A copy of the 12th November Thunderer article I wrote for The Times which has now sparked #iPlay4Peace moving from a concept to a reality across the world



In May 1919 Australian soldier journalist Edward George Honey wrote to the London Evening News.  As the first anniversary of the ending of the ‘Great’ War approached, all that was planned were veterans’ celebratory dinners.   ‘Foster’ (Honey’s pseudonym) appealed for five minutes silence. This led eventually to King George V calling for two minutes silence, arranged only days before 11/11/1919.

One hundred years of silences are soon to pass.  We might ask, ‘what have we learned from it all and how have we progressed?’  Commemoration activity has taken place, yet conflict continues.  Commemorations have been sombre, respectful and reverent. Planners have navigated political milestones of the Scottish independence referendum and Brexit.  These may have tapered activity, indeed made some events almost anonymous.  Some events have not extend beyond those who would normally don a poppy and attend remembrance parades or lectures about military history.  There had been discussion on whether there should have been a number of events or a few larger scale events?  Community interest events extended activities beyond ‘Red Tab’ committees’ proposals.  The powerful embryonic growth of creative, commemorative activity is a symbolic marker of how strongly communities feel about paying their respect to ‘The Fallen.’ One example was the “We Are Here” voluntary re-enactors leaving a subtle, emotive mark on some British towns.

‘Passchendaele’ events were perhaps the most ambitious commemorative event.  However, perhaps ‘Passchendaele’ missed an opportunity, historically and literally, then and now.  The youth choir sung truly wonderfully.  However, where were young voices presenting readings?  Their views more powerful now, and for the future, than the well-known celebrities featured. And what about German voices? All suffer in war.

After 100 years of silence we might ask “what is the legacy of it all?”  And, “what is humanity’s mark of respect?”  Whilst not wanting to in any way interfere with the reverend and respectful activity of Armistice morning, might one respectfully request an activity to pay our respects a century on and to promote the key message that should come from the lesson of war:- cooperation over conflict.

On the afternoon/evening of future Armistice Sundays, might musicians across the globe strike up in unison, playing the international language, recognised and revered by all? Music to the ears – a symbol of our ability to work together.  The respectful silence must remain but then united voices need heard if we really want to end war and live in peaceful coexistence.

Neil McLennan is a former history teacher and has chaired Wilfred Owen’s Edinburgh commemorative events committee in 2017.


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Charlottesville Chaos needs multi-perspective historical reasoning

Events in Charlottesville expose some of the clashes of ideas, values and beliefs which not only are the root of tensions, historically and now, but also expose the multi-faceted make up of some of those at the centre of the tensions.  A fuller understanding of history, as ever, can help to understand the issues and could also prevent them.

The Charlottesville protests started first and foremost with attempts to remove statues to Confederate Civil War generals. In particular the removal of Confederate Commander Robert E. Lee and the renaming of parkland around the site as Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park) has sparked controversy.  Both ante bellum and post Civil War America are complex at best.  Whether Lee was a racist, by modern standards, as much of standards of the day, is ripe for debate, just as the racism or otherwise of ‘The Great Emancipator’ Lincoln in equally not clear cut.  (I know that for sure having undertaken my CSYS Dissertation on Lee and then studied and Edinburgh University Course on the American Civil War).

What is clear cut is that protesters were clearly carrying and waving Nazi and neo Nazis flags and symbols. The irony of this extends to many levels.  First and foremost the fact that these protesters can reconcile being American and neo Nazi is one strange conundrum.  America along with almost the rest of the world (eventually) fought against the Nazis.  Moreover the conundrum extends to pre 1939 activity.  For swastika waving things to protest at the removal of statues and history is ironic given the Nazi’s attempts to re-write history and destroy our knowledge of many areas.  Perhaps that part of the Nazi’s eradicating history has been blindly forgotten by the protestors.

If we are looking at America in distain and pointing the finger at Trump we would do well to take a multi-perspective approach, both looking back to history but also looking for trends in other settings in the current day. For in Scotland too we have altered what is taught in history classrooms, we have seen freedom of speech attacked on twitter and elsewhere and we have seen flag waving protests and animosity.  Thankfully we have not seen deaths as a result of nationalist outpourings.  However, as Edmund Burke warned “The Rise of Evil happens because a few good men do nothing.”  We must keep in our guard to curb the ever present potential excesses.  Everyone has a role to play in this.

Reconciling our history will always prove challenging, not least as all of our history is never clear cut. With many layers it is often complex, changing and sometimes even enigmatic.  And so to solutions to the Charlottesville sad saga:-  Like entrenched work issues such as Israel and the Middle East, these will not come about quickly or simply. However they will also not come about without suggestion, though leadership and influence.  A start for ten would be to leave the Lee statue where it is.  Removing it is akin to the burning of books carried out by the Nazi’s in the 1930s.  Secondly, proceed to rename the park Emancipation Park goes some way to recognise progress.  The change of name reflects the prevalent culture and trends and our greater understanding and acknowledgment of period in history and shifts in how we have shed light on it.  Leaving the statue shows some conciliation to commemorating the past whilst renaming the park shows progress and potential for change. Many many places across the world have had multiple uses, names and influences. Charlottesville would be no different in this regards.

Meantime, the biggest challenge now is how to protect freedom of speech and freedom to protest and marching alongside charging those responsible for crimes during the bloody events. Diplomatic but firm and consistent leadership at ground level will be required.  At a more senior level political leadership sets the tone and the ‘thought leadership’ as we move forward. In America and elsewhere we need to be careful not to trust those whose conflicting messages promise “all things to all men.”  They are likely to be the source of ongoing tensions.  Closely interpreting their messages and greater understanding of history will be vital if we are to progress as society, as civilization, as humanity.  Hopefully many places in the world can return to the latter sometime soon.  It is humans after all that make history –for better or for worse!  If we are to agree with philosopher Hume on passion rather than reason informing human behaviour and experience cementing our knowledge base, then it is time for the “good guys and girls” to step forward- whoever they are?

Neil McLennan is a former Institute of Contemporary Scotland, Young Scot of the Year and also a former President of the Scottish Association of Teachers of History.




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Championing Aspiration



“Aspiration is the educational fashion” according to Lindsay Patterson (Sunday Times 15 January 2016). However might it be used to effectively reconceptualise education at this time of turmoil, bad news and ongoing reform?

At present government ministers and civil servants as well as leaders in school education are scrambling about trying to steer the education system as international league tables show a sinking position in the education standards against international comparators. Pressure is mounting throughout the good ship Vital Spark, not least around closing the attainment related poverty gap, where edu-neers are being instructed, “full steam ahead” despite some well publicised reservations around the policy potential.  I have written before on the need for a multi-faceted approach to alleviating or, moreover ending, poverty which includes education inputs.  This area will require many more inputs across public services before reduced poverty gap outcomes are achieved.   Leaving this only to schools is irresponsible, although schools have a vital role to play.

During this debate ‘aspiration’ has entered the policy narrative although only around the edges. Some might cast aspiration into, at worst, a neoliberalist campaign aligned with grit and resilience, and, at best, American psychological approaches creeping into every day UK and Scottish education.  However there are some things worth considering.  As with everything in education:- do not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

A campaign run by the Royal Society of Edinburgh Young Academy of Scotland over the past two years revealed a showed a wide range of aspirational advice being shared with young people across Scotland and indeed across the world. The campaign also revealed a broad range of views on advice for young people but also some indications on what education is really all about and might look like.  Whilst UNESCO offered four purposes for school education (to know, to do, to be and to be together) not all of these have been taken up with gusto by Scottish education.  Then again its own four capacities have never been reviewed so the chances of UNESCO aims being looked at are perhaps limited.

The #aspirationaladvice campaign gathered a range of views from creativity to motivation to being true to oneself. Moreover, it showed that having a dream, having goals, having role models and having purpose meant something.

Education is for many more things than government hard statistics. We should be finding out what the aspirations are of our young people.  Moreover we should be learning from them. Furthermore, are we meeting the aspirations of our children?  That study might reveal that the education system is achieving much.  At an individual level self-actualisation and at a national level something defined from within rather than international comparators or even a middle class view of what the world should be like layered onto communities.

Naysayers and would-be soothsayers will say that not everyone is going to become a rocket scientist. This is true however one might recall the story of the janitor sweeping the floor at NASA.  “What do you do?” he was asked by the President.  “I help send people to the moon” was his famous reply.

On the other hand some might suggest that aspirations to “a trade” or vocational work are not enough. One might look at the economy for some answers to the questions emanating from that one.

Many similar stories of aspiration and self-actualisation and aspiration can be told. What is more gratifying when progress made as a result of that dream.  I know of one doctor who did not get the Higher grades to get into Medicine during her pretty unsuccessful time at school. However her keenness to serve others as a doctor saw her achieve the grades there through alternative means.  An alternative but still a robust root.  Today she is one of the key servants on the NHS supporting us all.  What about her aspiration? Was it just fashionable?  God help us and all the patients who benefit from her expertise if she did not have aspirations.

As a teacher I recall taking over a new a class in a new school. I was going through the class list with the previous teacher.  He told me one student was a “7/foundation” (the lowest grade you could get at Standard Grade).  I made it my mission to make sure she got a higher grade than Foundation Standard Grade.  With my aspiration for her and her aspiration we achieved a “1/Credit” (the top grade you could achieve in Standard Grade).  Was aspiration just fashionable there?

More needs to be investigated about aspiration before we write it off as trendy and fashionable. If it were the case then those Lindsay Paterson notes ‘without talent’ and born into ‘the wrong families’ would fail completely.  Is that the aspiration we have for Scottish education?



Neil McLennan is the co-author of Determined to Succeed, The Art of Achievement and Speaking of Values. He was the founder and curator of the RSE Young Academy of Scotland #aspirationaladvice campaign, and organisation where he was also Co-Chair.

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Leadership Values- the who and the how

This is my second leadership article for SBNN.  It was written last night before the result became clear. The first one can be accessed here:- http://www.sbnn.co.uk/2016/09/14/neil-mclennan-leadership-everywhere-really/




Leadership Values- the who and the how
In the first article in this series exploring wider issues around leadership, we looked at “what is leadership?” The definition is clear but we explored whether it matched our modern perceptions of what leadership is about or should be about.
In this article we will look at the ‘who’ and the ‘how’ of leadership in broad terms. The current events of the US Presidential election, to some, show that anyone can be President. History perhaps tells us, if the man born in a log cabin can make it to the top, then anyone can.
But is it really true that anyone can make it to the top? I have recently returned from America and the people I spoke to only used one word to describe the current campaign– “embarrassing”. American people I spoke within the traditional Republican areas in the south and traditional Democratic voters in the north east suggested that they might not vote at all. For those who were voting, their vote was more about who they did not want elected in, rather than any strong affiliation to one candidate.
However, both candidates got into these positions. Trump though success in business and Clinton through connections but also her own record in public office. Getting into the top job is another matter and succeeding there is another matter. Drawing from the last article we should remind ourselves that in the first instance, they have put themselves forward. In so many walks of life a vacuum exists and the leader is the one who steps into that domain (either willingly of coerced). It was refreshing to see a secondary school engender that spirit of “anything is possible” with its students and encouraging them that “if you are not at the start line, then you cannot win the race.” Only last week the Scottish Conservative Leader, and Scottish Politician of the Year, Ruth Davidson had one message for anyone considering a career in politics, “get involved.” Maybe there needs to be more of this spirit in modern society – the leader figures steps forward in the first instance. Remember Theodore Roosevelt’s Paris speech in 1910:-
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
However, as the American elections come to a close, the issue for Americans is perhaps less so who the candidates are as to what they stand for. And so a central component of leadership comes to the fore. The character assassinations, the analysis of how they act and have behaved all focussed back on one core issue – values.
Having recently published a new eBook on values, it has been fascinating to speak with so many people across the business community in Scotland about their value base and how they developed a core set of values . Those interviewed in the book gave willingly of their time, experience and story. What has emerged is a useful mapping of value considerations across modern Scotland. The truth is, there is no right or wrong with values. However, they are clear indicators for another person of the value and worth they place in you. This is all the more so in leadership positions.
Whilst the winner of the American election will assume power, their ability to progress successfully as a leader will be largely dictated by how they behave and the values they hold to amongst other variables. However, if values accord then there is more chance of success. For the top leadership position perhaps does not carry as much power as we might assume. Barack Obama’s inability to progress with legislative changes is evidence of this point. Whilst the political process can hold a leader back, so too can the other agencies of power who might even hold ultimate power. The CIA for one and the FBI another within the American system, the latter of which has been heavily involved in the finishing stages of this election process.
And whilst other institutions hold power, the truth is (and should be in a democratic system), real and sustained power comes from the people and is held within the people (at least in the modern democratic context). Many examples of this can be seen in American politics – the Vietnam War policy for one where students, African Americans, the media, the unions and women were all key influencers on changing leader’s direction. This links back to our assumption in the first article that leaders need a followership. In actual fact, many of the best leaders simply lead in the direction the momentum is moving towards. Churchill is an example of the leader being the bobbing cork in the waves of the backbenches thrown ashore by the crisis tide of war and political vacuum. His services welcome during the storm of troubles and then slowly slipped away again by the calmer tides of the post-war era when the need for his particular style of leadership was no longer needed nor wanted.
And so, returning to Britain, at this time of Remembrance we see many examples of leadership being shared. Medal winners, heroes and leaders from various conflicts have emerged from villages and towns across our country. Many of the revered never in leadership positions before. They took on leadership roles and performed heroic deeds in the heat of battle. If we continue on the theme that leaders need followers, I ask two questions for reflection:-
• Would you follow Trump or Clinton “over the top” into battle?
• Would you follow the leadership example you are setting for yourself?

Other questions coming to the surface from this through piece include:-
• How important is social capital in the success of leadership?
• What values do others see in you and your leadership style?

As a final question:-
• Is the definition of leadership that we explored in the first article a suitable one in the modern era and does it reflect the reality of what we would want from our leadership figures?
In the modern era the position and title is not enough, the values by which you lead are all important if anything is to be achieved.

Neil McLennan is Director of Leadership Programmes at the University of Aberdeen. The MSc Leadership in Profession Contexts programme caters for middle level leaders through to Headteachers and senior officers.

More details on University of Aberdeen leadership courses can be found at:-

More details of Neil’s latest publication, on values based leadership, can be found at:-









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Resetting the dial:- 5As for Scottish Education: the answer to all our problems?


First and foremost many thanks to those who have emailed, called, DM tweeted and facebooked in response to my first three blogs on the current position on Scottish education. I also got a message from one teacher’s father who said she was greatly inspired by the blogs!  Truly parental engagement!  What is interesting is the lack of public responses to some of the blogs and the private nature with which many share thoughts- this in itself if maybe worth a future blog about the culture and confidence of the system.  Alas, another blog…..

Onwards with the 5As blog….

When I first starting writing the last three blogs of Scottish education, earlier this summer, I always had in mind a fourth blog to offer up some solutions and a possible vision for taking the array of matters raised forward. The need for this was reinforced when I shared them with a senior academic friend who viewed them.  The reviewer felt  they neatly captured the issues but did not necessarily offer a way forward.  The timing of some fresh solutions seems pertinent as education continues to sit ‘centre stage’ in Scottish policy and practice discussions but with no real way forward for the system and ultimately for young people.  Whilst this final blog was written around August/September I have been terrible at updating the blog lately so apologies for the delay.

That said, ideas come over time. This is important in education.  How much of our lives have  become about instant results, instant gratification, the now and the present?  With some matters, we need to give them time.  Time to formulate them, time to engage with them, time to let them settle in and time to reflect on them.  (We noted earlier that time was not afforded to CfE before the tinkering began.  Some might want to reflect on where this started to go wrong.  For me it was the rush to get BTC5 out and not letting BTC4 settle in and be digested and implemented.  BTC5 was rushed due to pressures within the system at that time and never really got off the ground.  At senior phase level what eventually transpired has only recently seen another overhaul- again not necessarily for the better but in a knee jerk reaction to pressures around workload issues for staff and students.  Alas, the change has been made- be careful what you wish for would be my advice.)

With that notion of time affirmed, it might be useful to reflect that much of this particular thought piece on some solution to the issues first started almost five years ago. An innovative Director of Education who was strongly committed to detailed and deep thinking about education and what we are doing helped spark this.  That Director was also committed to all staff being involved in the process and the thought leadership was interesting on a number of counts (another blog article altogether maybe).  The Director asked all officers supporting education to write a vision statement of what education was about and what was needed in the that area.  Not only that, but the Director wanted to see them all and wanted to act upon some of the ideas contained within.  All of the ideas helped to form up a vision and direction for the future.

My own submission centred around 5As:-

  • Attainment. All students should have the opportunity to access and do their very best in examinable/certified subjects of their choosing.
  • Achievement. Students should have access to and an opportunity to succeed in a wide range of activities outwith the formal curriculum but where learning, skills, values, attributes and working together and individually are developed. Accreditation is a bonus but not necessarily the aim per se. Skill development, character formation and experiences should be at the forefront of minds here.
  • Active. Students should be active in both the physical sense and the mental sense. They should be engaged in sport, community activity and mentally simulated with creativity, challenge and enjoyment focussed activities.
  • Aspiration, Ambition and Self- Actualisation- do children have an aspiration and a dream. Self-actualisation is a vital part of what education supports.
  • Attributes. Students should have the opportunity to think about the sort of attributes that will help them meet their aspirations in life and then be afforded the opportunity and support to develop them.

They were, I felt, a better balanced measure of what education should be about and what we should be doing to helping young people. Moreover, accountability structures should be aligned to them to ensure there was not the usual narrow lenses for attainment.  Taking it a step further, I felt then, and still feel, there should be an award across Scotland which captures all of the 5As when students achieve a certain standard in each area or indeed meet their own goals which are crafted in partnership with parents, practitioners and partners.  That award has the potential to be achievable, tell employers a lot more about the person and, moreover would reform the way in which we support children towards success in learning, life and work.

Just after starting to release this current sequence of blogs, I was asked to speak on BBC Radio Scotland about the Programme for Government. I rightly predicated that the current approach to Closing the Gap would continue and that school infrastructure would be high on the agenda (the latter easy guess given where the First Minister was launching it from and the message to be at the forefront of communications).  I also reflected on the move away from some of the broader themes of CfE with the current Closing the Gap agenda. Raising attainment rightly should be one of the pillars of CfE (successful learners)and remains so.  However the Closing the Gap approach has narrowed the focus back to easy measurable- exam results and national assessment- at a time when we could have looked at opening out and focussing on other issues that really would have changed the system but also the outcomes.  I noted that it would have been both powerful and interesting if we had some effort to measure schools on physical and mental health and wellbeing outcomes.  I was asked if this was a potential.  It is clearly not going to happen in Scotland at this time.  However, there is an international movement to consider a better balance of health/wellbeing/character alongside ‘accademics’ (see my next post on Positive Education- when I get around to uploading it(!)). Whilst such balancing is in no way featuring in government policy just now, we need to start sowing the seeds, even more so as the Closing the Gap agenda fails to pull together the two divides being talked about just now.  Closing the gap itself would make for an interesting society.  I don’t think we have an example of it anywhere and I am not sure the concept of closing the gap has been fully thought through in that regard.  However, we can certainly narrow that gap and we can do so by broadening the purpose and outcomes we are concerned with.  As with this article and the previous blogs, it will just take time for the process to filter through the system.  After all, many nod away, agreeing with Ken Robinson’s video but it is not universally revolutionising education systems overnight.   In fact it is not even revolutionising thousands of classrooms at this stage.

The ebb and flow of change will see some things swinging back and forward like a pendulum. Some of this is because of disillusionment with ‘old’ ideas, some of it is because of political influence, some of it because of the ‘next bright idea’, and some of it for less nefarious reasons. One such pendulum swing that seems stuck in Scotland just now is the way in which schools are governed, run and resources.  The government has announced a review in spring of next year.  When I wrote my first blog post I sounded a slight alarm bell with regards to the academy and privatisation of schools.  However, one must look carefully at all options.  Two examples spring to mind where such an approach can and does work.  Jim McCall’s Newlands College is a great example where private finance and vision can help create fresh opportunities for young people.  It is a breath of fresh air in our education system.  In the States too, there are some great examples of private partnerships forming to support the most vulnerable in communities.  Their financial support outstrips anything public bodies could contribute and they bring a new approach and dynamism to tackling local issues such as under achievement, low attainment and poverty.  Whilst we might not agree with the idea in principle we cannot just throw it out.  The jury is of course still out on academies but so too should the jury be out on comprehensive system if we want a full and robust review next year.  In the meantime local authorities will begin a rear-guard defence of  their locus or individuals manoeuvring into potential regional boards.  (At this point, remember Humes, The Leadership Class).  We need to be sure that the new model which comes forth has something different to offer based on sound research, buy in and clarity on the results and how to achieve them.  Otherwise we enter into another round of deckchair shuffling on the good ship Titanic.

And so, keeping a solution focused theme, how does all this help with some of the issues I noted in my previous three blogs on Scottish education? Here is a quick overview of the issues raised and some potential solutions offered.  The second column is the most interesting one and the one I would be keen to hear the views of others- how we do overcome some of the solutions which we are all aware of and many want changed:-

Blog Piece 1: The Education Revolution is Coming

Issue raised Possible solution
Concerns about potential new structures for schools akin to academy model and ‘privatisiation of schools’ similar to south of the border


A full review is needed to look at all models. Nothing should be off the table and once there is clarity on options a widespread consultation should take place.  Many supported the ‘radical’ reforms of the Commission for School Reform. Alas, now with the prospect of that increased autonomy (and associated accountability and administrative burden) many are drawing back.  Regardless, each option needs unearthed and a full and rigerous analysis given to it as to whether it will help enhance our stagnating education system.
Lack of real change in our schools and how we educate young people


What did the ‘CfE PR Powerpoints’s envisage?:- less assessment, longer teaching blocks, Inter-disciplinary learning, open space for learning (even learning more outdoors). Have these been realised?  If not, are we still happy that these will change life chances- if so- lets go for it.
Slow rate of progress in implementing education reform


CfE is now over a decade old.   Should we now be embedding it rather than changing it?
Inability to define any progress against four capacities


If we still believe in them, we need to enter into discussion about what they actually mean and how we are going to show current and ongoing progress with each of them.
CfE never really celebrated Teaching & Learning for Excellence


Do we now need to start pulling together national documentation highlighting and sharing best T&L practice. After all, it is the teaching and learning that will make the difference. The structures are just enablers.
Local authorities seen as barriers / slowers to reform and in other cases seen as guards of equity


Education review / consultation will flush out those matters?
Let CfE work and then celebrate the success


Has there been an adequate celebration of where CfE has been successful? There needs to be!  Where have you got reportable  significant success?

Blog Piece 2:- The Strange Death of CfE

Issue raised Possible solution
GERM approaches seeing increase in high accountability and high stakes testing


Lessons learned from countries who adopted such an approach and full evaluation of all output measures- not just exam results but include wellbeing of young people, offending rates, staff recruitment/retention/moral .
“eating our own”


Culture shift in education community/communities
Lack of clarity around CfE goals- a national conversation on the purpose of education


Discussion around 4 capacities and what they really mean and how they can be achieved.

National discussion on why we educate

Lack of definition or event mention of 4 capacitates in Education Scotland documentation. Move from glib policy speak to clarity after consultation and implement.


As above- clear definitions and expectations.

If something is a pillar- it needs to thread through all documents and for it to be evaluated regularly.

Lack of tracking of 4 capacities (something more than just exam results)


As above- lack of clarity will make this challenging at the present time.


Blog piece 3:- The panacea of school improvement

Issue identified Potential solutions
Issue of theory into practice.   Many reports (theory and research into some is questionable) but never closed the loop.


Better link up between research-policy-practice in a cycle of ongoing self-evaluation and triangulation.


Report authors held accountable for progress made with recommendations.


Attainment challenge- no initial results, narrow agenda,


Broaden Closing the Gap agenda

Sharing of results so far and longer term goals

Review methods of giving resource to schools in “most need.” (for example, high attaining schools with small cohort underachieving / in poverty unlikely to see funding- is this equitable or crude distribution).


Lack of realisation that education is only one part in closing poverty gap- limited evidence of narrative of what else is going in to close the gap beyond NIF and SAC


Full-scale, research led, overview of causes of poverty and interventions within and beyond education.
The need for partnerships, better cohesion and linking up of multiple stands that make progress for young people.   An exam system that reflects that


More, effective joint working


Review accreditation system to reflect broader educational outcomes.

Need for sharing mechanisms.   ES go back to what LTS was good at- high profile and worthwhile networks, sharing online and in person.


High profile celebration of success where results and showing significant differences being made in progress and improvement.
Streamlined assessment and paper work processes that support children, not hinder time of those who are there to do that.


The piece speaks for itself.   Tackling Bureaucracy needs to be seen through and efforts made not to increase this over time.
Strong parent and family input


As well as International Board advising FM and DFM on education policy, similar group formed of partners, community interests, employers and education community.


Whilst the 5As approach and the above is a broader offering, one thing that would be required to make much of this work- trust, time and tenacity to follow it through…..


And with that in mind and a solution orientated approach, lets champion Scottish education again and aim for 5As for every student. What better thing for our children to aim for:-

  • Attainment
  • Achievement
  • Active
  • Aspiration
  • Attributes


The First Minister, on launching the attainment challenge (and fresh from her trip to NY- see previous piece on NY Improvement Framework Comparisons) talked about “resetting the dial for education.” So far we have seen much of the same.  And has it brought about the improvement that was hoped for in closing the attainment gap and tackling the giant of poverty?

Might the above structure for our education system- aiming for “5As” as the gold standard support this aspiration, help individuals and progress a nation? Whilst it might appear radical – I am sure many will be nodding in agreement.

With this framework for education set we could achieve much.

Coming next….. how do we embrace the same sort of innovative thinking and creativity as the funding review hits Scottish education in March with potential consequences for governance. And how do we avoid another round of tinkering in this process which sees much effort put into small scale structural change without the transformational outcomes everyone desires.

Appendix 1:  Links between CfE 4 Capacities and 5As model for Scottish Education.

Four Capacities 5As for Scottish Education
Successful Learners Attainment. Achievement.
Effective Contributors Active. Attributes.  Aspirations.
Responsible Citizens Active. Attributes.  Achievement.
Confident Individuals Aspirations, attributes, active, achievement and attainment.


Appendix 2:  Possible Performance measures

5As for Scottish Education Possible performance measures
Attainment Exam results in both traditional and vocational subjects.
Achievement Achievement and progression through activity we would define as “achievement” activity- Duke of Edinburgh, volunteering, outdoor pursuits, music, arts and cultural success. A framework for this could be created and rated similar to SCQF.
Active Community engagement work of young people and impact of it.

Physical health & wellbeing indicators

Mental health and wellbeing indicators

Aspirations Long term goals but backed with short term targets. How well have students progressed through IEPs (should all children not have an supported but self led IEP)?  Progression rates with these would say a lot about the appropriateness of their targets and the support put in to help ensure they are met.
Attributes Is every student aware of what attributes they require to be successful in whatever they aspire to?   What progress has been made towards achieving this over time?
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The panacea of school improvement and raising attainment:- Looking for Solutions AND Finding Answers

Here in Scotland the search goes on.  Everyone is looking for the panacea which will transform school’s fortunes and outputs, change their attainment levels and ensure better outcomes and attainment for our children.

Across the world, hundred, if not thousands, of research papers, books, articles and advice pieces have been written about how to achieve the same goal.  However, how many have gone full circle taken theory into impact?  How often does the next “bright idea” or “potential solution” come around?  These may well be well formed and with great moral purpose, alas how many have the desired, long term, sustained impact on improvement?  Here is often where the gap lies most gaping: – Theory into practice.  Does a single golden ticket even exist?  If it does, is it a simple panacea or a multi-faceted beast reflective of the complexity education itself?

The matter has been high on the policy agenda in recent years and months.  As no solution is instantly found another approach is adopted: – CfE with its reduction in assessment and more focus on sound learning across the broad base of Scottish education; the millions of pounds worth Attainment Challenge with a tight focus on Literacy, Numeracy, Health and Wellbeing; and now discussions around potentially changing the whole governance structure of schools to a model potentially akin to English academies.

The attainment challenge itself was an interesting gamble. Not least because it avoided the national agency for improvement and also because it went to schools direct, avoiding local authorities per se.

However, is this broad enough?  And will this approach likely lead to improved standards in education and the well documented Government aim of reducing the poverty gap?

One irony is that Scottish education’s Inspection framework contains seventeen quality indicators.  None of these are explicitly the three strands of the Scottish Attainment Challenge.  If , what the Scottish Government has called the three “foundations for learning” (Attainment Scotland Fund, Education Scotland website), are literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing then they the Scottish attainment challenge must have something radically different to offer.  For strategies, policies and “improvements” in these areas have been requested,  refreshed, revised, relaunched, re-visioned,  re-evaluated and revamped for many years before (literacy and numeracy perhaps more so than the more recent thrust of activity around Health and Wellbeing).  What is different about this new thrust, this new funding and this new approach via the attainment challenge?

The reality is, these three areas will need to be core components and indeed core outcomes in this recent push, however there will need to be a wider range of areas to be address than just three if we are to reduce the poverty gap.  Education is more complex than that.  And so it should be.  For, if there was a panacea then it would have been taken a long time ago.  Simply returning to how we teach and assess literacy, numeracy and health & wellbeing will not in itself reduce the poverty gap.  What is more, the testing of students will not in itself see an increase in attainment.  “You cannot fatten a pig by weighing it” a former inspectorate colleague once frequently said.  Furthermore still, it is not as if the pig has not been weighted before.  A plethora of testing (standardised and also within the more fluid CfE framework) has taken place across schools and authorities.  What will be different about this particular testing via the National Improvement Framework, that will ensure reduce inequalities in the system.


Any improvements in any education occur due to a variety of interlinked and composite factors.  The Scottish education system equally is complex in its makeup. Multiple organisations have their roles and inputs to this within Scotland.  Learning and Teaching Scotland and their Inspectorate colleagues, merged into Education Scotland; The General Teaching Council for Scotland; Scottish College for Educational Leadership Initial Teacher Training Institutions; local authorities and their differing strengths and demands; not least the vibrant diversity of individual schools themselves.

Within this arena lies an array of different frameworks from ‘Teaching Scotland’s Future’ and GTCS Professional Standards, to ‘How Good Is Our School and Inspection Frameworks’ to the ‘raising attainment’ and ‘closing the gap’ programmes from Scottish Attainment Challenge to Scottish Government / ADES advice that are the focus of this article.  Out with the system itself, studies from a plethora of education researchers, from Tim Brighouse to John Hattie, also add insights, approaches and advice.

However, if we were to take the cycle recommended by HMIe on EducationScotland’s recent How Good Is Our School’s revision then what would we see?  What lessons could we learn from “Looking Inwards –  Looking Outwards –  Looking Forwards” if we use this approach to simply look at the Raising Attainment element of Scottish educational policy.

Looking Inwards

Looking inwards we can see that this is nothing new.  Raising Attainment strategies have been written before, indeed written in the very near past.  Indeed the uncoordinated writing of the separate  ADES and Scottish Government Raising Attainment papers (but later to become a joint paper)perhaps highlighted part of the problem of coordination.  Nevertheless, a paper was written.

And that was it.  What was done with it?  How was the broad areas of Culture, Ethos and Vision; Effective Enabled Learners; Professional Practitioners; Excellent Learning and Teaching; Successful Learners; Parents, carers and the wider community ever progressed; how was good practice shared and how was the policy tracked?  Was progress with this paper ever reported on or was anyone given a lead role to progress the areas across the country?  Or was this just another document thrown into the mix among many more before and after it?

Did “Raising Attainment, Improving Life-chances: Attributes of Success” really improve Life Chances and demonstrate the Attributes of Success that are found in successful policies?  Was any evaluation of its recommendations and the effectiveness of those ever carried out?  Were roles and responsibilities in the three strands of classroom teacher; school community level and local authority level ever consulted upon, made clear, agreed upon and acted upon?

These questions might seem critical but they are not meant to be.   They are a stop point, a thinking point before we embark on further documents and policy papers without first seeing practice emerge that is promotion improvement.  Policies, and the process of forming them, must do this and not simply procrastinate, pontificate and prevaricate.

Looking Outwards

The second phase of Education Scotland’s cycle for school improvement encourages educators to look outwards. This comes at an interesting time when John Hattie’s publications recommend practitioners avoid the “politics of distraction” focussing all their efforts instead on improving Learning and Teaching and consider what progress will look like in the short, medium and long term for students and cohorts of students.[1]

His paper notes that there are multiple “distractions” in education improvement.  Appeasing the parents   is one of the distractors (although one might assert that parents need to be seen less as just another stakeholder at best, the enemy at worst- they are essential co creators alongside pupils and the local community in establishing education provision which is world class through the lenses of each town and city across Scotland- it takes a village to educate a child according to the African proverb.  One might assert it takes a connected city to educate a global citizen in this 21st century context).  Parents’ calls to reduce class sizes and give more choice in schools is ascribed a distractor by Hattie.  Amongst his statistical evidence summations is PISA data which shows China, Japan and Korea all attaining higher levels of attainment data despite their significantly larger average class sizes than comparators.  The second “distractor” of “fixing the infrastructure” notes the pursuit of more effective curricula, more rigorous standards, more frequent testing and the physical buildings in which schooling taking place as having limited impact on outcomes.   His third “distractor” of “fix the students” and the desire to have better, harder working, more prepared students is an interesting one given anyone who feels this needs fixed perhaps requires reminded of their role to help shape, enthuse and model the traits herein mentioned.  The fourth “distractor” of fixing the schools with more money and more autonomy is also minimised as a potential for necessarily improving education.  Again, it is shown from OECD comparisons that spending in itself does not equate to better performance.  Better trained teachers who were paid for performance and embraced technology is shown to be a fifth “distractor” whereby simply “fixing” the teachers” will not result in better student performance.

His follow up paper, “The Politics of Collaborative Expertise” [2], gives some indication of how we might consider raising attainment.  It shifts the narrative from fixing the teacher per se to sharing of collaborative expertise amongst educators.  Building on the theme of progress it asks educators to define what progress will look like over a period of time.  Hattie than considers how teachers build the assessment tools to support them and their students.   One interesting note is the plea for more tools to measure learning and not just achievement outcomes.  After all, if we return to his initial point, it is learning itself that will improve learners and education.   Hattie argues teachers need to have expertise in diagnostic, interventions and evaluation.  They need to know the impact.  And everyone needs to have a responsibility for that impact happening.   The last part of his follow up paper is perhaps the most difficult.  For, scaling up success if an often used phrase in education management.  However, often the circumstances of success are so bespoke that they are hard to replicate.  Furthermore, this author believes they are very much so predicated by the teacher facilitating the learning.  Hattie’s last point goes some way to noting this and going on to discuss the autonomous being of those who are achieving success. How often do we analyse those achieving progress with students and those who are not and then look at how any equilibrium might be restored (by raising the floor and not lowering or hindering the roof’s growth one might add!).

If there is one thing the Scottish Attainment Challenge has done, it has encourages schools across the country to share and to share what they feel is making good progress for students.  This is to be commended.

And so, where else might we look if we wish to continue to outwards, beyond Scotland at how we best simultaneously improve schools and close the poverty gap.  Well a starting point for this might centre on New York given it is here that the First Minister travelled to the United States on a four day visit in June 2015 to “learn lessons from New York education system that could help raise attainment in Scotland.”  On her visit she saw the work of Daniel Hale Williams school alongside the broader work of New York City to improve the education and life chances of young people across the Big Apple.


New York Schools have been working through an improvement model with Student Achievement at the centre (of course achievement internationally translates to attainment in our parlance).  Some of the surrounding influencers on this include a Supportive Environment, Rigorous Instruction and Collaborative Teachers.  Thereafter this is followed by the influencers of Effective School Leadership and Strong Family and Community Ties.  Surrounding this whole framework is the circle of Trust.  This last bit would appear too many Scottish educators as a missing element right now as policy leaders swing to another new approach and structure which screams out lack of trust and faith in educators to produce better quality young people by being left to teach and being given the tools to do it.


If we look deeper into the New York model it offers a multi-faceted approach which supports student achievement and might offer the key to closing poverty gaps.  What is different from Scotland’s model- well it is broader and shows a realisation of the importance of many strands weaving together for common good.

If we look at Closing the Gap models shared by Scottish Government it has many of the components but also some key elements missing.


(Source: Scottish Government & Education Scotland Website)

Compared to NYC we can see some clear areas for consideration:- parent and community ties might be seen via parent zone however this appears as one way traffic in terms of a communication medium, it is not collaborative in the true sense of the word.  For the third sector there are platitudes of exploring  effective links and sharing ideas. Where is the action- the third sector have a key role in instigating action in communities and affecting change.  Compared to the NYC model, Scotland offers nothing concrete in its framework on guidance councillors; there is nothing on academic summer programmes for students (this needs reactivated via re investment in community education and youth work) and there is nothing on longer school day.  All of these features in the NY model giving them a chance of success.

Looking Forwards

As we can see, Raising Attainment is nothing new- in Scotland or beyond.  However, what is new in the Scottish push is the dual focus on raising attainment and closing the poverty gap.  An initial survey of work carried out in Scotland shows that previous policies were never taken to conclusion and evaluated on impact.  Indeed CfE itself is now proving hard to evaluate as there were no definitive aims and KPIs attached to it.  Furthermore, there is nothing new in the approaches being floated just now around attainment challenges which offer anything new on the matter of reducing the poverty gap.  Indeed, far from widening the reach (to encompass factors which might impact on poverty reduction)to help close the gap, the most recent iteration of Raising Attainment in Scotland, through the school’s programme seems to more reductionist that previous iterations.

Surely Scottish education deserves more than that.  Surely the complex range of multi-talented students going through a complex, multi-faceted system deserved multiple approaches taken to help them as they enter a multi fasted world where simply solutions do not exist  and to believe so is telling them a great lie.

Our country demands more and our young people deserve more.  Let’s start learning the lessons from Denmark on assessment, New York on wide ranging approaches to increase achievement and reduce poverty and most importantly… let’s start sharing the lessons from across Scotland at how best to improve our young people’s chance of success.  Key themes come through from both Scandinavia and New York- trust and partnerships.

[1] https://www.pearson.com/content/dam/corporate/global/pearson-dot-com/files/hattie/150602_DistractionWEB_V2.pdf

[2] https://www.pearson.com/content/dam/corporate/global/pearson-dot-com/files/hattie/150526_ExpertiseWEB_V1.pdf

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The Strange Death of CfE

NB this post was first written in the summer of 2016.  A couple of additional notes below show that the themes flagged up still pervade and look unlikely to be resolved.

The Strange Death of CfE

The strange death of Liberal England remains a discussion point for historians. George Dangerfield’s work provides the back drop for the classic debate: – was the Liberal Party knocked over by the omnibus of the Great War or were its multiple cancerous tumours (Conservatism, Ulster Unionism and Suffragettes) going to kill it anyway.   Can the same conceptual framework be applied to the apparent death of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), Scotland’s much heralded and reformist education agenda?

In our case, what will be CfE’s ‘Great War’- impatience?; GERM Warfare (Global Education Reform Movement) or similar?; or was there something altogether flawed about CfE’s design and implementation.  God forbid it suffers the same fate that blights education community.  One North American observer recently commented, “education is the only community where we eat our children.” Thankfully, these were not actual children but the point is well made.  Often the destructive factor comes from within- from a profession to keen to criticise and to knock each other down rather than build each other up.

So in the ‘build-up’ of CfE, what knocked it back down? Was it the design and implementation?  I recall a colleague suggesting that CfE had become an unholy alliance of “the holy sandaled brigade and the men in suits.”  There certainly was something of a hybrid in it with the broad brushstrokes of educational wholeness and utilitarian desires being omnipresent albeit reconciled with the ‘suited men’ of exam results, performance management and hardwired linkages to statistics and economic output measures.

The lack of clarity around clear, definitive and agreed goals of CfE must have caused recent OECD review teams no end of challenge as they sought to evaluate the impact of this new approach.

Alas, schools operating in the wide open expanse of education policy do have some firm anchors they can hold onto. For despite the proclamations of a new approach they are well aware of the reliance on exam data as an accountability measure and align much of their improvement planning to the structures of ‘How Good is Our School’ documentation for improvement and inspection.

The publication of HGIOS 4 is a welcome and timely one as it has updated previous documents to reflect major areas of work which are now evident within schools embracing CfE:– more active, engaged students with a voice and leading learning alongside a renewed focus on employability and its new overarching policy, “ developing our young workforce.”

An initial reading of the document provides a potential process model around the core themes with (1) leadership and management being in place and ensuring there is (2) excellent learning provision which (3) achieves successes and achievements. This clear three part process and framework gives a clear focus on the core of what education is about:- leading, learning- and the excellent outcomes all aspire to achieve.

However, the word excellence itself has morphed as time has gone on. Many have discredited the word- finding it hard to define and unhelpful in context. I was interested to see how often the word was actually used in inspection and improvement documentation.   My interest was sparked after a search for one particular part of the HGIOS document for another piece I was working on.  The results were startling.

A simple search of the HGIOS4 showed that it appeared only 8 times in the HGIOS4 (2015) document).  HGGIOS3  (2007) document showed that it appeared  only 15 times.  And that is including a footnote reference however does not include the various pages which are marked on the side with branded “Curriculum for Excellence” statements.  One might be surprised by the lack of mention of the word even in 2007, far less a definition.  One might contest that this was at the outset of CfE, however Building the Curriculum 1 (the first of the CfE ‘building block’ policy and practice documents) was published the year before in 2006.

However Excellence is a title is one things but what was it to achieve. CfE had four pillars at the heart of what it was trying to achieve.  The notion of Successful Learners, Effective Contributors, Responsible Citizens and Confident Individuals was at the heart of the new curriculum and inspired many.  So how did these key concept fair in the documentation vital to the implementation of CfE.

Successful learners only appeared 4 times in HGIOS3. Fast forward seven years and it only appears once in the documentation.  Effective Contributors suffered the same fate with five references in 2007 and only 1 now.  At least responsible citizens feature twice in 2015 documentation.  Nevertheless it reduction from 5 references in 2007 follows a similar trend to its now crumbling pillars.  And so, what about confident induvial?  It appeared the least in the initial documentation with only 3 references.  Like its other now decimated pillars, by 2015 it only appeared once in the documents.  The pillars have crumbled and the temple has fallen.

How about the National Improvement Framework? Does this offer more hope for the four capacities despite the well-articulated and much publicised fears that it will return Scottish education from utopian ideals to education by examination? All four pillars are mentioned once in the vision statement at the start of the document but are never returned to.  If this is the vision, how is it ever to be realised without any detail sitting behind it?  The National Improvement Hub might offer some hope of a revolution from below.  However, whilst successful learners is mentioned in 16 resources on a simple search of this resource (some provided by school cases studies, others form national documents) , the other pillars do not feature strongly with only 3 mentions of both Effective Contributors and Responsible Citizen respectively and four of confident individuals.  [Search undertaken early summer 2016]

So, what killed of this grand ambition? Why have the four pillars collapsed so quickly over time.  They were key elements in the founding documents of Building the Curriculum however the loop was never closed and they were not kept high enough on the agenda.  With the HGIOS document being such a key driver of what schools do it appears the vision of CfE was doomed by the very authors who acted as the central repository for the national debate on education and from that debate carved the New Jerusalem for education in the first place.

One might say that if CfE was killed by its parents then it was also let down by its best friends. As an education community, did we all do enough to champion the progress of young people as effective contributors, responsible citizens, confident individuals and successful learners?  Were the same planning tools, focus, tracking devices and celebrations of success attached to the four pillars as are to exam performance?  Some schools can hand on heart say “yes.”  If not, then we got what we were set up for.  This takes us back to the original question- was CfE killed off a single hit or were multiple factors at play when it did not take off.  One thing is for sure, with only one mention in the National Improvement Framework its revival seems unlikely.  As policy makers and leaders look south for solutions there is more chance of a revival of neo liberal England than our own CfE.


Stop Press (5th September 2016)

With the publication of an updated CfE Statement for Practitioners in late August 2016 there might have been some hope for a reaffirming of the Four Pillars of CfE. This document does however state that the key priorities for CfE are now:- Literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing alongside the Closing the Gap agenda.  Our much heralded and hoped for Four Capacities again get only one mention.  Whilst they are sitting at the top of a chart with core information, they do not appear until the second last page of the document.  Perhaps our national education body feels these are now embedded?  If so, what is the evidence of this and have we measured it with the same gusto we are about to embark upon with the assessment element of NIF and the huge amount of work dedicated to NQs updating?  If we do not feel it is embedded- why has it dropped off the radar in terms of placing and significance in policy documentation.  Have we witnessed the Strange Death of CfE?



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