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Governance Review (3) – Frank Lennon

This is the third and final post in a series of three blog posts which consider two recent government documents: the Statement for Practitioners from HMCIE (August 2016) and ‘Empowering teachers, parents and communities to achieve excellence and equity in education: A Governance Review’ announced in the Deputy First Minister’s (DFM) speech to Parliament (13 September 2016) launching a consultation on school governance.

  

In his letter accompanying the CfE ‘Statement for Practitioners’ from HMCIE, the DFM explained that this was to be the start of the ‘new narrative’ on CfE as recommended in last December’s OECD Report.  There, addressing “teachers and practitioners across Scotland” directly, he gave a personal undertaking:

“…to give absolute clarity about what is and what is not required of you.  It is intended to place you in a position to know without doubt what you should and should not be asked to do.  It is clear and simple and is the definitive piece of guidance which you should use.”[1]

However welcome teachers and practitioners might find this refreshing plain speaking, they might be forgiven for being more than a little sceptical about “absolute clarity about what is and what is not required” of them arriving any time soon. It seems the “absolute clarity” is to be delivered by the very organisation that many practitioners hold responsible for the “increased workload, confusion and duplication” that the DFM rightly accepted has been created over the implementation years.  Some practitioners are already seeing the document as an attempt to exonerate Education Scotland (ES) for what they see as its cack-handed handling of CfE implementation from the outset. Others, like former Professor of Education Walter Humes are already pouring scorn on the idea that:

“…the body which has been responsible for creating the problem is now being charged with providing the solution.”[2]


One senior school leader put it as follows:  “We are still waiting to hear what the key messages for ES will be – what it is  ‘to do’ and what it is ‘to avoid’”.

Nevertheless whatever its claims are on providing “absolute clarity”, there is some evidence in the statement from HMCIE that the OECD’s exhortation for Scotland to be “bold” in its CfE reforms is being heeded.  The advice of Professor Mark Priestly to abolish the Es and Os altogether might have been too much to have hoped for in such a statement, but we did see something of a return to the philosophy of CfE in such statements as:

“Teachers should be empowered to use the flexibility that CfE provides to organise learning for children and young people in ways that best meets learners’ needs” (p1)

Taken together with the launching of the Governance Review, this might well be welcomed as a “bold” re-statement of the empowerment of teachers once lauded as a major tenet of CfE.  The “key message” to practitioners that:

“All planning must focus directly on enhancing the learner journey. When asked to complete paperwork which does not directly relate to improving the learner journey, challenge this with your colleagues” (p2)

is certainly bold.  However, the question of whether it is helpful or legitimate for HMCIE to be by-passing local authorities, who remain the employers of the vast majority of practitioners in Scotland, with such a direct decontextualized instruction to their workforce is potentially as contentious as by-passing them to give £100m directly to schools.  Some local authorities might be concerned at such an explicit exhortation to their employees from an outside body, albeit with the DFM’s approval, to “challenge” other colleagues especially if these colleagues have been completing paperwork introduced by local authorities only because they were encouraged to do so by the very body that is now encouraging practitioners to challenge it.  Leaving aside the politics of this for the moment, it reads as a refreshing reminder of what one of the great strengths of CfE was intended to be: teacher empowerment.  Nonetheless, it is difficult to decide which is the “bolder” assertion here: the open acceptance that the current state of affairs, where teachers have been effectively disempowered by the scale of unnecessary bureaucracy required of them in the name of CfE implementation or the fact that the point has been reached where it is deemed necessary for ES to direct teachers and practitioners across Scotland to challenge what their employers have been asking them to do.

Furthermore, the mixed message in the same document of instructing individual practitioners to challenge CfE bureaucracy on the one hand, whilst holding out the prospect of the publication, “by the end of 2016,” of  a suite of “definitive” Benchmark documents on other curricular areas which they will be required to read and digest on the other, will worry but not surprise experienced CfE practitioners.  Presently, with only the Benchmark documents on ‘Literacy and English’[3] and Numeracy and Mathematics’[4] to go on – running respectively to 49 and 43 pages[5] – practitioners may well feel that the only “absolute clarity” here is that that they will be facing additional bureaucratic tasks. Given that (with Health and Wellbeing) they form one of the two newly defined “key priorities for CfE”, practitioners may well feel it important to ask if HMCIE envisages these being read/consulted by all practitioners in addition to the promised curricular documents (perhaps of a similar length) on each curricular area?  One of the “Key Messages” for all practitioners is:

“Do not lose a clear focus on helping all children and young people to progress at an appropriate pace and achieve the highest standards in literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing.” (p2)

which certainly seems to imply this.  But in truth, there is little that could be described as providing “absolute clarity” in the ‘Key Messages – What to do/What to avoid’ columns, either on this particular point or on the prospects for reducing bureaucracy in general.  Indeed, somewhat confusingly, both the ‘Literacy and English’ and ‘Numeracy and Mathematics’ documents carry the subtitle ‘Draft, August 2016’ suggesting that each will be subject to review (though by whom is not made clear) before, presumably, ‘final’ documents are published (at a date later in the session that is also unclear).  Are teachers and practitioners to assume that the new Benchmark documents on “other curricular areas” will also be ‘drafts’ ? If so this suggests a further wait for “definitive” versions to be published.  It would appear therefore that the draft documents on ‘Literacy and English’ and ‘Numeracy and Mathematics’ just published, are to be followed by an unspecified number of draft documents on other curricular areas at an unspecified date in the future.  These will then be followed by definitive documents at an unspecified date further in the future.
Whether all of this will help

“… to provide clear, practical advice for teachers and practitioners on planning learning, teaching and assessment”

remains to be seen. Quite apart from what it aims “to do”, namely to streamline the bureaucracy and improve the comprehensibility of CfE, the HMCIE statement for practitioners is notable for what it “avoids”: it avoids identifying which current advice and/or documentation is to be cut.  The avoidance of specifying any such information suggests that all previous advice and documentation still stands.  This leaves practitioners in the confusing position of having to start this session by either guessing from the most recent “key messages” precisely which aspects of previous CfE advice or which previous documents are no longer to be followed, or, monitoring the ES website carefully to see which, if any, pages or links disappear.  Furthermore, the statement also avoids offering any “key messages” on “what to do” or “what to avoid” with SIMD and other sets of data now widely available in schools and the focus, often at the behest of ES, of much recent professional development activity. Over the past couple of years local authorities and schools have invested a great deal of professional development time and energy on training senior leaders and others in how to access such data using Insight the new benchmarking tool.  Whilst significant benefits may well accrue through such activity, there is no doubting the additional bureaucracy involved especially for primary schools.  Given that the document stresses to all teachers and practitioners on page 1 that the two key priorities for CfE are now

“…ensuring the best possible progression in literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing for every child and young person and closing the attainment gap”

 one might have expected some advice on “what to do” and “what to avoid” in using such data in the ‘Key Messages’ columns. One would be disappointed.  On the other hand this may well be judicious restraint: for HMCIE to be issuing decontextualized ‘Govian’ instructions on how to use such highly context-sensitive local information might have been unwise. Thus, though the ‘Statement for Practitioners’ can certainly be applauded for its bold intention:

“… to significantly streamline all our support and guidance materials for the curriculum. This statement and the benchmarks to be published this session are key to this streamlined approach,” [6]

there may be some scepticism amongst practitioners born of previous experience, about whether it is possible to streamline bureaucracy by publishing yet another set of documents. In fact it is now possible to see the publication of ‘Curriculum for Excellence A Statement for Practitioners’ as a continuation, in the same vein, of the process highlighted in the OECD (2015) report: after listing a series of ‘bureaucratic’ attempts at reducing CfE bureaucracy – Tackling Bureaucracy Group’s interim report (2012), final report (2013), follow-up guidelines and research (2014), and further follow-up report (2015) – the OECD called for “simplifying the simplification process” (p104-05).   Streamlining the “streamlined approach” might also now be needed.
Any action to “significantly streamline” the whole process is nevertheless, long overdue and greatly to be welcomed.  Thus, like Professor Mark Priestly we can be “…heartened to see a reinforcement of the message that bureaucracy should be reduced”[7] in HMCIE’s statement.  That it has been felt necessary for this to be openly acknowledged only now, four years after the publication of the Tackling Bureaucracy Group’s ‘Interim Report’ (2012), is in itself a statement which will not be lost on practitioners. The need for streamlining CfE guidance and support materials seems to have been occasioned by one of the most telling comments in the OECD Report which was on the comprehensibility of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE).  The OECD Report said:

“… the complexity of the layers and dimensions, when all are put together, raises its own questions about how comprehensible is the Curriculum for Excellence”.[8]  (OECD 2015 p44)

 

It is certainly reassuring that the issue of CfE’s “comprehensibility” is explicitly recognised, both in the DFM’s letter and in the HMCIE statement itself, as having been of particular concern to practitioners. Ironically perhaps, neither comprehensibility nor clarity arose as specific issues during the phase when the values and purposes of CfE were being framed.  However, as the OECD report amply demonstrates and the DFM’s letter openly accepts, they have grown as issues throughout the CfE implementation process. Practitioners, burdened by a seemingly ever increasing bureaucracy, were asking about the comprehensibility of CfE long before the OECD.  Although the intention about providing “absolute clarity” is admirable enough, it is doubtful that it is achieved by the publication of this latest document.  The problem is indeed “… the complexity of the layers and dimensions” but it has taken this exegesis by the OECD in 2015 to prompt the current action:

“• Four capacities, covering 12 attributes and 24 capabilities across the four – 40 in all;

  • Five levels, from early to senior, of which four are covered by Broad General Education;
  • Seven principles, six entitlements and ten aims;
  • Eight curriculum areas and three inter-disciplinary areas;
  • 1,820 Experiences and Outcomes statements (1,488 in the 8 curriculum areas + 332 in the 3 inter-disciplinary areas);
  • Four contexts for learning;
  • [Numerous]’Significant aspects’ of learning.” (OECD 2015 p44)


Yet, far from streamlining the above to give “absolute clarity” to practitioners, the HMCIE statement begins by seeming to add to it with new definitions of  “…the two key priorities for CfE” which are:

    “ •  ensuring the best possible progression in literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing for every child and young person; and

  • closing the attainment gap.” (p1)

It then goes on to identify the “two key resources” which teachers should use as “Experiences and Outcomes” and “Benchmarks” (p1). Professor Priestly is surely right to ask whether, by adding the “Benchmarks”,  we are not creating “… a spiral of specification”[9] as described by Alison Wolf (1995).  He points to an unintended and potentially dangerous, consequence here namely, that although these might be initially welcomed by teachers because they could provide if not “absolute”, then at least a degree of clarity, currently unavailable from the Es and Os, they might in fact encourage “bureaucratic box-ticking and convergent approaches to learning”[10] and even increase teacher workload.

 

 Conclusion

 The two latest Scottish Government documents at least continue to give education the highest profile.  Of the two, the Governance Review is by far the more significant offering the realistic prospect of transformational change which, even in “..the lifetime of this Parliament” could improve the life chances of some the most disadvantaged of our young people. The Statement for   Practitioners though on an entirely different level, shares with the Governance Review, the strong tendency for official announcements and publications on education however well-intentioned, to send out mixed messages.  In this sense whether the claim to be providing “absolute clarity” will be seen as either justified or as folly, remains to be seen but, as we have seen above, the persistence of haziness and even contradiction, could have a negative impact in spite of the consultation. The continued acceptance by the profession of the overall philosophy and purpose of CfE, should not be taken for granted and may be put in jeopardy if unnecessary mixed messages which bedevilled CfE’s implementation from the start, continue.  If the Statement for Practitioners’ 18 ‘What to do’ and 17 ‘What to avoid’ KEY MESSAGES” remain without any modification to existing CfE advice about what is to be “avoided” or repealed, practitioners may simply see these – 35 in all – as additional burdens emanating from a remote and out-of-touch bureaucracy which continues to imply that it is they, the teachers and practitioners across Scotland and their approaches to the implementation of CfE, that have been the problem all along.


Frank Lennon recently retired as headteacher of Dunblane High School

[1] Letter from DFM and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills to Teachers and Practitioners across Scotland, 29 August 2016
[2] http://www.scottishreview.net/WalterHumes77a.html
[3]  https://education.gov.scot/improvement/Documents/LiteracyEnglishBenchmarks.pdf

[4]  https://education.gov.scot/improvement/Documents/NumeracyMathematicsBenchmarks.pdf

[5] It is salutary to note that the original CfE paper of November 2004 was barely twelve pages long.

[6] https://education.gov.scot/improvement/Documents/cfestatement.pdf

[7] https://mrpriestley.wordpress.com/2016/08/30/a-statement-for-practitioners-how-useful-is-the-new-cfe-guidance/

 

[8] http://www.oecd.org/edu/school/improving-schools-in-scotland.htm

 

[9] Wolf, A. (1995). Competence-Based Assessment. Buckingham: Open University Press

[10] https://mrpriestley.wordpress.com/2016/08/30/a-statement-for-practitioners-how-useful-is-the-new-cfe-guidance/