It is never enough for politicians to reach the right conclusions. They must also communicate the conclusions they have reached with clarity and in a manner which rings true. That is especially true when discussing education.
Angela Constance, Scotland’s cabinet secretary for education, experienced a barrage of criticism after recent comments on literacy standards in Scottish schools. These follow the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy, which found literacy levels in Scottish schools in decline. The same survey last year showed a drop in numeracy levels.
“The results ... show that we need to step up the pace of change. Frankly, it’s not good enough that some children appear to be doing less well in basic skills the older they get.
“The survey also found that, if we take away English teachers, fewer than 20 per cent of secondary teachers think that reading and writing is vital to their curriculum area. I’m astonished at this, frankly. And if it is the case, then we must change those attitudes and do more to support our schools and teachers, to raise the quality of teaching in literacy across other curriculum areas.”
She challenged teachers to understand the challenges of poverty on their pupils better, “and all, not some, teachers must play their part”.
She is right on three counts. Literacy standards are in decline; the aim of literacy being the responsibility of all teachers has not been accepted by many secondary teachers who continue to perceive their job in traditional subject terms; and poverty is, patently, at the core of Scotland’s continuing inequalities.
The minister’s statement was, however, ridiculed: “So let me be clear,” she said, “in pursuing a shared ambition to ensure that education delivers every child the best opportunities to excel, nothing is off the table. Let me equally be clear that the teachers at that table will be fully qualified and well-trained.”
Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman Mary Scanlon said: “The irony of putting out a press release on literacy which is practically unreadable will be lost on no one. We need a renewed focus on the ability to read and write properly. Judging from this press release, it appears that task starts with the education secretary herself.”
Labour MSP Neil Findlay said the press release was “like a word puzzle”.
Alas, a strong point about language, literacy and communication was lost by poor communication. Perhaps, however, the problem goes deeper. An appeal which starts with an insistence on clarity and proceeds with gobbledegook could be perceived as an attempt to avoid hard truths and disguise the fact that the educational world, and the minister herself, are lost.
Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) sought to create a 21st century educational model but has failed to deliver. The needs for more creative learning and for a more imaginative pedagogy have been lost in a plethora of new exams, additional administration and increased teacher workload. There is an unresolved tension between a curriculum which seeks to create imaginative, creative and entrepreneurial young people, but also to provide the basic skills and knowledge on which all creativity rests.
There is a proper recognition that poverty and poor educational outputs are related but confusion as to which is cause and which effect. There is an insistence that CfE’s plethora of documentation is a finished master-piece rather than a work-in-progress. That is especially so with Experiences and Outcomes, which are muddled at best, contradictory at worst.
It is time to conduct a thorough review of CfE and time also for ministerial communication to be as clear as that expected from the young people taught in our schools.
Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.