational education the pride and prominence it enjoys in Germany. Our middle-class fetish to send everyone to university, earning qualifications nobody can use may be misusing talent we can scarce afford to waste.
Scottish universities and schools were once the envy of the world. They achieved that without any national curriculum or pedagogues in Education Scotland trying to cram ebullient young minds through a standard template as entry to a homogenising meat grinder.
What if we made schools pro-active, not just nine-to-four factories? What if we involved local people with skills and experience to share? What if we let the community and school decide if they needed disclosure? What if we put the local library in the school and saved money? What if teachers became more than data deliverers? What if schools included adult ed?…replaced community centre?…showed films…shared sports facilities?
Would this not turn the school into a social centre and give the community the idea that it is theirs—they ‘own’ it. Think of the money this would release from libraries, community centres, sports fields, etc. that could be ploughed into education. It would change the school from an alien craft from a distant planet that swallows children and where any adult is a suspect intruder. Think what benefit could be had by all on the 220+ days when pupils are not in school. The present gross underuse of facilities is reason enough to question the present system.
Would there be security issues? Yes, but there are big security issues now. If people feel ownership, will they not look after things—and quickly ‘shop’ those who do not? Look at Denmark, where inequality is much less and people feel part of society. The Danes enjoy a high standard of living and are rated the happiest people on the planet. Look at California, where waves of Asian immigrants arrived from Laos, Vietnam, Korea or India with very little. They qualified as “deprived”. But they found no Pupil Equity Fund for them. What they did find was jobs and businesses. Then they dinned the importance of education into their children, few of whom now qualify as “deprived” by anyone’s standard.
And if we look at the four areas of China with stratospheric PISA scores, the deprived as well as the affluent kids are eating our lunch in economic, as well as educational, terms. Why? Because the community behind them believes in what they are doing and swing in behind the educators to make it happen. We in Scotland can look at deprivation or curricula or exam results all we like. We need to re-think the basis of education. As long as we let educators and unions and politicians put our kids in a bell jar, they risk cultural—not just educational—asphyxiation.
Once Covid releases its baleful grip, we should put John Swinney on a plane and get his eyes opened. As reliance on internal bureaucrats, high-sounding initiatives and drunken sailor scales of dosh are distraction; they are not cutting it. Reliance on them will just grease our slide further down this slippery slope toward failure we are on.