The education revolution is coming

But it is not the one people predicted nor perhaps wanted. Education’s progression and change has been slow and evolutionary. This is at best. At worst it has been somnolent. When we look into schools today, many classrooms don’t look that dissimilar to the ones we experienced during our own childhood formative years. Admittedly there have been some changes. Bonny new school buildings pepper the country; more active learning is evident as opposed to rote, and greater student voice perhaps the biggest differences to our (still) world envied education system. The ‘Lochgelly’ has gone too as a method of control.

Meanwhile, technology features in some classrooms. In the schools deemed “excellent” a bank of tablet devices are used to good effect. However in most schools computer suites pervade, or have come and gone, replaced only with a computer or two are dotted around the classroom. One of those is usually situated the teacher’s desk connected to an interactive whiteboard that has taken the place of the front and centre blackboard of old. And so, even the technological revolution has not been quote sparked the education revolution just yet. In essence the format is the largely same.

There are a few revolutionaries in the system- philosophers, idealist and visionaries. There have been reports (Commission on School reform) and books (RF McKenzie’s ‘State School’ and others) and blog posts (headteachers, directors of education and frontline rebels following Ken Robinson and the like). However even the education revolution predicted by McKenzie in the 1960s and 1970s has not changed the format of our schools. Many would read his books today and find themselves nodding in agreement with the way in which education needs framed, delivered and valued. However it has not come to be.
I spoke recently to one wise retired director who reflected on the slow pace of education change compared to the “cycle time” taken in business to progress change. This resonated with a conversation with a former Chamber of Commerce lead who often regaled me with an image of the entrepreneur pitching in when clarity is poor, risk is great but opportunity huge meanwhile the public servant only dots the ‘i’s and crosses ‘t’s when everything is clear, risk is removed and the opportunity long since gone. Many examples of this come to mind with reports for change (NB not revolution) coming out of committee stages to solve the problems for children of years, if not decades, previous.
And so, Scotland had an opportunity with the much needed Teaching and Learning for Excellence. After a decade of consultation clarion calls were sounded and the focus was on Scotland to change the educational world. Officials toured the country with PowerPoints showing schools with open spaces for learning, interdisciplinary learning across longer blocks of teaching time, assessment supporting progression and growth, and a balance of attainment and achievement. Students would be skilled, knowledgeable and develop character and values making them active and responsible citizens in a Scotland who would once again lead the world.

The tides of change however came to nothing more than a trickle and a tinker. And now leaders’ eyes are back looking elsewhere for solutions. Scandinavia has been visited before (I still think the best model of assessment I ever heard came from Denmark- the headteachers presentation almost sparked an education revolution at the conference he spoke at- many wanted the pillars of their system in our own evolving assessment approaches), New York’s broad and yet radical approach (see later article) clearly did not hit home with messages on tackling the roots of poverty. So, all eyes are now on our distant and much envied beacon of educational excellence… England.

The last year or so has seen the London City Challenge proclaimed as a method for improving schools and now it looks as though the structural change to school governance will see English styled academisation started sooner rather than later.

The current format of 32 Local Authorities (LAs) in Scotland seemed inevitable to change. However their locus in education was always up for grabs. With academisation some of the calls from the Commission on School Reform will be met with greater autonomy for headteachers. With that autonomy comes greater accountability. Experiments will precede any sea change- Scotland being a nation of excellence in piloting but not necessarily taking full scale reforms to outcome and seismic improvement point. Those experiments will of course need to ensure test conditions are fully implemented with schools severed from LA control- full autonomous for everything including broken windows, blocked lavvies, hire of ancillary staff, legal and HR advice, lining the sports field and the more mundane incidentals sitting now with the headteacher and their autonomous team.

Having worked for several years with and in LAs the changes both alarm and inspire in equal measure. In my years of working within a local authority I often , and rightly, re-evaluated my role and the “public value” that one brought to the table when the front line was where the action was at and where the ”rubber hit the road” (to quote one LA college). As a LA manger I firmly believed that the role was one of equity. Ironically no different to that espoused by those toying with the latest round of tinkering. Via the LA, resource within a geographic area could be allocated accordingly to ensure that it was best targeted to those in need. That support might be that in support time, staffing of physical resource to ensure that every learner had the opportunity to achieve their potential.
However, one had to be careful in a LA role. For this “middle man” position could cause more harm than good. National curriculum or learning & teaching matters were a classic example. Sometimes the best thing to do was to step aside- letting the policy or practice filter straight from national bodies into schools. Some headteachers wanted a filter to this to help them priorities. However, often the middle man became the tumble dryer. Issues were taken from on high, popped into the dryer, spun around a few times, and then the issues came out hotter than they first went in. Some things came out higher in the pile of washing, sometimes briefs got left in the machine and sometimes an odd sock appeared from no where. In some cases this reshuffling and reprioritisation of the washing was right as it met local circumstances and covered the areas requiring a towel put around it at that time. In other cases, justification and evidence base for the prioritisation was less robust.
And so, as we look towards the potential of academistation in Scotland. One might say, avoid the tumble dryer, and let resource, autonomy and accountability go straight to schools. In fact, lets return to what CfE was really all about, building from the bottom. Let the good practice flow up the way and grow it from the chalk face (sorry Interactive White Board face…. Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it).
In diversity there is goodness , surely?  How long before the political pendulum swings back as postcode lotteries see poverty even more pronounced in poorer areas. This despite regular turnover of staff and leaders to attempt the right “fit” for the pupils there. One might ask if that is any different to the status quo. Conversely, the worst excesses of empire building will simply transfer into more establishments across the country. Checks and balances can avoid this. If local authorities are not going to provide this- are pupils and parents prepared for that role? I have not seen many of them on the barricades so far. For them the question has perhaps been taken out of their hands as figures far higher seem to be on the brink of unfurling the latest flag for us to follow. One things is of for sure, that flag could have the outcome of capitalism despite the fact some might have intended cooperativism. “To be or not to be might be the question” but for Scottish education at present the question is clearly LA or not LA.
Alas, Hamlet offers a quaint warning as this decision point looms over our school pupils.
“Whether it is nobler in the end to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or take arms against the sea of troubles.”
The Prince of Hamlet is an apt closing point reflecting back on where educationalist took the most inspiration in my experience of the CfE evolution. It was from Denmark no less that the sparks sat. However perhaps education leaders need to stop looking afar and “neither a borrower nor a lender be.” And maybe the system itself “doth protest too much.” Let’s finish the revolution we started ten years ago and let’s do it based on the strengths of the Scottish education system we are all proud of and which has, and can, rise up to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

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About neilsgleeeclub

Educator, writer, speaker and leader. Views are my own and not those of the organisations I work for or represent.
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