We must not be afraid to ask the dangerous questions

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A new year is underway, but our education system still refuses to ask the most important, and most dangerous, questions. We need to re-engage with the big issues, says Alex Wood.

Nothing comes close to the wonderful buzz which committed teachers feel when they see new first years, smart and enthusiastic, as well as older students returning ready for another year’s efforts.

Scottish schools and teachers will enter the year with the usual mix of hopes, ambitions and targets, but in these troubled times the big bad world pushes some more sobering thoughts on to the agenda.

Every Scottish secondary will start the term reviewing exam results. For many the demise of the Standard Grade will be a source of regret. It arose to acknowledge the achievements of all students across the academic spectrum. 

Its disappearance leaves a democratic gap and re-emphasises that while nominally all attainment is valued, attainment at the high-performing academic end is valued far more than attainment by the less academically oriented. There will also be some scepticism about the reported improvement in attainment levels, particularly about Scottish government and Education Scotland hype over these results. 

The hard work and focus of teachers and learners should indeed be acknowledged, but the insistence that the quality assurance is sufficiently rigorous to maintain consistent standards is less than credible, especially in the light of the previous year’s maths debacle.

Ironically, the government has simultaneously come down hard on schools which present students for SQA exams in S3, early presentation. Not only was early presentation, of some students by some schools, seen as a route to boosting attainment but it reflected different cultures in different establishments, horses for courses.

While government strictures are limiting schools’ capacity to adopt strategies relevant to their particular needs, the number of subjects being studied in S4 is reducing from an average of seven to an average of six. Again, the pressure to crude exam passes stands in stark contradiction to the rhetoric of a broad education.

Major concerns also remain around resources. Continuing local authority spending restraint has created cutbacks in staffing and promoted post structures.

The greatest uncertainties however remain around the curriculum. Inter-disciplinary learning is high among the Scottish government’s educational priorities but is ill-defined and a palpable tension remains between inter-disciplinary learning and boosting exam results – which of course are all in single-disciplinary subject areas.

Sadly, the discussions on Curriculum for Excellence, which started with a broad-brush enquiry into the principles of Scottish education, have now been restricted to the priorities defined by the new managerial culture which dominates education across the developed world: outputs measured by exam successes at the most academic end of the spectrum.

As Scotland prepares for a historic national referendum, the countless insights generated by the Curriculum for Excellence process should have generated a parallel debate on the future of Scottish education. 

Scotland must recapture its Enlightenment tradition, escape the empirical morass in which its educational discourse is stuck and re-engage with the big issues.

How do we educate all our young people in such a manner as will develop the myriad talents that lie untapped in so many? How can we re-engage the educationally disillusioned and the alienated?

How best can we hit a meaningful balance between intellectual rigour and an engaging pedagogy? How should we treat and value teachers to ensure they remain committed to a humane and kindly as well as a rigorous and demanding educational system?

What kind of Scotland do we want and, if it is a more socially just and caring Scotland, what is the role of schools and education in achieving that? It’s not too late to start asking these dangerous questions.

  • 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.


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