‘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.

If we’re serious about the poverty gap in Scotland…

Get past this first paragraph: it’s not what you think.

I have a really nice house and have just had and incredibly comfortable, happy Christmas break. I’m dabbling with learning to play piano and often listen to Jazz, classical music less so. I try and eat healthily, for the most part, and have money in the bank. I enjoy gardening have a season ticket at my football team, occasionally listen to Radio 4 and get annoyed at Question Time. I am, to all intents and purposes, living the archetypal Middle Class Life and, while I grew up in a reasonably comfortable working class background, I recognise that I have ‘escaped’ a life I could have had.

I teach in the area in which I grew up and would have attended this school. I see problems with inequality all the time, recognise the poverty gap and want to support our Government’s attempts to narrow that gap. Inequality means we have a huge imbalance in our society: an imbalance of wealth, opportunity, services, voice. While school is a core part in society it must never be seen as the hub of all our problems but we do have our part to play. As an individual I have a responsibility to do what I can to help alleviate society’s problems. But what am I prepared to do?

Those in poverty very often see schools as the enemy; that might seem extreme but it’s true. Parents who’ve had generational resentments of authority see us offering something which is not for them. Families with unemployment running through generations look upon educational aspiration as a middle class conceit. They don’t believe that their cultural heritage- whatever that may be – is valued and see themselves being mocked and derided; the fast food they eat, the TV they watch, the way they talk. To say that education is the way out of that mindset is naive and misguided.

As educated professionals, it is easy to think that we have all the answers, that we know what’s best. What if we gave up that ‘voice’ in order to listen to the problems of our communities? How often do we really listen to the concerns of the parents of our students, instead of voicing annoyance when they don’t turn up to Parents Evenings? How do we create communities where teachers have to give up some of their free time to go and listen to these communities? Would that be a sacrifice? Would that help us understand?

Would we be willing to pay a little extra in tax if we we’re convinced that it would improve the lot of our poorer communities? We see high tax societies working well in Scandinavia but shudder at the thought of paying more here. Why is that? Because we’re not convinced our Government would put it to good use? Because we don’t see evidence of it yet? What would change?

If we are serious about alleviating poverty and improving the lives of those who live in poorer areas then how much are we really prepared to do? How much are we willing to sacrifice? As educators we have the knowledge and the tools to help but need to involve ourselves in the lives of our students and their families. Otherwise the gap will widen. And keep doing so.

If we are serious about closing the attainment gap and alleviating poverty then those of us in a position to do so will need to make some sacrifices. It’s not enough to get annoyed at Question Time or, dare I say it, write emotional blog posts. Otherwise let’s stop wringing our hands and pretending we care.

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:

http://www.parliament.scot/parliamentarybusiness/CurrentCommittees/107248.aspx

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.

Time to rise above our station.

It’s 4.30 in the morning: I can’t sleep. Today is the fourth whole school development day I’ve organised – a morning of workshops led by staff, attended by staff – and, of course, I’m convinced it’ll be a disaster. I’ve woken up with a cold so that feeling of impending doom is magnified, that ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is kicking in. It’s never gone badly before but there is always a first time and I’m pretty sure today will be the day. I’m sick of feeling like this.

I’ve spent the last  two months coaxing and cajoling colleagues into leading workshops, delivering training, sharing ideas. The number of superb colleagues who have convinced themselves that ‘I don’t do anything special’ is both mystifying and heart-breaking. What is wrong with a system whose lead specialists feel like this; worn down by s system which seems to be against them, which often treats them like the enemy? A system that treats anyone who raises their head above sea-level as a show off or a trouble maker? But we’re not allowed to rise above our station, are we?

For a year I’ve felt like that. Last December my book came out. Pretty soon after, I received two tweets from followers; one a very prominent member of the Educational Twitterati, who reminded me ‘Not to get above myself’. The other one – someone who I have met – told me, after beginning writing for TES Scotland, that I was ‘a big mouth who no-one wanted to listen to’. Both comments have never been very far way for most of this year. Oh, I know that some will think I’m massively prominent on Twitter myself. Perhaps. But I’m a humble classroom teacher who has found himself apologising for being so prominent.

I spent much of my childhood being told I’d never amount to much, much of my school life being invisible. Even when I eventually became a teacher, for the first ten years there was little expectation that I would rise above the mediocre; I’d been conditioned to think that. So, being from my background, coming from where I come from, bringing out a book is an extreme rarity. As a result, I find it hugely difficult and uncomfortable to accept compliments. I expect and anticipate that someone will try to burst my bubble. And that means I turn down a load of offers to speak about my book. No more.

For anyone who is reading this, perhaps recognising these feelings, sharing my upbringing and background, it’s time to get above our station. It’s time to break free from sneering negativity and acceptance of mediocrity. I’m just a teacher like you; I’ve been fortunate enough to find myself in a position where I can write a book. But for all of us, it’s time to shout from the rooftops – both literally and metaphorically; write if you don’t want to shout – that we have things to to say; that we will no longer be silent and humble and shy about the great things we do in our classrooms. Lift your head up; look people in the eyes: you are a teacher.

#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.

Not Just Confidence. But Integrity. A ‘sort of’ Review of ‘The Confident Teacher’ by Alex Quigley

confidentThere’s a long walk up from York City Centre to Huntington School but it’s a beautiful day, unexpectedly beautiful, and I’m soaking in it. My first visit to the city and, after a nervous, sleep-interrupted night in a TravelLodge, Research-Ed is getting ever closer. I’m listening to Teenage Fan Club. I recall it clearly; Songs From Northern Britain; a nod to my three hour trip from Glasgow the night before; the real Northern Britain. To the jangly guitar twang of ‘Ain’t That Enough’ the humble and ordinary looking Huntington School appears to my right. Yet despite that ordinariness, a welcoming aura surrounds the place.

That welcome feeling defines the school. Throughout the day, the words ‘honourable’, ‘humble’ , integrity’, pepper my notebook. Personified in their remarkable head teacher, John Tomsett, and the one speaker I really want to hear, Alex Quigley, Huntington School in May 2014 is everything you expect it to be. Pupils, in on a Saturday, justly proud of their school, go out of their way to assist. I get my talk out of the way – a poetry-based analysis of Scotland’s curricular development. Yeah, I know, right- and wallow in the atmosphere. If I had ever wondered about the kind of school I’d like to be a part of then on that day I found it.

Two years on, and both John and Alex have become successful authors. There’s a lot of them about in Education. The Twitter world has spawned a multitude of new voices. These two rise above them all. The humanity and integrity I witnessed two years ago shine on every page of John’s book – I blogged about it here – but Alex’s new book, The Confident Teacher, is a different thing altogether.  I loved his first book, Teach Now. Becoming a Great English Teacher. However, the new one achieves something of which most other Education books find themselves falling short.

Like the echo chamber of social media, very few teachers I know bother to read Edubooks. They don’t have the time. There’s a feeling that reading about new approaches and techniques is just another burden on top of the mountain of work we have to complete already. I can teach well. Why should I read your book? Alex’s book does something quite remarkable. I read a lot of these things and, perhaps for the first time, I think ‘The Confident Teacher’ speaks to teachers as equals. It understands the real issues we experience and never patronises. It is practical, positive, hopeful. It is a book written with integrity, humility and a deep, deep passion for teaching. It has knocked me sideways.

Leaving York that night on the evening train back to Northern Britain, I reflected on what I’d experienced that day. I remember little of the sessions apart from my own, the day was too much of blur for that. But I took away an image of the kind of experience I’d hope my school provided. I love my school and hope we display the characteristics of Huntington, at least on some days.

This might not be a book review as such, but I’d recommend Alex’s book to any teacher looking for some practical advice on how to improve our day. Reading it took me back a couple of years; to a school that operated on confidence, with confident staff and pupils. Read it now.

Gulp! Five Years On…

Back in the day, my first opportunity to have my writing in print came in the highly regarded, award-winning match day magazine -programme to you and me – of the great Partick Thistle. Fortnightly, more or less, for about six years, you could read about my childhood memories of watching my team, or ponder over the creative ways I could liken that week’s political events to the experience of being a Thistle supporter. All good things come to an end though. And my page had to come to an end too. I’d written about every memory, every experience, every possible thing I could. I stopped because I couldn’t possibly continue to force things on to the page. Better to let someone else have a go.

blog

From then on I concentrated on teaching. I began blogging exactly five years ago – Gulp – with the intention not of sharing my thoughts, but of expressing them in a way in which I could formulate and clarify my own ideas. While I was on Twitter, I hadn’t thought of the links between that and blogging, or how they could complement each other. What I did discover was that there was a whole new world of people who had things to say and things to share. Our school context didn’t cater for that. I wanted to write but hadn’t factored in the CPD possibilities.

I’m a much better teacher than I was five years ago so I suppose the blog title is an appropriate one. I’ve connected with hundreds of great people, many have become good friends. Blogging has opened doors for me that nothing else in my professional life has come close to. I’ve been invited to write articles for many other publications, been invited to speak at all sorts of conferences and Teachmeets. However, like my days as contributor to the Partick Thistle programme, I am coming to the end of the line with this. I’ve said as much as I have to say.

I’ve never wanted to be a ‘big-hitter’ on Twitter or anywhere else. I’ve never really wanted to leave the classroom. I’ve never really wanted to be seen as an expert in anything. My work with Pedagoo intended to be a way to get teachers talking in a way they’d never done before. We do that and continue to do so. I truly believe that the educational landscape is beginning to change in Scotland and we are a part of that. There are discussions going on in staffrooms – not all but many – which may never have happened before. I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved.

So 2016? I have two huge events happening in my life this year: one personal, one professional. Potentially game changing in many ways. But I think my blogging days may be coming to an end. I’d like to move into more creative writing – something I’ve done more of recently -so may mix my educational thoughts with that. So this is no big ‘I’m off. So long, and thanks’ speech. I may still blog occasionally. It’s just a realisation that I’ve come a long way in five years and I’m maybe ready to move on to something else. Blogging is a blast and, should you be considering it, get going. Be proud of it. I know I am.