2007 - 2021

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.    

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  1. Tom Ultuous says:

    Education in this country could certainly be done gooder.

    Wouldn’t it be better if the really good teachers made videos on the curriculum and these were shown in class giving the teacher more time to interact with the kids? I always felt that was what should’ve happened at university. That said, I’m out of education that long maybe that already happens to some degree.

    1. Mons Meg says:

      Teachers should find out what their pupils want to learn by observing their curiosity and then, guided by that curiosity, facilitate that learning. Child-centred, child-led education.

      Not long after I started P1, the teacher upended Bryce Wilson’s (aka ‘Wilson the Cannibal’) satchel over his desk and out clattered a set of wee woodworking tools. She gave him an awfie row, demanding to know where his homework jotter, pencil, ruler, and rubber were. Wilson was distraught. He wanted to know carpentry, not reading, riting, and rithmetic. His tearful protests fell on deaf ears. His chisels, hammer, plane, and saws were confiscated till the end of the day, whereupon it was strongly impressed upon him that he should never bring them into school again.

      Happy to relate that, despite this discouragement, Wilson later achieved happiness and contentment as a jiner, and has never in his life had to resort to reading a book.

      1. Tom Ultuous says:

        It reminds me of Jessica in the comedy Soap. She said she was never any good at maths at school but in all the decades since she left she hadn’t once had to find x.

        1. Mons Meg says:

          Or the kid who found x, as instructed, by drawing a circle around it in the instruction ‘Find x’.

          The hardest question I’ve ever had to tackle is Heidegger’s “What is the ‘is’ of the ‘What is…?’?

    2. Niemand says:

      There was loads of this done at unis during lockdown. But without the in-class follow-up, obviously. Some of that video material is being re-used this year. Trouble is, it is a huge workload, much more than delivery in class and you also don’t get that same interaction. It is a mistake to think a lecture is just some kind of fixed instruction. A good lecture is interactive and of the moment. But there is room for video material sometimes but it isn’t that desirable or practical to replace all lectures with it. I would have though this might be even more true in the school classroom.

      1. Tom Ultuous says:

        I think we talked about this before Niemand. If I remember correctly I was coming at it from a science background whereas you were coming at it from an English lessons (I think) background? It would definitely make things easier for science students.

      2. SleepingDog says:

        @ Niemand, @Tom Ultuous, I think the required solution goes a lot further than sharing videos. Essentially the resource support required to underpin Curriculum for Excellence is the idea communism of open educational resources (OER) with a digital commons, a ruleset and an active community. More than just open, educational resources would have to be editable/customizable, easily re-stylable (to different house styles), accessible, interoperable, decomposable into components, manipulable by non-proprietary tools, meet publishable quality standards and so forth. It’s a very large topic.

        Take a set of videos on Mastitis in smallholder dairy cows, for example:
        https://open.ed.ac.uk/sebi-mastitis-in-smallholder-dairy-cows/
        Ideally, you would want to make it easy to adapt these for other languages, perhaps English/Gaelic. This might involve providing all the labelled diagrams and animation source files separately, so that adapters could translate the graphic labels. Separating media components also allows their reuse in other contexts.

        The sound and image quality should meet high standards (many MOOC learners will complain if they cannot hear voiceovers distinctly, or speech is too fast, for example). Subtitles (closed captions; for accessibility and other purposes) should be provided as a separate structured text file so that it can be edited along with the video.

        Various editorial decisions should be taken to make the video content more compatible with use in other learning resources.

        Part of the philosophy of open educational resources is co-creation, which supports the idea of separation of concerns (one person may have skills in presentation, another in writing, another in animation, another in video production; all remote in time and/or space, yet all contributing to one integrated resource).

        The more videos created, the better the discovery tools need to be to connect consumers, adapters and co-creators, with effective educational and technical resource descriptions and labels (metadata).

        And that is just video. There are many other types of media used in education, some of which are interactive, all the way up to complex simulations or games or other projects, that CfE seemingly particularly requires. I don’t know much about GLOW Scotland, but my understanding is that they were unprepared to provide the kind of framework to support this vast co-creation project. It seems that much early effort went in just to get staff habituated into using Creative Commons licences, the legal bedrock for sharing.

        On the topic of science and technology learning materials, one of the biggest obstacles to easy adoption of resources would be to introduce a non-global measurement system. The USA has an unusually large open textbook sector as a response to their price-gouging commercial textbook cartel, and it would be interesting to see whether their illustrations (apparently prized as extractable resources) use US imperial or metric.

        1. Mons Meg says:

          My youngest son lost his access privileges to his GLOW account for the last two years of his school career (the second of which coincided with the first seven months of the pandemic) for co-creating and sharing learning that transgressed the rules of acceptability. It was one of my proudest moments as a parent.

          Anyhow, he managed his education perfectly well, despite his exclusion from the platform, and is now in the second year of his studies in divinity at Aberdeen University.

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Mons Meg, that reminds me of another criticism I have of CfE: religious instruction (which it will tend to be, as opposed to ‘education’, if Christian or other proselyters are allowed to teach it). Oddly, the Catholic schools get to drop moral education. Not quite sure what the rationale for that is, apart from the ‘Reign of God’ stuff about only making moral decisions based on authorised teachings (so your teachers cannot be wrong, is the inevitable message). https://education.gov.scot/parentzone/learning-in-scotland/curriculum-areas/religious-and-moral-education/

            I am trying to envisage any possible downside to the complete absence of divinity students in future intakes. Nope, still trying.

          2. Mons Meg says:

            Well, you see, SD, I don’t have any objection to children and young people developing their own beliefs, attitudes, values, and practices through discovering, reflecting on, and critically evaluating those of others. Along the way, they might also develop skills in critical thinking that will help them in their own moral decision-making.

            As I said below: it would be a shame if we abandoned this vision of [religious and moral] education just because the [RME] curriculum was badly managed.

            I also don’t think that children and young people shouldn’t be allowed to learn about Christianity, Humanism, Islam, Buddhism, Satanism, or whatever just because I believe them to be wrong.

        2. Niemand says:

          It seems to me that what you are really talking about here SleepingDog is online courses (MOOCs are just that). And these are specialist, made and delivered by people with experience in them. University lecturers (and students) were thrust into an online world due to Covid and did what they could but had no experience doing teaching like that (and students little in learning solely like that and I include live but online teaching in that).

          I am sure what you propose makes sense but the real question is how does this integrate with face-to-face? My experience has shown me over many years that nothing replaces the moment of classroom spontaneity and inspiration that happens in the moment and this is true in any subject. Can that be combined with more virtual resources? Sure but that requires a lot of thought, resources and experience. And you need to decide from the off what the balance between the two is to be, and importantly why that balance. Too much education talk / theory is about the technology and ‘opportunities’ for its use, the convenience, cheapness of it, etc regardless of its actual educative value. A zoom session is easy and practical and can be joined by people across the world but it ain’t as good a learning environment as a classroom, not by a very long way.

          In some ways I think we complicate things too much – teaching and learning requires a good educator who knows their stuff how to get it across but also crucially (and this is often forgotten or assumed to be the sole responsibility of the tutor), willing students who not only want to learn but want to become autonomous learners. At HE level that is actually the main goal.

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Niemand, to clarify, I am not talking about MOOCs, I am addressing mainstream Scottish primary and secondary education. In fact, many MOOCs do not have open-licensed content.

            Classrooms depend on technology, whether it is printed textbooks, chalk-and-blackboards or digital content accessed through digital devices. The great advantage of online, open digital content for learning is that, under favourable conditions, it can be steadily improved, adapted, added to, varied, combined, rated, described and corrected. And not just by teachers.

            One of the essential quality-control mechanisms is peer-review, which can be a bit cumbersome in formal settings, but can be done exponentially online. Young folk these days will be well aware of accessing just-in-time learning resources, perhaps Youtube videos, in order to gain a skill to solve an immediate problem. When the problem is how to use application software or media, sometimes extra downloads are provided, like code, project files or media components. This can be extremely productive. I doubt that some disciplines would be practical to learn if there were not an Internet full of learning materials for them, assuming you had other things to occupy your time. This is not theory, it is everyday practice for many millions of learners of all ages round the world. If the Scottish education system cannot match the usefulness of these resources, or harness them, it will increasingly bring the system into disrepute, as much as one-page-ahead teachers.

            I don’t think Zoom would be much of an aid, and anyway not what I am talking about. As for enthusiasm, I saw plenty at a Dangerous Ideas Festival event on games in education, at the time Minecraft was breaking into educational circles. Some young people were demonstrating and explaining their coded game demos. Some children were creating learning resources to teach their friends how to successfully play their favourite games. I think the ‘digital natives’ conception of schoolchildren has been somewhat exploded (many apparently still struggle to search effectively with Google), but for a great many, digital technology seems relevant and is expected to play some role in future work and leisure.

            Of course, some people were predicting the rise of OERs during the next pandemic, and the movement has been recognised by UNESCO since around 2002 and formalised by a Declaration 10 years later: https://en.unesco.org/themes/building-knowledge-societies/oer
            Essentially it is about a breakout mode of education that encourages peer learning (teachers, administrators and support workers as well as pupils/students/distance learners) and with the rise of open hardware and maker societies, and the much-needed right-to-repair movement, OERs are at the heart of the educational zeitgeist. And its not just technical subjects. Social sciences, for example, benefit greatly from shared digital resources, whether it is simulations of slave plantations/voyages or collaborative histories. Well-designed online exercises can provide much more engaging activity than paper multiple-choice / see back of book for answers quizzes.

            You are quite right that there have been some dreadful commercial exploitations infesting the education market with expensive technology-based ‘solutions’, but that is utterly different from open education, particularly the open source, open licence, OER models. If we had a proper public broadcaster unleashed upon this, we could have had real progress (the BBC has just dipped its toes in making resources freely available, as far as I know), but there have been other leaders in the field such as MIT’s pioneering OpenCourseWare and the Open University’s OpenLearn.

            Meanwhile, many young people now make a living producing learning materials they post online, either ad-supported, sponsor-supported, subscription or paid-for-download models, but they still give a lot away free; while others give even more generously.

            To ask a sample question: how would you teach secondary school children to run a household budget (assuming they were not already young carers or similar)?

          2. Niemand says:

            That is much clearer, thanks and I agree with much of what you say. I have little experience of secondary education so it is useful to knowledge.

            I guess my suspicion is simply that I have been to too many events about teaching and learning that start every single time talking about technology and what it can offer (and the continue to do so and have no interest if you don’t have a technology angle) and have become sick of it. So open learning sounds great but is surely a principle so I would be interested how it works in a real time/space setting or in conjunction with remote/non-real time. I agree about so-called digital natives – young people do not always respond that well to all of that and not because of lack of access, they just don’t like it that much, just like some older people don’t. They prefer in-person human interaction. We need to be really careful not to get ‘sucked into the network’ like it is just inevitable and desirable. I just watched Koyaanisqatsi (again) and its dystopian vision of humans becoming no more than cogs in a machine ruled by technology is not to be scoffed at. Technology can always have the effect of making human lives subject to it and we see that increase year on year. One of the huge negative results, I (and Godfrey Reggio) would argue, is the destruction of the planet (sorry gone off at a bit of tangent there).

          3. SleepingDog says:

            @Niemand, perhaps a classroom, as an example of technology itself, can sometimes be a prison for the mind as well as the body? And sometimes children may dread face-to-face encounters at school?
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_refusal

            Yes, the threat that technologies can be used to bring about dystopias is very real, and one branch is considered by Shoshana Zuboff in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.

            Open Educational Resources are used for real, but the question of reuse has apparently been under-researched. I did find a paper from the Netherlands looking at ‘dark reuse’, that is, reuse of OER that are difficult to monitor for reasons such as unacknowledgement or ignorance. But that simply reflects that teachers (especially new starts) have long reused materials from others, with or without permission, sometimes raiding filing cabinets, plagiarising online sources or copying wholesale from publications. OER is a way of improving that with decentralised systems. I am not a professional teacher, but even some of my modest creations have been reused in education (at least two people told me they’d used a Youtube video for class teaching, before the recent Youtube changes that understandably wiped comments from made-for-kids-rated videos, and more educational sites are evident in the stats; Youtube allows a Creative Commons BY — Attribution-only — licence to be applied). And students have used my code examples, from places like Github (where you can track reuse through forking). Although I have benefitted far more from the open works of others.

            In fact, overhelping is one of the major issues for education; students have been suspected of posting assessment questions on technology help sites in the hope that others will answer them.

            Few things can raise a child’s self-esteem like being recognised and thanked publicly by peers for contributing some material that helps someone else with a problem. For all the concerns reasonably raised about the standard of communication on social media, many sites are extremely supportive of people who just want to learn and help others. And digital technology can sometimes mediate that far better than a classroom; for one reason, such sites are typically visited by people with much in common, and shared goals and interests, whereas classroom cohorts are not decided by such commonalities.

            If you want to learn more about OERs, I suggest the best way is to create one resource yourself, seeking out components you don’t yet have for reuse and adaptation, checking licences and adding attributions. It’s nice to be acknowledged, and some OER-friendly systems will let creators know of their object’s reuse.

          4. Mons Meg says:

            Yeah, I agree, Niemand. Technology is just a tool. Different people learn differently. What’s important is that learners have access to as wide a range of tools for learning as possible, so that each can put together the combination that works best for her/him. There’s a danger that our enthusiasm for new technologies leads us to try to fit the learner to the tool rather than vice versa.

            In fact, this might be a metaphor for education generally: the job of the teacher is surely to fit the learning to the learner rather than the learner to the learning. Though this might be all but impossible to do, given the standardisation required so that the bureaucracy can carry out its measurements and the lack of time/opportunity teachers have to work with individual learners.

          5. SleepingDog says:

            @Mons Meg, technology is no more ‘just a tool’ than science is ‘just a scientific instrument’. It is worth bearing in mind that human languages (English, for example) are technologies. I would agree with the position of Peter-Paul Verbeek, Professor of Philosophy of Technology at the University of Twente, that technologies impact on human behaviours beyond mere function, both intentionally and unintentionally, and have an ethical dimension. Importantly, definitions of technology refer to know-how and the application of knowledge, not just tools and processes. Technology is a great enabler in education; and rather than constrain individuals, at best it can liberate and empower them, as assistive technology has had a vast, positive impact. On the other hand, technology can be designed for evil ends, or with callous indifference, or have unfortunately negative unforeseen consequences. Ethical values are embedded in screenreaders, plastic straws and nuclear weapons.
            https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/assistive-technology

            Standardisation tends to speed up interchanges through increased interoperability. The web works because HTML (and other aspects) are standards (at least at a functional level). The same applies to standards designed to make educational materials and services interoperable. Again, human languages are technologies, and their standardisation improves and speeds communication.

            The learner is there to be changed, trained and upskilled, so there will be a degree of fitting the learner to the learning. Developmental psychology and theories of learning tend to expect some skills will be fundamental or required for the learning of some more advanced skills. Karate Kid has to do the chores first. In the ‘household budgeting’ example, a basis of numeracy and literacy are expected. Schools are surely required to prepare pupils for their future outside school, which will (prior to its collapse) require dealing with bureaucracy in one form or another, and a range of technologies, on which they should be able to develop their own ethical perspective.

          6. Mons Meg says:

            Yep, language is indeed a tool, know-how is the application of knowledge as a tool, and electronic and/or digital products and systems can be used as learning tools. Why else would we have those products and systems in schools, other than as tools that children and young people can use to achieve their learning outcomes (including in the study of technology itself)?

            And, yes: unfortunately, learners have too often been treated as standardised units to be processed, trained, and upskilled in preparation for their future functionality; ‘unfortunately’ because this treats children and young people morally as a means only and not also as an end.

            But, fortunately, educational philosophy has shifted in recent decades to a much more child-centred régime, which aspires to ‘fitting the learning to the learner rather than the learner to the learning’, making the learner her/himself the end of education rather than her/his functionality, though the system has struggled to implement this philosophy for the reasons I suggested in an earlier post:

            “The good thing about CfE is that it placed the individual child at the centre of education, the aspiration being to ensure that every child becomes all that s/he can and wants to be (‘excellence’ = realising or even exceeding one’s potential). The trouble is that the curriculum itself has been poorly resourced and over-bureaucratised, with the result that it’s fallen short of this aspiration.

            “Surely, a republic in which each citizen is a successful (lifelong) learner, a confident (as opposed to an insecure) individual, a responsible citizen, and an effective contributor to society is a worthy thing to aim for. It would be a shame if we abandoned this vision just because the curriculum was badly managed.”

  2. Jennie Smith says:

    Thanks for a really interesting thorough review. I have ordered a copy and look forward to commenting further once I have read it however I am already impressed by inclusion of a selection of ideas from “teachers, parents and other stake holders” and one hopes pupils!
    I have no doubt that vested interests will “ cherry pick “ the book but maybe a considered read first wouldn’t be a bad idea!

  3. NoBother says:

    One very important conclusion by the author, not mentioned here, is that Gaelic should be taught to all pupils in Scotland. This is of immense importance and such a policy could mean that finally the children of Scotland could access their country’s language without older generations getting in their way. Nobody has the right to deny them that and it would only lead to a better understanding of culture, language and tolerance which will stand them in good stead to contribute to their local, national and international community.

    https://twitter.com/MrMcEnaney/status/1434196496556204032

    1. Mons Meg says:

      Certainly, children and young people should be able to learn Gaelic if they want to. My middle son’s currently learning Portuguese.

  4. SleepingDog says:

    Some further explanation on what problems the Curriculum for Excellence was brought in (after consultation) to solve would be helpful. My understanding was that CfE was intended to bring interdisciplinary learning and more pupil-directed activities, with the potential to apply learning to real-life simulations (perhaps running a restaurant or exploring a historical period). Pupils would be asked to think about how to contribute to classroom activities, and canvassed for their opinions.

    I was also under the impression that there were some pockets of strong resistance against CfE, and the major initial challenge was to change the mindset of sometimes-demoralised and time-poor teaching staff in order for retraining to stick. Basically, it seems easier to teach to old subject ruts and be the classroom autocrat, than come up with ways of combining subjects and involving sometimes-difficult pupils. At first the EIS was saying CfE was too vague, and now it is too prescriptive?

    I don’t think exam success is necessarily a reflection on the worth of an education system. The crises in the modern world are to a great extent linked to the mindset behind the systems previous to CfE. I would consider climate school strikes to be an opportunity for teachers to support pupils in their civic development.

    I appreciate I would have to read the book for more detail, but what appetite is there to go back to the old ways? Some comparison might be made with different systems in different Scottish schools. If societal problems are more down to a dynastic establishment class cheating their way into power with private education and ruling incompetently, ignorantly and avariciously, perhaps an improved CfE and comprehensive education should be expanded rather than curtailed?

    Personally I am wary of CfE’s stated aim to create confident individuals. Confident individualism seems close to the heart of current societal problems too. People should be able to cope with uncertainty and work collectively, and rather than a humanist approach, one that places humans within nature and ecosystems would seem to be more appropriate. Although perhaps CfE just means for children to learn to stand up for themselves.

  5. Mons Meg says:

    The good thing about CfE is that it placed the individual child at the centre of education, the aspiration being to ensure that every child becomes all that s/he can and wants to be (‘excellence’ = realising or even exceeding one’s potential). The trouble is that the curriculum itself has been poorly resourced and over-bureaucratised, with the result that it’s fallen short of this aspiration.

    Surely, a republic in which each citizen is a successful (lifelong) learner, a confident (as opposed to an insecure) individual, a responsible citizen, and an effective contributor to society is a worthy thing to aim for. It would be a shame if we abandoned this vision just because the curriculum was badly managed.

  6. florian albert says:

    ‘The attainment gap is not, and never has been, much more than a slogan.’

    Unhappily that is not correct. It has been hiding in plain sight since Michael Forsyth forced schools to publish exam results a generation ago. In some respects, chasm would be a better word than gap.

    The attainment gap means that the comprehensive system works well for many pupils but does not work at all well for others. In 2003, 53% of pupils at Boroughmuir High got 3 Highers at ‘C’ or above. At WHEC, it was 0%. The former is in a middle class area of Edinburgh ; the latter in (comparatively) deprived Wester Hailes. In theory they are both state comprehensives. By 2012 the results were Boroughmuir 69% and WHEC, again, 0%.
    You can find similar examples in Aberdeen; Cults Academy and Northfield Academy, or in Glasgow; Jordanhill School and Govan High

    Parents – and teachers – are well aware of this. As a result, houses in the catchment area of a successful – in exam results – school, have a huge price premium; £121,000 for houses in the catchment area of Cults Academy or Hyndland Secondary (in the west end of Glasgow); £173,000 for James Gillespie’s High in Edinburgh.

    I accept that there is more to schooling than exam results but it is beyond argument that those leaving with 3 Highers or more will have vastly more options than those leaving with fewer. It is a class issue in more ways than one.

    1. Mons Meg says:

      Indeed, more work needs to be done to identify precisely why some classes of people score less well than others in the tasks we set to grade them.

  7. MBC says:

    Thanks for this review. HoweverI am none the wiser as to what his central argument is from reading it. It is not very informative. The title would suggest he believes social class determines educational outcomes, not teaching. The one statistic you quote (that schools only influence outcomes by 7%) suggests this but I would have liked to have heard more on that theme.

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