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?

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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