An open letter to any education policy maker in Scotland – Morag Pendry

 

 

Here are 8 of my potential policies, which I believe, would help to achieve higher levels of numeracy and literacy for everyone in Scotland.

Test if you must, but I think these alternatives will address the problem of achieving and sustaining the improvements and not just measuring them.

Please watch this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yEh3JG74C6s.  Sir Harry Burns explaining what “wellness” is in order to achieve “common wealth”

 

Gaps and minding them
The word “gap” is being bandied around in the educational world these days, particularly with reference to educational attainment.

It’s a vaguely interesting word – dictionary definitions: break in structure, something missing, interval of time, disparity, problem caused by disparity, opening between mountains.

Like these definitions, the reasons and perceptions of a “gap” our education system are many, varied and in 50 years of successive educational policy, apparently insurmountable.

I have recently attended, Angela Constance, Kezia Dugdale and Nicola Sturgeon’s presentations on their aspirations for Scotland’s educational attainment and there was much mention of gaps. Angela had lots to say about aspiration but with few solutions. Kezia also aspired to close the gap but had a few more suggestions as how to do this (which she has apparently sent to Nicola) However, Nicola takes the ambition prize for wanting to not just close, but eradicate the educational gap altogether.  Is this aspirational in the same way the ambition to close the opening between mountains would be?

The other 3 definitions are the ones that I believe that the government should be focusing on: break in structure, something missing and problem caused by disparity.

The break in structure is the silent enemy behind many of our educational gaps. The students who underperform (in tests/exams?) tend to have less structured, less disciplined lives and lives usually blighted by the poverty these lifestyles engender. This then leads to the something missing which is good income, good health, good housing, ambition, purpose and ultimately gives us, and them, a serious gap most often observed by living in a particular postcode. This is then the problem caused by the ensuing disparity between the haves and have nots in health and financial wealth: high paying, secure jobs require high levels of numeracy and literacy.

Create and apply generic and universal tests if you must, but do not delude yourself that this in itself will contribute to closing the gap – we already know who falls through the “gap” and why.

To give this an analogical dimension, its like going to the doctor and having a blood test to confirm you are anemic, then asking you to come back in a couple of years and see if you are still anemic.  Meanwhile, just do more of what you are already doing to see if that helps. Anemia will still be there ( if the patient survives!) unless we diagnose and treat the source of the problem. More blood tests will not really help and perhaps even make the condition worse!

Teachers are already doing everything they can to help close this gap- they always have – what is needed is transformative practice, not just rhetoric and multiple “visions”! With structured and directed ambition and well thought through policy, these gaps could definitely be closed but realistically, not eradicated.

The Policies
So, as in the same generous spirit of gifting as Kezia demonstrated, here are my suggestions for policy changes.

  • Recognise that schools are “institutions” which need to be part of a community. Why do they need to all be run in the same way? Diversity and freedom to do what is needed for the benefit of their own community should be encouraged. If you ask young people (and teachers), who “owns” the school , it is often surprising and informative.

Policy 1: Ensure that everyone feels they own and have a say how the school they are involved with is run and have a voice in their community. Make sure that all services feel equally involved in a child’s future health, wealth and happiness.  High levels of numeracy and literacy are a consequence of this sense of ownership and engagement, not the other way round.

Policy 2:  Ensure that the leaders you appoint can actually lead and innovate and inspire, not just follow instructions. Give them the freedom, time and space to make the changes required in collegiate partnership with staff, pupils and the wider community without  “fear” of inspections that may not have the same improvement agenda. This is a slow process and cannot be measured solely by year on year exam results and positive destination statistics.

  • Teachers are professional people. They care and want the best for their students. Ask them what would make the difference and start by finding out why so many are leaving the profession and I’m pretty sure its not just about pay…. In my discussions it is about frustration with a complex bureaucratic, hierarchical target driven environment, a system that still favours academic attainment and only values the things that can be measured by numbers and statistics.

Policy 3:  Compulsory exit survey to find out  (honestly and perhaps therefore anonymously) why teachers are leaving the profession.

Policy 4:  Before asking teachers to take on any more new initiatives, decide which ones you are doing away with first. (not everything needs to be written down and stored as evidence, just because we have the technology to so)

  • Schools (and/or parents?) still favour academic subjects, particularly the “hard” ones such as Maths and Physics over anything else. This is because if a university place is the ultimate goal then getting a clutch of “good” highers is priority. If the “gap” (but not as in the “gap year”!) students perceive themselves as non- academic then they don’t feel as valued as other students, so alienation begins early.

Policy 5 : Free up the curriculum so that not every thing students experience has an exam at the end of it. Philosophy, Home Economics and PE should be compulsory till they leave school and assessment should be on how much they enjoy it and of course how it contributes to them leading physically, emotionally and financially healthier lives.  Happy, healthy, motivated students learn better and more deeply than those just trying to pass an exam.

Policy 6: Recognise that numerical targets work well in an industrial widget producing factory setting but not in achieving good levels of literacy and numeracy for human beings.

NB- this of course would mean that university entrance would need to be re- assessed, but that is perhaps a key issue to be looked at anyway! Employers are currently moving away from using traditional SQA exam results as way of choosing future employees as they are more interested in what their skill sets are. Communication, motivation, ability to learn new things and be adaptable will be the currency of the future in becoming an employee, employer or entrepreneur. Passing exams may form a small part of this skill set, but certainly not be as all-consuming as it is in the current educational environment.

  • The “gap” that we are all keen to close starts before birth, so early years is the crucial area for investment and support. We know from evidence research and personal experience that every parent wants the best for their child but we also know that not everyone knows how to be the best parent they can be… how could we, as it is the one thing we don’t make compulsory  learning at school!

Policy 7: Every secondary school should have a co-operative nursery unit for the use of teachers, students and the local community, to learn about and have support for parenting skills. This should be run by professional early years staff, but offer the opportunity for parenting skills for everyone.  Places at this could be offered on purely financial terms or on a time bank system (give time and money equal status for “spending”).  If run well, this could be a self -sustaining social enterprise.

Policy 8: Formal schooling should not start until a child is physically, socially and emotionally ready for it and in most cases this would about 7 years of age. Our children are amongst the youngest, formally educated children in the world.

If all these policies are introduced, we would become a ‘slow education” society, a bit like the “slow food” movement.  Take our time to enjoy deep meaningful learning as and when our development stage and learning interests are engaged. We are all living so much longer, what is the rush to cram in all this learning at such a young age?

What we need is Curriculum for Excellence as it was first conceived, not what it has become!

Summary of policies:
Policy 1: Ensure that everyone feels they own and have a say how the school they are involved with is run, and have a voice in their community.
Policy 2:  Ensure that the leaders you appoint can actually lead and innovate and inspire, not just follow instructions.
Policy 3:  Compulsory exit survey to find out  (honestly and perhaps therefore anonymously) why teachers are leaving the profession.
Policy 4:  Before asking teachers to take on any more new initiatives, decide which ones you are doing away with first.
Policy 5: Free up the curriculum so that not every thing students experience has an exam at the end of it.
Policy 6: Recognise that numerical targets work well in an industrial widget producing factory setting but not in achieving good levels of literacy and numeracy for human beings.
Policy 7: Every secondary school should have a co-operative nursery unit for the use of teachers, students and the local community, to learn about and have support for parenting skills.
Policy 8: Formal schooling should not start until a child is physically, socially and emotionally ready for it and in most cases this would be about 7 years of age.

 

Morag Pendry is the Development Manager for the Co-operative Education Trust Scotland (CETS) and a member of the Commission on School Reform