Colours of the Alphabet – you must see this film @alphabetfilm

On Wednesday evening, I went through to Glasgow to watch this film. It was so wonderful, in so many ways, I just have to blog about it.

It was beautiful – beautifully shot, beautiful children, beautiful colours, beautiful subject.

It was moving – about families, about growing up, about education, about how people learn who they are and what their lives are for.

It was funny – watching little children at play, at work, just being their wonderful selves.

It was thoughtful and thought provoking – there are messages, overt and covert, in the film – about language, about poverty, about ambition, about how different life is or could be without today’s technology, consumerism and media influences.

It was great entertainment – so much to enjoy and so much to think about.

Watch the trailer here:

It was also educational – what is, or should be, the proper relationship between ‘home language’ and the language of education and to what extent should all languages, however small, be protected/funded/written. What are the barriers to learning associated with language (took me back in my thoughts, as so often in my teaching career, to the work of Bernstein, Class Codes and Control ( see here ) and more recently Michael Young’s restatement of the importance of ‘powerful knowledge’ (see below) and the work of Elizabeth Rata

“Limiting the curriculum to experiential knowledge limits access to a powerful class resource; that of conceptual knowledge required for critical reasoning and political agency. Knowledge that comes from experience limits the knower to that experience. The shift to localised knowledge fixes groups in the working class to a never ending present as schools that use a social constructivist approach to knowledge in the curriculum fail to provide the intellectual tools of conceptual thinking and its medium in advanced literacy that lead to an imagined, yet unknown, future.”

In the concluding discussion (as it was a premiere, part of the Glasgow Film Festival ,the producer, director and Liz Lochhead were there for a chat and questions afterwords, to give us some insight into the production and its meanings), it turns out that the first draft of the film ran for three hours featuring six of the children – I can’t wait for that director’s cut when it comes out on DVD (producer, please take note!).

Michael Young on the importance of ‘knowledge’:

also here:



The National Improvement Framework for Scottish Education

See also blog on national testing.

This is my abbreviated response to the Scottish Government’s consultation on the proposed National Framework for Scottish Education. Responses are welcome either here as comments or to my e.mail at


I wholeheartedly endorse the vision and commend the political commitment to realising it in practice. Setting out a clear vision and values for Scottish education is helpful. However, the document (and consequently the Framework) contains a number of conceptual confusions. Many of these conceptual confusions arise from the way in which the term ‘equality’ is used in the document, and in more general public discourse. As a result, the practical steps proposed are not well targeted. The Moray House School of Education, the EIS and others have made a number of valuable responses which contribute helpfully to the debate in terms of practice. As a result, I will limit this response to the foundational issue of conceptual clarity and one or two recommendations. I hope this response is helpful to you and would be happy to be involved in any further consultation / discussion on these matters.

The concept of equality:

  • different ‘equalities’: at times in the document, equality is used to mean equality of opportunity and at other times to mean equality of outcome. These are very different types of equality. Other aspects of educational equality are equality of value and equality of input. Each of these aspects is important and is explored briefly in turn below.
  • equality of opportunity: this is generally considered to be the weakest form of equality, if what it means is equality in the opportunities offered, even though different individuals will have different levels of capacity to take up the opportunities. Delivering even this weak form of equality would demand greater equality of input than is currently the case (see below).
  • equality of outcomes: if this very strong form of equality is the desired ambition, the government needs to be clear which of the many possible inequalities are to be ‘equalised’ – the categories of the ‘equalisation equation’ in which greater equality is to be measured: socio-economic (deciles, SIMD or occupational class), gender, ethnicity, rurality, in-care, age (on average, those who start school at a younger age have a very unequal experience of education and continue to learn and achieve less well through to age 18[1] ) etc. Another important aspect is the age at which ‘equality’ of outcome will be judged – in addition to the school stages at which it is proposed to conduct national assessments, a case can be made for stage appropriate assessments at 3 (much of the different at P1 can be predicted at age 3) and 25 (the latter would fit with the GIRFEC framework in maintaining public interest in the progress of all young people, and also takes account of the influence of postgraduate education, unfunded internships and other later inequality in educational opportunity).
  • equality of value: the society into which Scotland’s future citizens are growing values individuals very differently according to the skills they bring to the job market. In contrast, every public school in Scotland aims to value each child equally. However although teachers and schools strive to do this, the schooling system does not value children equally, particularly as selection effects influence the character of schooling through the examination system. What does ‘Higher’ say if not that everything else is ‘lower’? A universal graduation certificate, allowing for diversity in achievements but requiring a minimum ‘threshold’ level, could restore balance to the way the system values young people (see below).
  • equality of input[2]: the two most important sources of input to a child’s education are those of the parent and the schooling system, and great inequality in these inputs contributes hugely to inequality in outputs. (a) Parental inputs vary greatly and at all ages, for example: in the value they place on school education; in differential levels of support in learning to read; in the purchase of privileged access to private education or private tutoring; at later stages, where advantaged parents can find routes to success in the job market or use their social advantages to put a ‘glass floor’ beneath their children. Because the selective function of schooling, and consequently the examination system, is competitive, advantaged parents use every advantage to ensure that their children succeed in the competition (b) School inputs also vary greatly. At present, equality is measured (bizarrely) only by looking at the outputs. Important factors such as the range of additional support services or the amount of money provided for each pupil by different local authorities (including significant differentials in funding to support individual special or socio-economic needs) are not measured or accounted for in the ‘equalisation equation’. Public and political discourse on ‘equality’ needs to recognise the importance and scale of the different inputs made by parents and local authorities and the extent to which these influence the capacity of schools to ‘close the gap’.
  • equity[3]: equality should not mean ‘sameness’. We value diversity and freedom of choice. As young people near the end of their school career, they are exercising agency and choice in a variety of ways in their personal lives. This is also true in school education. Equality cannot and should not therefore be done to the students, but must be done with This is where the concept of ‘equity’ is important: the vision of the Framework is for equity, which is about fairness, not an equality of sameness. At present, the senior phase has become too individualised for those not aiming for Higher examinations, with the consequence that greater inequality may be embedded ‘by the back door’ as the selection effects of competitive examinations kick in. The original vision of Curriculum for Excellence outlined four ‘capacities’ of every educated citizen. Scotland should revisit that vision in the context of ‘education to age 18’ and identify a minimum threshold level of achievement in relation to the desirable outcomes of education, to which every young person should be entitled. These can be matched to the graduation certificate (see below) to provide a strong curricular map for the 15-18 stage, one which values fairly the differing achievements of young people rather than positioning them on a linear scale of examination results, in which some will inevitably be less well positioned than others.
  1. Some recommendations:
    • a Graduation Certificate for all[4]: the government therefore needs to be clear exactly which ‘equalities’ it intends to improve and how it will measure whether the desired improvement has taken place. It is helpful that health and wellbeing are to be included alongside literacy and numeracy. However the principle ‘measurement’ of educational success in our schooling system remains the SQA examinations. The use of ‘positive sustained destinations’ offers one element of a more balanced evaluation. However a genuinely equal valuation of all our young people would certificate the diverse range of achievements and talents which they ‘bring to the table’, not simply their academic progress. In 2007 the OECD report recommended that Scotland introduce a graduation certificate to mark each young person’ progress from full-time education. We should (a) ensure that all young people remain in education (whether in a training or workplace, school or college) to age 18; (b) pilot and then introduce a graduation certificate which would include the variety of ways in which different young people achieve and bring value to our communities (not simply their academic achievements – important as these are). Such a graduation certificate should initially be piloted in chosen locations before widespread introduction.
    • diagnostic individual character of testing[5]: I am in agreement with the idea of standardising testing across the country – at present we have this ‘de facto’ since so many authorities administer standardised tests. However much more care needs to be taken with the conduct of the tests, messages about their intention and communication of their results. At present, too much testing in schools results in judgement, with negative consequences for those whose test results are not seen as being ‘good enough’. The fundamental purpose of testing in education should be, as it is in health, diagnosis – a purpose in which a degree of norm-referencing plays an important part, particularly in relation to development. I therefore propose that, as is the practice in medical/health testing, results are confidential to the young person, his/her teacher(s) and his/her parent and are used only to support planning. Such confidentiality should apply within classrooms as well as more widely.
    • other purposes of testing: currently examination results are used for two further purposes and it seems that the Framework will also use standardised tests for these purposes: (a) to hold schools to account – where standardised testing has been used for this purpose in other systems, it has generally had negative effects of increasing inequality as the schools in the poorest areas tend to be labelled and judged more harshly leading to a negative spiral (b) to provide an overview of the system as a whole – this important function should be delivered through anonymous sampling of standardised results, as was done with the previous national survey.


[1] Murphy, D. (2014) Schooling Scotland (Argyll Press) p21

[2] See Murphy, D. et al (eds) (2015), Everyone’s Future (Institute of Education/Trentham Press)

[3] Ibid Chapters 5 and 11

[4] Murphy, D. (2014) p115ff

[5] Murphy (2104) pp61-63

‘Everyone’s Future: lessons from fifty years of Scottish comprehensive schooling’ – some key quotes.


Some quotes from the book:

By 1997, there was widespread civic acceptance in Scotland, confirmed by responses to the 2002 National Debate, of the local authority comprehensive six-year school, albeit modulated by parental choice, as the best model for state secondary school education (Munn et al., 2004). This was in marked contrast to England, where in 2001 Alastair Campbell, the Labour prime minister’s spokesman, famously predicted that ‘the day of the bog-standard comprehensive school is over’, thus associating comprehensive schools with mediocrity (Clare and Jones, 2001). There was no appetite in Scotland for ‘opting out’. The focus was on making local authority schools more ‘effective’.p23

CfE is, in reality, a curriculum for 3–15. The previous examination system, which had dominated the 15–18 school curriculum, with Standard Grade and Higher Still courses running both in sequence and in parallel, was simplified by the new exam arrangements, but there was no attempt to overhaul, or even subject to critical scrutiny, many of the existing irregularities of curriculum design and practice in the Senior Phase. p31

Comprehensive education in Scotland has promoted equality…..Equality of opportunity has been expanded through the provision of a broader range of curriculum options, abolishing overt discrimination by gender and extending the range of post-compulsory pathways …Comprehensive reorganization removed some barriers, such as school selection and the more divisive aspects of curriculum and examination systems. But it did not abolish wider social inequalities, or the selective function of schooling, the main factors restricting equality of outcome….Comprehensive education in Scotland has, however, promoted greater equality of value. Pupils who would once have been marginalized as ‘non-certificate’ are now full members of the moral community of the school. p197

Improvement needs to be defined in terms of all of the aims of a comprehensive system.
Current models of improvement – nationally and internationally – are dominated by comparisons of pupil and school performance in standardized tests. While a comprehensive school system that aims to provide a broad general education for all of its young people and which values them equally needs to define improvement in terms of performance, it should also include a wider set of factors involved in balancing liberty, equality, and fraternity in fair and just communities. So too should it include a greater range of contributions to civic health than those that define the individual solely in relation to ‘performance’ in pre-specified competitive tasks. System improvement needs to be specified and evaluated across a wider range of outcomes than test performance alone.  p203

Book Launch


Everyone’s Future

Lessons from fifty years of Scottish comprehensive schooling

This (click on the word!) is how I’ve been spending a lot of my time the past few months!

‘This is a must-read for those of us who have lived the theme of this excellent book. It is even more so for those who in their lifetimes could have an impact on the future direction of education in these isles. It is an excellent account of Scottish education over these fifty years and is a fitting tribute to one of Scotland’s foremost academics. Insightful, enlightening, thought provoking and very challenging, its timing in the development of Scottish education could not be better.’

Ken Cunningham, CBE FRSA, General Secretary, School Leaders Scotland

‘This book revitalizes the debate about comprehensive education by going back to first principles –equality, liberty and fraternity – and examining the Scottish education system in the light of them. In doing so it provides new insights into the concept and the difficulties of realizing it in the 21st century. It is a fitting tribute to an inspirational colleague Professor David Raffe.’
Professor Ann Hodgson, UCL Institute of Education

It is fifty years since comprehensive education was introduced in Scotland, England and Wales. But while the ideal of comprehensive education has been largely abandoned in England, comprehensive schools are alive and well in Scotland and command public support.

This long-term overview of the development of the Scottish system, with contrasting accounts from England, Northern Ireland and Wales, concludes that comprehensive schooling, linked to underlying democratic values of liberty, equality and fraternity, has made a positive difference to the development of contemporary Scotland.

Drawing on a wide range of research, documentary and policy evidence, the book provides a critical account of developments in curriculum and governance and the impact of comprehensive schooling on its students’ outcomes, social class and gender inequalities. It exploits a unique series of surveys to give voice to young people and their increasingly positive attitudes to school, especially among the less academic. But the Scottish system’s success is still only partial.

Looking forward, the book outlines lessons from the Scottish experience both for Scotland and for other countries considering how best to educate young people of secondary-school age. A valuable resource for students, teachers, academics and policymakers.

– See more at:



Recently, the new format Times Educational Supplement asked for a piece based around the 2nd edition of my Dilemmas book.   I was told I had 800 words and had to include a ‘top ten tips’ section, to fit with the way they set these things out on the back few pages.  A young London editor at the other end of the phone then sent me his redraft – jazzing it up a bit.  I edited out the phrases I least liked and we ended up with this: . At the end of the process, I concluded, as people of my age has often done, that not all change is progress.

Apologies to my regular readers for my long absence – two months since my last post.  Since my Mum passed away in July I’ve been hibernating in a muddle of work…. carrying on with life in a very busy way, juggling various writing projects…. but there’s a bit of me that’s still numb, so numb I’m not sure which bit it is. In Sept I said, ‘blogging again’.  I make no such claims today.  Let’s see what tomorrow brings.

“School Leadership: Dealing with Dilemmas 2.0” now ready for publication.

Dealing with Dilemmas 2.0 advance copies are printed already.  The official launch at the University of Edinburgh is tomorrow evening (13th).  I’m excited about it.  When the first edition was published in 2007, Christine Forde of Univ of Glasgow told me

Your book is going down a storm with SQH candidates – it has answered a lot
of questions for them.”

This gave me a lot of pleasure, as I had set out to write the book to answer some questions that were bothering me! In particular, I wanted to explore why there is such a gap between the real life experience of school leadership (not just of the the headteacher, but all those who take on leadership roles) and what is written on bits of paper such as policies or guidelines or quality indicators.   In the real world of lived experience, everything is much messier but also so much more real and exciting. This book goes some towards explaining ‘why?’

The new second edition is revised, updated and expanded, with many more exemplars.  It’s also physically bigger and aesthetically more pleasing.  I hope it continues to answer important questions for those who lead in our schools.

My thanks to the publisher, Dunedin Academic Press (click here), for their faith in the book and the importance of its message.

2nd edition

2nd edition

I can’t believe it’s been six weeks since the last blog.  Assessment, holiday, assessment, Mum’s illness, more assessment and some time in the garden and this is where I’ve got to….

Talking Mats wins again!

Talking Mats, a small Stirling company built on outstanding research and practice in improving communication, already Intern Placement Provider of 2012, Scottish Social Enterprise of the Year 2012 winner and twice nominated finalist at the UK Social Enterprise of the Year, gained another fabulous award at the Scottish Edge Enterprise awards this week, one of only three top award winners out of 235 entries.   What a team!

A Talking Mat in use

A Talking Mat in use

A Talking Mat!

A Talking Mat!








To find out more about Talking Mats, click here

To find out about the Edge Awards, click here