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.


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.

Speed – ‘the not-so-hidden curriculum’

So, as usual, I was marking this morning; wading through some S2 classwork, becoming more and more frustrated. I usually set myself a goal of x number of books until I have a break. What always happens is that I start off being meticulous and then, as time passes and I haven’t got though as many as I intended, I begin to rush. I panic, my writing becomes untidy, occasionally illegible, and the last few don’t get the support I give the first few. Not always, but certainly sometimes. After fifteen years I’ve never been able to control that.

This all comes back to pressure of coverage, doesn’t it? Pressure to get through as much work as possible in the shortest available time. However, today I asked myself this; ‘are you more likely to make mistakes if you are rushing or if you take your time?’ Sounds silly when I put it like that but, more often than not, this is how we construct our curriculum. It is unforgivable for me to make mistakes while marking – never underestimate how damaging poor feedback can be – but even more unforgivable if we cram our course so full, pressure of coverage inevitably leads to error,

Having just finished our prelim in English – you may call them ‘mocks’ – it is fairly clear that those who succeed are those who can write well in the shortest space of time. We value speed over anything else, it seems. We are impressed by those who can cover the most work in the shortest time and covet those who cope better than others under pressure; and no doubt there is value in that. Coping under pressure is clearly an enviable trait. Even in teachers, it seems, those who can seemingly cope well with workload go further. However, there is something that doesn’t quite sit right about that.

In his book ‘The Art of Slow Reading’, Thomas Newark describes speed as ‘the not so hidden curriculum’. We have six weeks left until exam leave. In that time I have to cover two poems, half a play and revision of everything else for the whole year; we have to fine tune two Folio essays. We will get there; but it’ll be through tears, sleepless nights, frustration and hours and hours of rushing though marking and assessment as quickly as possible. Think what might we achieve if we slowed things down, covered less and learned more deeply.

This has been the first year of the new Higher in English and much of it I’ve really enjoyed. There are clear progressions from National 5 and it has challenged me to tackle different texts in different ways. However, it has also become clear that I will never be able to tackle two major texts in the same detail that I used to: no more ‘Hamlet’ and ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, for example. Alongside six Don Paterson poems – yes, I know I could do that a different way but choose not to – there is simply not the time. I hear teachers in others subjects who are on their knees with the pressure of coverage. It needs to stop. If we are to ‘declutter’ the curriculum – one of the aims of the Curriculum for Excellence – then we need to do it now. And, somewhat ironically, we need to do it as quickly as possible.

Newkirk, T. The Art of Slow Reading, (New Hampshire, Heinemann, 2012)

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.

Work Hard, Be Nice. Whatever Happens.


I’ve thought long and hard about whether I’d write anything about this week’s referendum vote but decided, as much to clarify my own thoughts as anything else, that I would. We’ve been asked – correctly I think – not to voice our opinions in class and I stick to that; however, that should not lead to a blanket ban on discussing the matter. Senior pupils have a vote this week and many are genuinely seeking guidance. It is our duty  as adults and educators to help them work it out for themselves.

I’ve been challenging any student who is wearing a badge this week, ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. I’ve never stated my voting intention in school. Many of the students might guess but that’s their perogative. If we’re to truly teach them about Citizenship then they will have to justify their choices and this is the best opportunity they will ever have. I want them to understand that having a vote is a privilege and not something to be squandered for trivial reasons. For the most part, they are reasoned and intelligent in their defence of their voting intentions. I’m rather proud of that.

But in class I gave a final speech about the Referendum and promised not to raise it again this week. It went something like this:

I love my job, absolutely love it. There is never a day that I get up and don’t bounce into work, raring for what is ahead. I’m well paid – not rich by any manner of means – but comfortably well off to enjoy my life and never really worry about money. I have a great house, an amazing garden and travel a lot. Because I can. The reason I’m voting the way I’m voting is because I want that for every one of you too. Everyone I teaches deserves what I’ve got and I believe that my vote will help develop and sustain the conditions for that to happen.

I’ve read and read and read in preparation for the Referendum. For every argument the ‘Yes’ camp put forward I’ve found an opposing one from ‘No’. For every argument the ‘No’ camp put forwards I’ve found an opposing one from ‘Yes’. So how did I decide? Well it all came down to which side I would trust. And that should go for each and everyone of you too. If you read the literature there will be no answers. How can there be? But an intelligent, informed electorate reads and listens and debates and then comes to an informed decision. If that oppose mine then that’s fine.

What’s not fine is to see this as a competition to be won. It’s not. There should be no losers. Half the nation will be disappointed on Friday morning, desperately so, perhaps. But when the dust settles we all want a better Scotland. If ‘Yes’ wins then we have to stand taller and work our arses off to make sure it is the best Scotland possible. If ‘No’ wins then we get up, demand what we’ve been promised and make sure Scotland is the best Scotland possible. This is not a football match. We can debate and discuss but we must never disrespect the views of others. This is about Scotland and one way or another we will all be living here, making it work. It’s not ‘them and us’,  just ‘us’. So work hard and be nice.