An MSP recently challenged me on how to raise attainment in Scotland’s poorest urban schools. My first defensive response was, beware the statistics. The recent work of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland on Principal Component Analysis poses major questions about the “under-performance” hitherto assumed in such schools (See Once a Teacher… SecEd 327, September 27, 2012).
Second, you cannot easily create success in schools where large numbers of the learners operate in contexts where expectations are miserably low. Parental choice has created, in many of our poorest communities, schools battling against the odds. Poverty, unemployment and low expectations are common in the community; some of the most ambitious parents enrol their children in schools in more affluent areas. A downward spiral of low expectations and decreasing attainment inevitably follows. There are two choices open to our politicians: abolish parental choice or create schools with genuinely mixed catchment areas.
My third response was that we are in grave danger of forgetting the purpose of educational assessment. It exists to measure how well planned learning has been achieved and should serve both the learner and the teacher. It does not exist not to measure one learner against another, or one school against another.
We can of course improve the statistics. One approach is to jettison the students likely to perform most poorly. Impossible? Google “former El Paso school chief test scandal”. That was in the USA but I have known schools which could only be described as having a propensity in their exclusions practice to “lose” the academically weakest.
You might also reconfigure your school curriculum. Let’s imagine that you find that attainment in physics and French is excellent but in art and history awful. Start by discouraging youngsters from pursuing the subjects with a historical low attainment trend and encourage them towards the high scoring subjects. Soon numbers will have fallen in the low attaining departments and you can close them. Result? Poorer education but improved attainment.
Then it was time to get serious. We all want to improve attainment – providing we don’t sacrifice other key educational values in the process. How can we do it? There are three crucial components to the successful school: a relevant, engaging curriculum, high quality teaching, and relationships which are warm and mutually respectful, but also geared to an expectation of high quality, successful learning.
Much though I support the methodologies and pedagogy of Curriculum for Excellence, I am uncertain that the content is right. I support breadth but not if it means keeping learners reluctantly engaged in areas of study which they see as either boring or irrelevant. We need a curriculum which builds basic skills and higher order skills, which prepares young people for futures they can imagine, which gets the academic and vocational balance right.
We need high quality teaching. Those who enter teaching must be the best of our graduate pack, high performers in basic skills as well as enthusiasts for their own branch of learning. All teachers must accept that we can all improve our skills and strategies and that the best way to do so is by sharing best practice within schools and across schools. That requires openness to mutual observation, continuing and rigorous professional review and development and an honest admission, in individual cases, that those who do not attain that continuing development are not fit for the task.
These approaches, including a radical overhaul of catchment areas, can raise attainment in any school. The issue of changing relationships and expectations in the schools in our poorer areas is the really wicked challenge.
Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. Prior to his retirement he was head of Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh. He is an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.