We Are All Charlie Chaplin

This is the unedited text of my article in today’s TES Scotland


There’s a famous scene in Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ where the poor hero is desperately trying to keep up with the conveyor belt of screws to tighten in the factory where he works. He copes admirably and cheerfully at first but, as he seems to be able to comfortably manage the workload, the conveyor belt starts to go quicker and more nuts and bolts fly towards him, causing the inevitable. He misses some, things back up and he quickly becomes scunnered with the whole thing, his former enthusiasm a distant memory. That’s before the iconic scene where Charlie is literally sucked up by the very machinery he thought he was operating.

Sound familiar? It may just be me but it seems that we are reaching a tipping point with Curriculum for Excellence where many of us feel we are being sucked up into the machinations of the labyrinthine assessment process and forgetting what it was all about in the first place. Half way through year one of the new Higher in English and I’m still making sense of the Internal Assessment strands. The SQA have suggested a ‘light touch’ to assessment in English, presumably meaning that my own professional judgment trumps any suggestion of passing a timed exam. But the hours I’ve spent attempting to decide where each of my 30 students has passed one of three or four outcomes in four different strands? Too much. Just too much.

I still believe in Curriculum for Excellence, truly I do. But it becomes increasingly frustrating when the machinery which should be there to make it happen fails to take into account the relentless conveyor belt of nuts and bolts which head our way every single day. That the conveyor belt seems to be increasing in speed doesn’t help. But the elasticity of a teaching profession which has stretched and pulled and expanded and contracted in order to deal with a changing curriculum at the same time as teaching a new course in the midst of the greatest austerity cuts many of us have known is becoming dangerously stressed. In a year when we’ve been issued with a ‘Dealing with Workload’ paper, the irony crashes down like a cartoon anvil when it becomes clear to me that many of my colleagues have been unable to read it: they’re too busy.

Where the problem lies, I fear, is in the fact that we are trying to force a new shiny thing into an old tired thing; a beautifully inspiring new curriculum into a structure which does not match its online dating profile; a sleek modern high speed train on tired broken old tracks; the scope and scale and ambitions of the Curriculum for Excellence battering against the door of the same school system that I went through thirty years ago. Is it any wonder that the shine is in danger of wearing off? However, a tipping point can go either way. The strength of our teaching profession in Scotland can and, I believe will, push it over the hump and make it work. There’s too much at stake to give up on it now.

I’ve always been very positive about CfE and I hope I still reflect that in my practice. It would have been easy to write a glowing report card but more honest to write this in the middle of another stressful assessment period. What is difficult is that I see committed and supportive teachers being sucked up by paper work and ludicrously unnecessary evidence requirements. We’re bending over backwards to make it work but perhaps the real change needs to be elsewhere. Slow the conveyor belt down. Let us tighten up the nuts and bolts we have. We can make them outstanding. Our education system could be outstanding. Let us teach.

4 thoughts on “We Are All Charlie Chaplin

  1. Great article and it reflects the feelings of many of us here in San Diego. Love the extended metaphor. However, as I am teaching my sophomores and juniors as they analyze articles, I would like to see you state unequivocally what you see as the solution. “Slow the conveyor belt down” and “Let us teach” are good sound bites but what exactly do you mean in a practical sense.
    Keep writing, I find your blog well worth my time.

  2. To be honest I’ve tended to find that the more progressive the curriculum the more of a monster the assessment needs to be.
    For example because success at assessing many objectives could be defined so broadly (when the objectives are generic and non content based) success becomes defined by the definitions of success provided by the mark scheme and these then need to be drilled or able kids’ marks plummet.
    Or, as happens at EYFS, the inevitable (and unavoidable) need to provide evidence for judgements (or how can they be moderated and thus claim to have any validity) means teachers become evidence gathering machines. In the end the actual quality or insight provided by the evidence becomes secondary.
    The problem is that these issues with assessment are an inevitable result of the curriculum itself. If your curriculum values things that are not easy to assess (as I understand CfE does) these problems will arise. It leaves curious as to what you would consider to be an effective but also reliable assessment for your curriculum and what is it about the ‘old’ ideas of assessment that is damaging the new?

  3. The only really specific problem you mentioned was with assessment and then you made your main point that the problem with CfE was that it was imposed on the ‘same old school system’.
    I’m sorry my last sentence contained a mistaken assumption but it doesn’t really alter my question. I do wonder what assessment would work better and be reliable.

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