Scottish Education – The Front End vs The Back End


Following from my previous article, here are some random ramblings on Curriculum for Excellence. I’ll produce another article later this week with my concluding thoughts.

Mixed messages and a lack of clarity around the broader implications that CfE brings to education has lead to some misinterpretation. Many teachers still believe that it is all about changing the national qualifications and the assessment criteria, albeit with a splash of contemporary learning and teaching thrown in. With many stresses on the daily routine, finding time to plan and deliver a cooperative lesson or plan interdisciplinary learning across the curriculum is challenging. Yes, where relevant, appropriate and timely – this is a great way of reinforcing a particular lesson; articulating aspects of the curriculum and connecting skills so that they young person’s learning is progressive, integrated and that the experience is not easily forgotten. Unfortunately, there are a few major barriers which are preventing progress within Scottish Education.

Educational leaders, as public managers are accountable to their local authority. The majority are not taking the managed risks that are needed to break the cycle of tradition which is halting progress. This is not their fault, but is a fundamental paradox within the system itself. We have done to CfE, exactly what we wanted to avoid. Tinkering around the edges and enhancing what I call the ‘front end’ of the learning and teaching process. We’ve done an exemplary job here – but it only goes so far. The ‘back end’ of the system, the inspections, the accountability and the qualifications process which is required for university entry is stagnant and rigid. There is little flexibility and as such this transfers to the classroom.

There is a misconception that everything needs an evidence base – it must be measured recorded and evaluated. I wonder what the purpose of that process is? Is it to monitor and track the young person or is it to appease the inspector when they knock on the door? An independent General Teaching Council for Scotland is raising the standard for full and continued registration; yet there remains an inherent lack of trust between the Government, it’s executive agencies, local authorities and teachers. This is then passed down between parents and carers, pupils and teachers and places schools between a rock and a hard place. The impact of recession has not helped either – changing teacher’s terms and conditions and messing about with pensions during such a sensitive time has enlarged the expanding gulf – reinforcing the ‘them and us’ mentaility which prevents creative, innovative approaches. Not many people are willing to stick their heads above the parapet these days and we have fallen to a culture of standardising standards and writing a policy for policy making. There are many teachers who, given the chance, would do things differently if they were not bound by red tape and mis targetted accountability.

I for one, don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do have the guts to ask some questions. Why do we need an inspectorate of education? Schools go through the self-evaluation process and they are then held to account – based on evidence and statistics. I’d like to see an education system which measures the longer term outcomes of a young person, not when the leave school at the age of 16, 17 or 18 with a fistful of qualifications. To me, that means very little and it certainly does not reflect the improvements in life chances that we must focus upon. Unfortunately, it takes a brave Government to put aside the immediate story telling – required to win elections, and embed a system of education which realises the potential of a young person well after the term of office has completed. I do not like to drive statistics for the sake of telling a story. If we get it right for every child and young person, the numbers will improve as a result.

Whilst removing inspection and revitalising the statistical infrastructure which underpins Scotland Peforms and the national targets, I recognise that curriculum evaluation is important for many reasons. It provides an opportunity for identifying the strengths and weaknesses of an education system so that it can be analysed against an agreed vision and quality criteria. It also informs policy makers and stakeholders with regard to the changes/reforms needed for enhancing the quality of education inputs, processes and outcomes. Moreover, curriculum evaluation points to the capacities to be developed for enhancing the quality of curriculum design, writing and implementation. We need the ability to test, analyse and measure the learning system : adaptability, responsiveness and effectiveness to meet the changing needs of children and young people. This must be embedded into learning and teaching whilst supporting individuals through a modern approach to integrated services, incorporating education, social work and health etc. An education performance framework requires robust monitoring of both the individual and collective progress of children and young people and their achievements: measuring progress throughout the learner’s journey and recognising their outcomes upon leaving school, an episode of learning and when reaching the end of the extended school curriculum.

To this end, I propose a two tier, national framework to measure the success of the education system. This should be based on Integrated Services Performance – the lead indicators which measure across the entire portfolio of services; building capacity and promoting accountability. These should be embedded in a culture of continuous improvement and measured through community partnership planning and local government agreements, and: Organisational Performance – the supplementary indicators which measure schools, colleges and individual services, in the more traditional sense; and promote the need to be more responsive in planning and delivering the curriculum, providing young people with better educational experiences. Such a framework must remove the focus of attainment results in S4, 5 and 6 and instead look across the holistic outcomes. This means removing the current Standard Tables and Charts system and replacing it with a new senior phase benchmarking tool.

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Academic Staff University of Glasgow and Author of Science Fiction

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