Clever(ish) Lands

(The original text of my article in TES Scotland 17th March 2017)

There are some striking moments in Lucy Crehan’s ‘Cleverlands’. The author spent time in five of the world’s most successful school systems – in terms of PISA results anyway – looking for patterns and clues. It is a fascinating read and, regardless of your opinions of PISA, should appeal to those with an interest in curricular change. What struck me most, however, was that amongst those systems, there were characteristics which we in Scotland hold dear.

Indeed, there are moments which raised a smile, considering the transformation we are attempting: performance standards mainly used in the classroom, an outcomes-based approach to assessment, attempts to create an increasingly more research-aware profession. All the more frustrating that we seem to be struggling to implement our flagship Curriculum for Excellence.

The obligatory stop in Finland reminds us of the good stuff going on there but also highlights the reasons why teachers, and education in general,  are so much more respected over there. Finland is a country of only five million people: they were determined to utilise the talent of all citizens. They couldn’t afford anyone being left behind so developed an educational system to support that. Scotland should listen.

Finnish teachers have complete autonomy and decide to teach using strategies underpinned by research. The research they conduct together allows them to collaboratively reach those decisions. And here’s the thing: despite having the freedom to choose what and how they teach in their own classrooms, they all teach in very similar ways because they have come to understand the most effective ways to teach. All kids in Finland experience similar high quality classroom experiences as a result.

So, while we can never replicate the systems we most admire, there are undoubtedly models which provide us with ideas and aspirations. We are currently trying to shoehorn an exciting new curriculum into a set of structures unable or unwilling to accept it. We seem unwilling to waver from the same rigid timetabling in secondary school which allows any leeway or freedom to innovate. We seem unwilling to take research seriously.

‘Cleverlands’ reminds us that we have the ability to change education systems if we really want to. But if we are to truly implement a creative curriculum which wants us to work in cross-curricular ways then we need to change the structures to allow us to do that. Otherwise dump the idea. If we are to truly develop a research-savvy teaching profession then provide us with the time and resources to do that. Otherwise dump the idea.

Great ideas which are poorly supported create the conditions for guaranteed failure. If we don’t have time then we don’t have time to waste. Let’s stop wasting it.

 

Coming Soon. The Pupil Equity Fund. Let’s Not Waste It.

‘From April this year £120m will be provided through the Attainment Scotland Fund directly to Headteachers to use for additional staffing or resources they consider will help reduce the poverty related attainment gap.’

Scotland is rightly ashamed of the gap between rich and poor in our country, especially when it appears in our schools. If we are to believe that education is a right, then we need to be aware that those who grow up in poverty are already facing massive disadvantage before they even turn up at our doors. It is hoped that the Pupil Equity Fund – coming to a school near you from April of this year – will begin to reverse that trend. That the money is going directly to schools might cause some people to sit up and take notice, but it is incumbent on all of us to have a say on what might be done with it. 

It is impressive that this bold move is being made, even though tackling the problem was how the First Minister asked to be judged. However, we must be wary of wasting it. It is a big commitment and there may be a danger of it being frittered away on hasty decisions and poorly researched plans.

So let us hope that schools don’t rush into spending their money, that they have a plan in place before they start. It would appear to me that most of this money should be used to help all children to access the curriculum in the very early stages of school. Education opens doors for people; those that start significantly further behind need a leg up. They need support to develop the literacy skills of which they have been deprived before starting school. It would seem to me then a sensible approach to move heaven and earth to tackle inequality from there.

Strong Literacy skills allow children to access the curriculum. Without them, many struggle in school and, unchecked, those issues are exacerbated as they move through the system. Secondary school, especially, becomes a hellish nightmare, where everything seems a challenge.  So it would make sense to address those issues,  providing whatever it takes – extra support, resources, time, getting parents involved- to bring them up to the level needed to deal with the learning required in the rest of their schooling.

Whatever happens, perhaps we will look back and say that this was the moment. Along with the First Minster’s Reading Challenge, there is a clear desire to improve the life chances of the most vulnerable and deprived in Scotland. Regardless of our political affiliations it would be shameful to have wasted it. Money will be coming to your school, or your child’s school. Have a say in how it’s spent. Get involved in the discussions. It’s our moral duty to do so. Whether it is a success or a failure, this may well be the moment that changed everything. If we want a more equitable society, let us make sure we do the right thing.

#4countries Post-Brexit.

When it was created back in 2011, part of the thinking behind Pedagoo was the belief  that if you put a group of teachers in a room and allowed them the time and space to discuss all things education, then great things can happen. Put them in a nice room? Even better. Treat them like intelligent professionals? Fantastic. I’ve just returned from a weekend at the Norton House Hotel where I spent two days with 25 educators from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. And, yes, great things did happen. Seven hours of sessions on Saturday, four on Sunday, ram-packed with intelligent conversation, searching for common ground.

And it went on through dinner and breakfast. Other than a set of bullet points for discussion there was no plan, no agenda. We found a path through the complexities of each of the four education systems and began to discover a way forward. It was a challenging and exhausting experience – by five thirty on Saturday I was out for the count – but hugely rewarding and wonderfully invigorating. While recognising the blocks to progress, what was fascinating to find out was the huge ambition and focused determination to overcome those barriers.

As we began, what was striking was that after the initial moans and groans about our respective education systems, the pride and joy we felt about the job we do every day in our communities shone through in every conversation. We started in our own countries, developing themes for debate and recognising areas for development, and as we moved into mixed groups, the room came alive. We probed and pushed, explained and extrapolated. There was serious debate and loads of laughter. But we began to focus on the things that we may learn from each other in post-Brexit Britain. Whether we feel that the UK is on its last legs or at the beginning of a new, golden age, we can still share the vision we have for our children.

In my group, when asked ‘From what you’ve heard about the context, if you could move to any of the other countries, which one would you move to?’, every single person knew that they would stay where they were. For what better way of changing things for the better than working hard to enhance our own communities. The (very) real David Cameron reminded us of Debra Kidd’s line from ‘Notes from the Front Line’: “it is pedagogical activism that will prove to be the butterfly wing of change” .

Sitting at dinner on Friday night, slightly nervous, none of us really knew what to expect. By Sunday, we left with greater resolve and determination to go back to our schools with a rebooted energy to continue to fight to enhance the life of the children we serve.

I left with a greater understanding of the difficult issues teachers from other UK countries have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. However, there were also wonderfully inspiring tales of hope and aspiration from everywhere; a determination to succeed against difficult odds because we all understood why it was important. It was an honour to be invited to the #4countries conference; an honour to meet such inspirational people, people I can now call friends. No matter our political futures, we understand that education exists to allow the children we teach to become empathetic global citizens; to strive to be the best that they can be. They will need to be.