Let’s make Scottish education fairer for all

If you’re interested in education, you might have noticed my recent article in the Times Educational Supplement:

Clear career pathways must be opened to all

I admit I’ve got a thing about this so this is just a bit of a rant.

It comes from having spent the best part of my life working with teenage kids in Scotland and witnessing in almost every job I have held – teacher, subject head, adviser, headteacher, headteacher trainer – the preferential treatment we give to young people who are academically able. Don’t get me wrong.  I love those kids and loved teaching them.  It’s really important that young people strive to develop their skills and understanding and that we set the bar high for those who can reach up towards it.   However there are lots of kids who don’t learn easily through the kinds of more abstract decentred thinking required once studies in subjects like Maths, Science and History go up towards the level of the Scottish Higher.   Yet these young people are able in other ways.  As the ‘work’ becomes more abstract and related to examination performance, they find that they are constantly not doing so well as others.  Who wants to spend time working away at something they are not good at?  They tolerate school till they can get on and do something else.

It’s true that we’re getting better at recognising and valuing other skills and abilities than the academic.   Curriculum for Excellence is meant to do this in some ways – the ‘profile’ at age 15, pedagogies like co-operative learning which encourage learning together, not just isolated individual performance on paper.  Yet there’s no sign of that progressing into our post-15 arrangements.  All the energy and effort seems to have gone into curriculum design further down the age range, yet it is in the post-15 arrangements that those who are not academically inclined get the worst deal.  If they have good family connections to work they are interested in, or the links between their schools and local Colleges are good, they may tolerate school learning until they can get out into something that suits them better.

However in the complex job and training environment of the 21st Century, many young people and adults don’t understand the different training and education routes that are available.  There are good careers advisers in schools and other settings, and we do have a focus now in Scotland on positive post-school placement, but for many young people in this group, their post-school experience is of random, chance access to opportunities which they do not fully understand.  It could be argued that the same scenario presents itself to those who have Highers, then find ways to progress into Higher Education or Advanced Further Education – it’s just that they experience this confusion about the work environment they are about to enter at a later stage.  I agree that part of what this is about is the impact of changes in the global economy and financial markets and that’s affecting everyone in or out of work.  My argument isn’t really about that.  It’s about the educational experience these youngsters have while still in the school system.

The Scottish school curriculum treats them as second class citizens – keeps them busy till they can move on elsewhere, while focusing most attention on the kids who are going to stay on and complete a fifth, then a sixth year.  This is not about the teacher, or headteachers for that matter.  I’ve….we’ve…. spent our careers compensating for the weakness of the national curriculum arrangements, valuing the individuals despite what the curriculum seems to say about their value – developing relationships that overcome unfairness through respect.  It’s about our failure as a civic community to develop a 15/16+ curriculum that gives equal value to each child.  I believe it is our biggest failure as it feeds down into the lower reaches of the secondary school.  It remains to be seen whether Curriculum for Excellence, with its vision of a broad general education for all to age 15, can overcome this structural failing.  In my view, that will depend in part on whether schools continue to be judged on the basis of examination performance at age 16, rather than the broader set of performance indicators that I argued for in previous articles/blogs:

What should happen after a young person leaves school in Scotland

How to improve Scottish schools: six main problems and their solutions

The negative consquences for Scottish education of inspectors continuing misuse of examination statistics

People tell me that this just reflects the reality of our society. Some people are worth more than others.  Thank God we don’t think that in schools – or at least we try not to.  In our limited and feeble way, we battle against contrary social and economic forces by trying to put some democratic ideals into practice, however inadequately.  For some of my thoughts on that, see Democratic Schooling in Scotland

This rant is now over!



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