A short post -So what exactly are we developing on development days?

Here’s where I am on teacher education after nineteen years of teaching.

If you have, on average, six Development Days every year, and those last, let’s say, six hours each  at a conservative estimate. That’s thirty six hours of development time every year. If a school has one hundred teachers, which is not unheard of, then that adds up to, unless I’m worse at Maths than I thought, 3600 hours of development time. Imagine what we could achieve if all of those hours were focused on improving pedagogy which directly improved the education of our children, instead of meaningless processes of management speak.

Looking back at how much of my development time over those nineteen years has been wasted with comically time-wasting processes, box-ticking and time-serving, passively sitting in front of forty pages of someone’s Powerpoint presentation, is it any wonder that we become passive in our approach to Development Days?

Have we failed to learn from the past?

It’s important to stress, as I’ll go on to discuss Water Humes’ recent article ‘Seven reasons why Scottish education is under-performing’ , that I don’t think that our education is failing.  However, that it is ‘under-performing’ may or may not be up for discussion  and it would be difficult to argue that it has been flawed in its implementation. I tweeted last week that I agreed with each of Humes’ seven reasons but I want to go further by dealing with each in separate posts. These are just a collection of thoughts, so please argue with me if the need is there.

1.  Failure to learn from the past

I’m cheating slightly here but I wrote about this very subject about six years ago. There was a danger of us ignoring the voices of ‘previous reforms’ at the time, something I compared to ‘The Diderot Effect’. The Diderot Effect stems from a short essay called ‘Regrets on Parting with my Old Dressing Gown’, by French Philosopher, Denis Diderot. In it, the writer contemplates his life choices after the gift of an expensive new dressing gown plunges him into debt and despair. He’s delighted with the new gift but starts to believe that this beautiful new thing has begun to make everything else look dreary and old. The essay deals with his quest to replace his possessions with shiny new things, in the hope that his new gown won’t seem so out of place. He descends into poverty and ruin.

It seems to me that part of the difficulty in ‘implementing’ the Curriculum for Excellence, or any shiny new curriculum really,  has been the assumption when any great change takes place, that everything that came before it is now defunct – dreary and old, in effect. Experienced teachers have every right to feel slighted by this, even if it is only a perception.  A situation should never arise where previous practice is dismissed, whether that is done mistakenly or not. Effective ways of informing, collaborating and engaging with teachers have been missed. Communication has come across as flawed but it is not too late. The biggest challenges still to come are surely in preserving the best bits of what is happening and merging them with newer ideas.

There are those who may cry ‘I told you so’ but we ignore experience at our peril. This ‘arrogant sense that the past has little to teach us’ has come to pass but it is not too late. A mature and robust education system must be able to admit that mistakes have been made: if there are flaws then we can fix them. But let’s not ignore the voices who’ve been though change. Diderot’s character merely changed a dressing gown. We have so much more to lose.

‘Nothing Ever Mattered More Than Not Doubting’ – A huge year for Scottish Education?

On the first day of teaching practice in 1998, in the school at which I still teach, I entered the staff room nervously, eventually sitting down beside a kindly gentleman who greeted me warmly. We chatted for a while before he offered me some advice: get your jacket on and go and do something else. Teaching will ruin your life. Of course I was shocked and outraged; I looked upon what I assumed to be a cynical old fool and vowed that that would never happen to me. We went on to be friends over the next few years until he retired, but I never got over that first meeting, especially when I got to know this brilliant man who had been worn down by the education system.

Twenty years on and I can understand what he meant. Continuous change is exhausting and often demoralising. It often feels – like a repeat of ‘It’s a Knockout’ (wee joke for the kids) – that, while we’re trying to do our jobs there seems to be buckets of water being thrown over us from all angles. It’s so easy to allow yourself to become cynical and forget the younger teacher who walked in to the staff room for the first time. But we have to try. It’s why I like to mentor new teachers; they often remind me of me.

I wrote a post yesterday about where I thought we should be going in Scotland and what it might take to get there. I wanted to make the point that we should be prepared to push aside all of our resentments and gripes, all of our reasons to be cynical – of which there are many – and be prepared take control of our curriculum. It will take a huge shift in policy and approach to allow us to do that and it may well be naive; but whoever got anywhere without a bit of that. They may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one…

I hope that message came across in the post but I’m not sure I made that totally clear. I’m not asking for time; I’m not asking for a period of stability; I’m not even asking for any specific changes to the curriculum. I want to see a period where we take what we have now and start to talk about how it fits the needs of our children. We can debate forever whether the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence has been good or bad, how we’ve spent an inordinate time on S4-6 assessment, whether consultation has been non-existent or not. I’m bored with that. It’s like a revolving door of resentments – perceived or not  – and it’s getting us no where.

So in a year where we will have pay discussions, we should, as part of a modern day ‘McCrone Settlement’ be prepared to demand a say on the future of the curriculum. We should make promises that we will engage with research if we are given the space to do so – more teachers required please. I understand that there’s a lot of resentment out there, often rightly so, about time wasted. But if there’s a real chance of a curriculum approaching anywhere near ‘Excellent’ then it’s worth fighting for.

A few years ago, I bumped into that crusty old teacher. He’d gone back to Uni to study something he loved and he looked twenty years younger. He’d been burned out by the system. I don’t want that to happen to me. I want to look back and be proud that I was part of something special.

In this together – there’s no other way

There’s a tendency to slip into absolutes in education: this works, that doesn’t; this has failed, that’s a success. In Scotland, it’s remarkable to notice that if , on Twitter, you make a positive comment about our curriculum, the same people will retweet and ‘like’; similarly, if you tweet a comment seemingly negative about CfE, there are the same names who jump in behind it. It’s not an especially healthy forum for debate. And, while we convince ourselves that, no matter what ‘side’ we’re on, we are right, it’s likely that both sides are probably wrong. Is there a point where we have to sit down and talk about why we might be wrong if we really want to make things right?

That situation is not helped by overblown, hyperbolic headlines about betraying a generation; I see enough wonderful things happening in our schools to know that that is nonsense. But to bury our heads in the sand and ignore our responsibilities to discuss the direction of travel is worrying. This week Professor Walter Humes threw his twopence into the debate. Seven Reasons Why Scottish Education is underperforming  It raises a host of difficult challenges which may rest uncomfortably with some, but I find it difficult to disagree with most of it.

Of course it is easy to dig our heels in and ignore these questions; after all, we often dislike to venture outside of our comfort zones. But to see these issues not as criticisms but genuine attempts to take us on to the next stage, with unity and purpose, is an opportunity not to be passed aside. There are incredible things happening in Scottish Education, inspirational. Our focus on Health and Well-Being is truly a wonderful thing; SCEL is changing the way we learn as teachers;  and many more. But there are undoubtedly issues with Literacy; there are issues with how we look after our teachers’ Health and Well being and how we allow them to take part in the process of change. It would be foolish to ignore those.

Teachers’ disquiet stems from a long term perception that our own knowledge and skills and experience are often by-passed by the next strategy or next ‘big thing’. We work ourselves into the ground for our pupils but, while we are allegedly ‘consulted’ about changes in the curriculum, things come to us from above, with an edict to implement. We may have been involved in the process of implementation but our views on pedagogical relevance are rarely sought. We have no emotional involvement in changes, no awareness that our prior experience has been taken to consideration. It’s not difficult to see why as professionals, we feel deflated and marginalised.

Real change takes hard work;  it’s not a document or a directive. As teachers we should be taking more responsibility to try and make sure our voices are heard on pedagogy. We are a talented, professional and vastly experienced work-force. However, it is essential that we are also a questioning profession. That doesn’t mean we don’t like what’s going on; it means that we want our say and we want to be a part of the process. In a year when teachers’ pay is once again about to be a huge focus of the public discourse, our ability to shape our own future is more important than ever. If teachers are given the time and space to shape the future of our curriculum, unlike in the shallow, piecemeal way we’ve had for the last few years, then we are capable of shaping the the futures of the children in our classrooms. And, remember, they deserve no less.

It’s Time to Nail The Curriculum in Scotland

As we enter 2018, wearily and warily, we face up to the prospect of new Scottish Government proposals for Education reform. At this stage, these proposals look something like this:

• Creating a Headteachers’ Charter (more autonomy for headteachers)

• Increased parent and community engagement in schools

• More pupil participation

• Regional Improvement Collaboratives (a way to help local authorities work together)

• Creating an Education Workforce Council for Scotland (to replace the General Teaching Council for Scotland)

Taken from:


Of course, this all stems from a very worthy policy of closing the attainment gap. However, I struggle to see how any of these ideas move beyond the concept of ‘sounds like a good idea’, and if there’s anything we really need to avoid in Scottish Education is a range of strategies which sound like they should be good.

I’m very privileged to be a teacher: I love my subject, get paid comfortably well, despite below inflation pay increases for too long to remember, my holidays are great. But, as a profession, we are overloaded with change, weary with the next thing. Perhaps what is most frustrating is the lack of real consultation – asking us to participate in something when we’re neck deep in work is not an acceptable scenario – about what we feel about that change and how we help bring it about rather than just as part of a delivery system. Without that, any reform is bound to get bogged down.

So where to now? What might be my suggestion? If we’re serious about narrowing the gap, serious about attempting to eradicate poverty, or at least alleviate it, then education is part of the solution, of course. Where we fall down is an ability to really come to a consensus as to what our curriculum means, what the key aims for Curriculum for Excellence were really all about, especially in the Broad General Education years, upon to the end of S3. What do we want for our children? Where do we want them to be? What do we want them know or be able to do?

Dozens and dozens of E’s and O’s – experiences and outcomes – are not helpful. They lead to confusion and misinterpretation. We need to nail this curriculum once and for all. Get educators in schools to sit down and talk about what it is. Get it in writing on one side of A4, ten bullet points at most. That’s all. Own it. Then stick to it, never veering off the page. Every school can then work out a path to achieve what’s on that page, creating local solutions to local problems. But never veer from that page. Keep BGE separate from exam years by all means, but BGE must be leading the way, not the other way around.

Of course, if we genuinely want to ‘close the attainment gap’ then we need to resource our curriculum properly, whatever that may take. If tackling poverty is a genuine aim then we need to throw everything behind a movement that will do that. If that means a move towards health and well-being issues for a time and less of a focus on the academic side then do it. But own it. There will be criticism; there will be a firestorm from those who will claim that it will be a race to the bottom. But what I’ve found in my time as a teacher is that unless we are united behind one way – and telling us to just get on with it never works – then it will be doomed to disappointment. There is a lot of good will in classrooms around Scotland; we want this to work. But we do have things to offer to the debate. Just give us the opportunity and listen.

The Push and Pull of the Broad General Education

(The original text of my article in TES Scotland 19th May 2017)

Speaking at Glasgow University recently, Graham Donaldson suggested that the reasons for Scotland’s disappointing performance in the PISA rankings might lie in the delivery of the Broad General Education, Not that it is not broad enough or general enough; he suggested the problems might be in the lack of depth. Revisiting the experiences and outcomes, along with curricular areas, might help to see where he is coming from. For could it be the case that, in our attempts to provide a P1 to S3 curriculum, we are attempting too much?

Indeed, staring at the huge posters of Es and Os issued to schools might be akin to a hard-nosed FBI agent, scanning a series of connected photos in a seemingly impossible homicide case. What seemed so simple – an eight-word manifesto – has become so complicated.

An education which is broad is all very commendable but should we be worried that our young people are dipping their toe in lots of water but not getting particularly wet? We pride ourselves on the ‘lad o’ pairts’ approach to education but, with BGE, we really need to get that right.

The concept of an ‘aged 3 to end of S3’ education is complicated by the change from primary to secondary. The structures are different and secondaries are finding that transformation a challenge. The timetabling structures are a constraint; the pressure for good exam results are a constraint. That we, very often, rush to setting even in S1 is a constraint. Indeed, setting more or less negates the aims of a Broad General Education. For how can our young people be getting similar experiences when the system is telling some of them from an early age that they are no good?

That perceived lack of depth is certainly having its effect in the upper school. Teachers are increasingly commenting that learners are not properly prepared for National 5 courses and, while that might set off alarm bells, it highlights an all too familiar problem of exam results becoming the Holy Grail of school success; some things never change.

When our schools are still judged on those exam results – and they are- it is understandable that they begin to focus on those as early as possible. And if the BGE is not preparing them well enough? Houston, we have a problem.

Perhaps this is why HMi inspections appear to be focusing on the delivery of BGE more than anything else. The success of Cfe depends upon it. The best thing we can provide for our young people is a strong set of qualifications as they move on to the next stage of their lives. Getting the Broad General Education right needs to be our priority in order to achieve that.

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.