Class Rules: the truth about Scottish schools
Class Rules: The Truth about Scottish Schools, by James McEnaney, Luath Press, 238 pp., £9.99. reviewed by Sue Palmer.
James McEnaney – former secondary teacher, now college lecturer – wrote this book at breakneck speed between March and August 2021. He couldn’t have chosen a better time. Amid the chaos of COVID, those same six months were of real significance for Scottish education. They included: the election of a new Scottish government and an SNP-Green pact; a second (COVID-driven) examination scandal; publication of the long-awaited review of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), leading to government promises of significant structural reform, and – on the day the book went to print – publication of Scotland’s first ‘primary school league tables’ by the Times newspaper.
If ever there were a time for ‘big picture thinking’, it’s now. The people of Scotland urgently need clear, informed analysis of Scottish education. They need to be able to hold government to account as it struggles to find a way forward in a system which, in McEnaney’s words’ may not quite be collapsing, but … is certainly under enormous and unsustainable strain’.
Cutting the complexity
The task James McEnaney took on during those five months was immense. As a former teacher and educational campaigner, I share his deep frustration about the bamboozling of the public through political sleight of hand and simplistic (often unreliable) media coverage. But as a writer, I was unsure whether anyone could cut through the labyrinthine mass of rhetoric, data and political manoeuvring to tell ‘the truth about Scottish schools’ in language that ordinary human beings can understand. So… did he manage it?
In terms of the language, he certainly did. It’s seldom I find myself agreeing with Professor Lindsay Paterson, but I utterly endorse his assessment (on the front cover of the book): ‘brilliantly written – far more eloquent than anything else that is available on Scottish education’. McEnaney’s prose is incisive, accessible, often entertaining and enlivened occasionally by a good old-fashioned rant. I even managed to stay gripped during the chapter on statistics, which for me is a definite first.
On to the content, then – is it really the truth? There’ll obviously never be a unanimous opinion on that. All I can say is it rings pretty true to me.
The first two chapters – ‘A (Very) Brief History of Scottish Schools’ and ‘A Curriculum for Excellence?’ – set the scene. We gallop through the misty romanticism of a school in every parish and ‘the lad o’ pairts’ to the aspirational origins, in the early years of devolution, of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) … and then its steady asphyxiation under layers of bureaucracy. I particularly enjoyed McEnaney’s discussion of the notorious ‘Es and Os’ (Experiences and Outcomes) and his verdict on their development: ‘That the people in charge were unable to see just how ludicrous this whole process was says a great deal about the quality of leadership in Scottish education’
Key Issues: Attainment, Statistics, Classrooms and Covid
Next come four chapters on key issues in Scotland’s schools. The first, ‘Closing the Attainment Gap’, is only five pages long (this really is breathless prose!) and describes the machinations behind the political mission announced in 2015, the distribution of funding and the potential for statistical obfuscation. His conclusion is stark: ‘The attainment gap is not, and has never been, much more than a slogan’.
Chapter Two, ‘Making Sense of Statistics’, analyses some of the data used to back up the sloganising, along with other interesting statistics which didn’t usually make it into the media. Not surprisingly, the prose isn’t quite as breathless and it’s a much longer chapter (45 pages). You’ll need to consult a reviewer with a far better mathematical mind than mine for an opinion on the statistical analysis. All I can say is that it made complete sense while I was reading it, which is another first.
Not being a classroom teacher, I’m not best qualified to comment on the next chapter (‘A Crisis in our Classrooms’) either. But, after more than a decade of austerity, I reckon most teachers would agree with McEnaney’s comments on class sizes, teacher contact time, the complexities of the job and concern about burn-out (two personal accounts from experienced teachers who recently left the profession make depressing reading). He also covers the worrying problems of a teacher gender gap, lack of ethnic diversity in the profession and the use of statistics to conceal dwindling numbers of support staff.
An austerity-driven classroom crisis – accompanied by a surfeit of bureaucracy and questionable data – is bad enough, but the added pressure of ‘Coping with COVID’ (Chapter Six) takes us into hitherto unexplored realms of distress. As lockdown struck, all the weakest points of the system immediately became weaker, inevitably impacting most on the most disadvantaged students – those living in poverty, those with additional needs and the ever-growing number of children and young people with mental health issues. And, of course, there were the scandalous exam shambles of 2020 and 2021. ‘Ask yourself this,’ writes McEnaney,‘!f the algorithm had threatened to demonstrably disadvantage the children of middle class families, if ground zero was going to be East Renfrewshire rather than Easterhouse, do you think there is any chance whatsoever that it would have been implemented and defended by the government and SQA?’
The Way Ahead
In the remaining chapters, McEnaney suggests some ways forward. He highlights examples of good practice in Scottish schools, interesting educational policies around the world, and useful insights from Scotland’s International Committee of Educational Advisers and the OECD (his tabulated translation of OECD-speak into plain English on page 147 is pure delight). He then offers a number of possible ‘big picture’ changes based on his own research and experience, and ends with 29 pages of suggestions from teachers, parents and other assorted stakeholders.
So, after five months in the writing, and a month or so in production, Class Rules has hit the bookshelves. In the meantime, our new Scottish Government (including a new Secretary for Education) has had time to settle in and negotiate with the Greens; a committee led by the former director of the General Teaching Council is considering the future of Education Scotland, SQA and the secondary examination system… and The Times newspaper is continuing to stir the pot by publishing selected extracts from McEnaney’s book.
I hope the educational establishment, and the politicians who hold their purse-strings, read the full text and take the opportunity to see themselves as others see them. But will they? And if they do, will they make any kind of worthwhile response? McEnaney is admirably realistic in terms of the challenge that faces the policy-makers: ‘No matter how badly we want to make things better, an education system, like any other, can only cope with so much change at once, and things are even more difficult when everyone is already operating under enormous pressure.’ But, as he says, it’s ‘big picture changes that are really needed. Tinkering is easy but transformation takes more courage.’
And then there’s his ‘central conclusion’, reached during the process of writing the book: ‘we need more honesty about the sources of problems in our schools’. He quotes Professor Dylan Williams, of the London Institute of Education: ‘only 7% of the variation between schools on the standard [English] benchmark [five good GCSEs] is due to the effect of the school. The other 93% is due to factors over which the school has no control.’
We all knew, back in 2015, that the attainment gap is a product of social injustice and inequality. I don’t think a single teacher in the country actually believed it could be sorted by obsessing about exam results – and even less so by introducing an expensive new system of national standardised testing. But somehow, everyone got dragged into the delusion.
Education is important, very important. But the pursuit of social justice is about a lot more than education. And if the education we offer is to be of any use to Scotland’s children and young people – it mustn’t become bogged down in managerialism, measurement and accountability procedures. For me, the quote that resonated most when reading this book is McEnaney’s verdict on Curriculum for Excellence: ‘a system that was supposed to free teachers and pupils from red tape ended up binding them in it.’
So perhaps one courageous response from Scotland’s educational and political leaders would be to revisit the original document, not merely to ‘refresh’ it (which is the current mealy-mouthed policy) But to ditch the mountain of additional documentation, the Es and Os, the tracking and monitoring systems, etc., etc., and revive CfE’s aspirations with a dose of ‘big picture’ thinking. Carrying copies of Class Rules with them at all times, to keep them on the right track.
Help to support independent Scottish journalism by subscribing or donating today.