Leading Futures: Making Change Make a Difference, Scotland

In this latest post in the Leading Futures Series, edited by Alma Harris and Michelle Jones, George Gilchrist applies some of the ideas presented in Andrea Stringer’s post, which focused on Australia, to the Scottish context. Gilchrist is Headteacher of two primary schools in the Scottish Borders, where he has lived for the last 25 years. In 2015 he became a Fellow of the Scottish College for Educational Leadership. He has spoken regularly on leadership and learning at events within Scotland, and further afield. He has his own blog entitled ‘School Leadership – A Scottish Perspective‘ and uses this for thought pieces and collaboration with educators across different systems.

Making Change Make A difference, Scotland

The issues around educational change and reform faced by educationalists in Australia, Scotland, and across other systems are all too familiar and often the same. Pasi Sahlberg, has pointed out characteristics and issues with what he termed the General Educational Reform Movement (GERM) for a number of years now. Sahlberg cautioned against GERM and its negative impacts for pupil learning, but it would seem that many Governments have still decided that ‘they know best’ and have determined to still introduce such ‘reforms.’ The fact that there is little evidential basis as to their efficacy, but a lot of evidence and research shows that they have the opposite effects to those envisioned, seems to count for little in the face of strong political will and ideology.

In Scotland we have been taking a different approach to curriculum design within education for many years now. Our Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) came out of a national discourse around education completed in 2002. From this emerged a new curriculum (CfE) in our Primary (Elementary) schools, and early years of Secondary education.  This envisioned a learning experience that was broadly based, and which placed value on skills development, as well as the development of positive attitudes and aptitudes for learning, not just knowledge acquisition. Four key capacities were to underpin learning. These were for our learners to be: Successful Learners, Effective Contributors, Responsible Citizens and Confident Individuals. The original vision and principles for CfE were contained on a few sheets of A4 paper and there was much to be admired about the approach. That is not to say it was without its critics or faults, what system is? Perhaps the two biggest failings at the outset were firstly, in not carrying out any sort of meaningful baseline assessment to see where we really were, and which would allow us to demonstrate improvement in performance. The second, was to not pay enough attention from the outset to the exam structure, and changes, that would be required in secondary education. Both of these failings, combined with others, have caused lots of problems for teachers and schools trying to implement CfE and to demonstrate its impact to various audiences. You could read more of the work of Mark Priestley and Walter Humes to explore this further.

Like Andrea identifies, there are numerous ‘voices’ that need to be heard in any discourse around education, but unfortunately the one that is still heard loudest is political. So much so, that others are drowned out and often not heard at all. The Scottish government have stated their aim to deliver an educational experience that is based on ‘Equity and Excellence’ for all. They want to raise attainment and reduce the gaps for those from our most disadvantaged backgrounds. This is all encapsulated in the latest policy documents, the National Improvement Framework (NIF) and ‘Getting It Right For every Child’ (GIRFEC). There is no one within the Scottish system that would argue much with the laudable aims and vision found in these two documents. Where we get most divergence is in how we go about achieving this vision for Scotland and its children. The NIF promotes a ’top-down’ high-stakes accountability and standardised agenda with all the attendant issues.

Andrea asks ‘Whose voice represents Australia’s education?’ A question we should ask of our own systems. Hopefully, our conclusions will be the same, that this should be a collective ‘voice’, authentic and with agency for all. Speaking as a practitioner, I could make the case that the true authentic voice of the profession is rarely heard or listened to in the Scottish system. There is a plethora of ‘consultation’, but this is often blighted by the timings of when this occurs, but more so by the fact that decisions have clearly already been made. Faux consultation is no consultation at all. The listening skill that Andrea refers to is crucial. Do we listen to understand and empathise, or do we listen to reply?

Andrea suggests some possible solutions to the issues facing education in Australia and to ask some pertinent questions of all the stakeholders in the system. All of these could be quite easily transposed into the Scottish system, where they should be easier to answer and implement, as Scotland is smaller than Australia. We need only look across the sea to Finland to see what smaller systems can achieve with collective and cultural agreement, augmented by high degrees of trust. Change is a constant in all schools and systems, and hopefully in all classrooms. But change for change sake makes little difference that is meaningful and sustainable. Change needs to be managed, informed by evidence and research, adapted to context, and should produce positive impacts for learning. The following are my suggestions to help us make the right changes, for the right reasons and to make a difference for every learner in our schools.

  • Invest time and support into our Early Years programmes. We need to get the base right. This does not mean starting formal learning earlier, but it does mean working with families and children before they arrive in our schools. Research by Sue Ellis and Edward Sosu for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2014 showed that equity gaps are established before children reach our schools. We need to have more play-based learning in early years and to work with parents to help them develop their children’s learning, creativity and problem solving.
  • Andrea identifies ‘Collective Networks’ in order to encourage collaborative and problem solving at all levels. This is System Leadership, wherein all see their role as bigger than just the one in their own classroom, school or cluster. We have a responsibility to consider how we impact positively for all learners in our schools, area and system. We do this by sharing expertise, coaching, mentoring and supporting everyone to develop practice and their ‘voice’. This is a collective responsibility.
  • Linked to this, is the development and support of true teacher agency. Our best teachers are trained, professional and reflective practitioners; they are not mere ‘deliverers’. They have adaptive expertise and know their learners well. Individually and collectively, ‘teachers are not the problem, they are the solution,’ as Alma Harris commented on Twitter last year. We spend a lot of money and time preparing and training teachers, we should trust them more and support them in what they do.
  • From my own experience and research, I would recommend the adoption of practitioner enquiry, or other enquiry approaches, so that we situate professional development in our daily practice and our context. Career-long professional development, focused on impacts for learners, needs to be a disposition for all educators, and seen as something done by you, not to you. The aspect of school systems that has the greatest impact on attainment is teacher expertise, we all need to commit to keep improving and supporting the development of this. ‘Not because we are not good, but because we can be better,’ as Dylan Wiliam would say.

I believe the time is right for another ‘conversation’ around what we understand by education and curriculum in Scotland. When we have explored those issues again, we would be in a better position to identify a way forward, instead of repeating the mistakes of others. We still spend too much time on systems and structures and not enough on improving learning and teaching.

I remain optimistic for education in Scotland and elsewhere. But practitioners and researchers need to be working closer together to support each other and to fight the neo-liberal driven agendas that many of us face across our systems. We owe it to all our learners, and our profession.


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