Darren McGarvey and Sebastian Barry – my Christmas Reading

I usually think of the Christmas holiday as offering at least two or three days of uninterrupted reading pleasure, a bit of time and space to attack the mounds of reading material accumulated during socially busy December – journal, magazine and newspaper articles, podcasts unlistened to, unread books buried under a new pile of well-chosen Christmas presents, this year including works by authors new to me: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Peter Wohlleben, Philippe Sands and Colson Whitehead. Why then, would I choose to bodyswerve these wonderful reads and spend the small amount of reading time I actually achieved over the holiday period on a library book, and another I picked up in Waterstone’s? I don’t know the answer, but I’m glad, all the same, that I did manage to read ‘Poverty Safari’ and ‘Days Without End’– very different books, very different themes: one an insightful polemic about the experience of and damage caused by social inequality and a powerful memoir full of honest self-reflection and responsibility, the other a beautifully crafted work of art with no such obvious impact, other than admiration for the artist and the quality of his work.

Darren McGarvey (also known as Loki @lokiscottishrap ) has lived a lot of life in his 33 years and he brings much of that experience, as well as considerable passion and compassion into his autobiographical take on his own life to date and the story his life tells of the way we live now and what we should do about it – ‘Poverty Safari’, a phrase he coined when commenting disparagingly on an artistic middle class ‘visiting’ experience of urban Glasgow (he later apologises for his presumptuous dismissal of the artist involved). His personal story, honestly told, is a powerful witness testimony of the challenges he experienced growing up in Pollok, the difficulties of family life with an alcoholic mother, his perceptions of where he fitted in and where he didn’t, leading on to a growing awareness of systemic social failures and inequalities and a campaigning determination to attack these at system level. Finally, he changes his perceptions of what has happened to him, what he has done, and discovers a more complex, nuanced understanding of who he is and what he stands for.

Rather than summarise or critique, the best thing I can do is quote some of his own powerful words, page after page of which I couldn’t put down. It was like being in the room with someone whose story is so compelling, whose insights are so valuable, that you just want to hear more.

‘My mother lived with us until I was about ten. During that decade, she left a life-altering trail of carnage in her wake; each year her behaviour was more bizarre and unpredictable than the next. One sunny afternoon in Pollok, not long before she left. I arrived with a couple of friends in tow, to find many of the contents of our home laid out in the front garden, incinerated. I can’t recall what explanation I offered my friends, though I suspect none was required. They already had some insight into how we lived. When you live in a troubled home, life spills out onto the street. Eventually you become closed off to the dysfunction, perhaps to spare yourself feelings of shame or embarrassment. You adjust to the fact that people in the street know your business and are probably judging you. Privacy becomes another elusive luxury beyond the reach of people like you.

Dignity was for the fancy people.

Pretending you’re not poor is one thing. All you need to pull that off is a couple of credit cards, a catalogue and a deep delusional streak. It also helps your street credibility if you keep that big blue crate of European Union stew that you’ve received for free as a poverty perk well out of view if you have visitors round. But concealing family dysfunction is much trickier. For one, the dysfunction may be out of your control; a parent or sibling, for example. Second, the dysfunction may be imperceptible to you and therefore hard to hide…

By the time it becomes apparent that your life isn’t normal, it’s too late to keep up the pretence. Concerned neighbours hear your troubles through the walls. Teachers, doctors, social workers and mental health professionals are aware of your ongoing situation. But for every person showing concern or offering support, there’s another waiting to exploit the vulnerability….

Dysfunction at home, mainly around my mother, as well as the obvious fact we were poor, was something I had to account for when I was at school. On a few occasions I arrived there after dressing myself and became the butt of playground teasing. One morning, I remember my dad having to leave work to come to the school with a proper outfit for me. God knows what I was wearing. There were other occasions when I’d be sitting at the reception of nursery or school, well after the end of the school day, waiting for someone to come and pick me up.

I remember climbing onto a kitchen worktop to gain access to a cupboard so that I could make my breakfast; but, too young to know how to do it, pouring cold water into a bowl of oats and mating it before getting myself ready for school. At the time, this was no big deal. I was already adapting to the fact my mother was not fit to take care of me. The only problem was that while this all seemed perfectly normal to me, having nothing else to compare it to, it was obvious to other people, not least merciless kids, that something wasn’t right. …

Difficult as school could be, I always found it preferable to the unpredictability of life at home, where I would spend a lot of time walking on eggshells, ascertaining what sort of mood my mother was in.

On a few occasions, I’d run out to the back garden and throw her empty bottles over the spiky steel fence. If I recall correctly, this was pitched to me like a game. No doubt I knew exactly what it was, but played along to amuse her. Much like the time I spent in the amusements, having been promised a day in Treasure Island’, only to spend the afternoon amusing myself in a toy car, staring at the ‘insert credit’ screen, while she plunged the family silver manically into a slot machine. Days like that, or chucking bottles over the back fence for her, were about as close to quality time as we ever got…‘

He charts his journey through homelessness, political activism, alcohol abuse, public commentary through music, including work in the Violence Reduction Unit, and BBC broadcasting to the present day, where he has worked hard to tell his story and put it into a wider context, where there is a balance to be found between the responsibilities of the individual, the responsibilities of the important individuals in their lives and the responsibilities of wider society who collectively deal an individual the hand he or she has to play. But he concludes that the individual can play that hand very differently.

Here is an extract from the book’s concluding pages of his profound and politically relevant current thoughts on where he fits and what his/our responsibilities are.

‘What I began to realise, as I peeled back the layers of pretension and self-justification laid down over a period of ten years, was that my political principles were not quite the beacon of selfless integrity and virtue I had long imagined they were. Quite the opposite in fact….

Taking responsibility is a hard thing to do. Especially when you believe it’s someone else’s job to pick up the slack. All my life I was told that the system was to blame for the problems in my family’s life and that my family were to blame for the problems in mine. This belief that it was always someone else’s fault was reinforced by the poverty industry and politicians who stood to gain from my willingness to defer to them. I never got sober, at least for any length of time, until I admitted to myself that many of the predicaments in my adult life were of my own making … I toured mental health services for years, genuinely believing I was either severely depressed or insane, when really, I was an exhausted, malnourished alcoholic, oscillating wildly between the high of inebriation and the crushing low of withdrawal and financial ruin. All the while I was demanding immediate change; rubbing my hands, awaiting the imminent collapse of society. My self-righteousness totally blinded me to the fact that the very society I was praying would fall, for all of its glaring flaws, was providing for my ever mutating needs. I had a slew of professionals on call, as well as accommodation, benefits and other forms of support. I had access to libraries full of knowledge and information about how to overcome many of the issues I faced as well as the internet where I could broaden the scope of my research. There were hundreds of free support groups all around the city, full of people who had got sober and remained so. Yet somehow, I was blind to all of this. These things didn’t suit my narrative about society being bereft of integrity or compassion. Because I wasn’t ready to honestly examine my problems which were, in the end, as much about my own attitudes and behaviour as they were about poverty or child abuse, I stubbornly continued a path of delusional self-obliteration…

At some point, I started believing the lie that I was not responsible for my own thoughts, feelings and actions. That these were all by-products of a system that mistreated and excluded me. And that I could only change and overcome these difficulties when society intervened in my circumstances or was dismantled and rebuilt. Today, I realise that the best contribution I can make to society is to raise a healthy, happy and secure child. Today, I realise that the most practical way of transforming my community is to first transform myself and, having done so, find a way to express how I did that to as many people as possible.

Some will argue that this introspection is merely another form of structural oppression; an extension of neo-liberal economics that encourages individuals to avert their eyes from the injustice in the world and, instead, focus on self-improvement. Others will argue that it’s a cop-out because it doesn’t challenge power. To them I say this: you are no use to any family, community, cause or movement unless you are first able to manage, maintain and operate the machinery of your own life. These are the means of production that one must first seize before meaningful change can occur. This doesn’t mean resistance has to stop. Nor does it mean corruption and injustice shouldn’t be challenged, it simply a willingness to subject one’s own thinking and behaviour to a similar quality of scrutiny. That’s not a cop out; that’s radicalism in the 21st century.

I made every excuse, blamed every scapegoat and denied every truth. But as it happens, the great theme of my life was not poverty, as I had always imagined, but the false beliefs I unconsciously adopted to survive it; the myths I internalised to conceal the true nature of many of my problems. It hadn’t occurred to me that a root-and-branch analysis of poverty might involve asking some searching and difficult questions of myself too. For some reason, despite my apparent concern that this issue be scrutinised forensically, I conveniently exempted myself from the analysis while placing everything else under a microscope…

All my life a sense of powerlessness had followed me around… My answer to every instance in which I lacked power was to demand that someone else intervene on my behalf: junk food should be curtailed, advertising should be restricted and alcohol and drugs should be banned. I dreamed of society imploding, naively believing its demise would make life easier. Everything was immoral, unjust and tinged with corruption. Worse still, I believed those things so vehemently that it would emotionally disturb and offend me to hear someone argue to the contrary. Turns out that was a very foolish way to burn energy. But it’s often much easier to see the holes in another person’s story than it is to get honest about the yarns you’ve been spinning.’

McGarvey still wants to see society reformed, a fairer, more equal, better place for all children to grow up. He now argues that this cannot be brought about through a crude top-down process, but as part of a more complex vision, in which each individual has to be involved, take responsibilities and make this happen in their lives, not just in a political vision. This reminded me of Gandhi’s political philosophy which required the individual to confront those committed to injustice, unfairness and inequality not with violence but with truth and honesy and fairness.

This works at lots of levels. We can all find reasons to think that other people should sort stuff out for us, stuff we want to see sorted. And perhaps other people should do that. But that should never be an excuse for us not to do what we should be doing.

I was riveted by his book – well-written, highly personal and profound. It challenged my thinking, reminded me of some of the things I used to think but left behind, and as I write I’m still trying to work out what lessons I can take from it for my own life, to use it to challenge my complacencies and mental laziness.

*   *  *

Sebastian Barry’s novel, Days Without End, stands out among the many books/plays/films/Netflix series/news/magazines/podcasts clamouring to be recognised, to be read and understood, in our frenzied media-saturated lives. From the very first page, the reader is held by the distinctive, consistent and very believable voice of Thomas McNulty, an Irish famine refugee who, after discovering his talent as a drag artist, volunteered to serve in the Union army and now, the best part of twenty years on, tells the tale of his part in the Indian Wars of the mid-West and in the bloody turmoil of the Civil War. At every stage, closest in his heart is his friend and lover, the enigmatic, handsome John Cole, and then he is joined there by their adopted daughter, the Indian girl Winona, the sole surviving member of her tribe, victims of a needless massacre,.

The sentences are beautifully crafted, the rhythms of the story rumble unstoppably underneath the incidents and events on each of the pages. Following Thomas McNulty’s journey, we are given the bottom-up view of an eye-witness participant with the sensibilities and insight of a twenty-first century commentator. My concern at the anachronisms in his sympathetic insights into the people he encounters, expressed in resonant philosophical musings about the nature of humanity which flow naturally through the autobiographical narrative, felt out of place: this is a work of fiction and a work of poetry. It is enough that Thomas McNulty could have existed, and perhaps should have existed. His story speaks of his times, with the insights of our times.

At random, this paragraph, from his description of their troops’ nightmare journey, during the Indian wars, back from the west towards the Missouri, stalked by a band of Oglala Sioux Indians:

‘ … Imagine our horror and distress then when we saw those Oglala boys sitting on their horses on the horizon. Two hundred, three, just sitting there. Our own horses were skeletons. They were getting water but little else. Horses need regular fodder, grass and such. My poor horse was showing his bones like they was metal levers sticking out. Watchorn had been a small plumpish man but he weren’t no more. You coulda used John Cole for a pencil if you coulda threaded some lead through him. We were a day out on the prairie and the horses only had the first bright green slivers of grass to graze on. Half an inch. It was too early in the year. We were yearning to see wagons, our crazy wish was to see a herd of them buffalo, we started to dream of buffalo, thousands upon thousands, stampeding through our dreams, and then we’d wake in the moonlight and see only that, piss yellow and thin in the chill darkness. Temperature dropping down the glass till it was hard to breathe it was so cold. The little streams smelling of iron. At night the troopers slept close together in their blankets, we looked like a mess of prairie dogs, sleeping close for life. Snoring through frosty nostrils. The horses stamping, stamping and steaming out frosted tendrils and flowers of breath in the darkness. Now in these different districts, the sun came up that bit earlier, more eagerly, more like the baker putting fire into his bread-oven, in the small hours, so the women in the town would have bread bright early. Lord, that sun rose regular and sere, he didn’t care who saw him, naked and round and white. Then the rains came walking over dry land, exciting the new grasses, thundering down, hammering like fearsome little bullets, making the shards and dusts of the earth dance a violent jig. Making the grass seeds drunk with ambition. Then the sun pouring in after the rain, and the wide endless prairie steaming, a vast and endless vista of white steam rising, and the flocks of birds wheeling and turning. A million birds to one cloud, we’d a needed a blunderbuss to harvest them, small black fleet wondrous birds. We were riding on and all the while, ten, fifteen miles, the Oglala moving with us, watching. Might have been wondering why we didn’t stop for eats. Didn’t have no eats to eat….  .’

Or another, at random, from his description of his post-war journey, with John and Winona, from Grand Rapids, through Indiana, to a farm near Paris, Tennessee, worked by an old comrade from the Indian wars, where they intend to settle as a family, growing tobacco.

‘ … Out between the towns among the December frosted woods and the cold farms Winona sometimes sings a song…. It’s a useful song because it’s as long as ten miles hoofing it. There ain’t a person alive could tell you what the song means. The song she sung was ‘The Famous Flower of Serving Men.’ But she sings it as good as a linnet… Such a sweet clear note she keeps in her breast. Pours out like something valuable and sparse into the old soul of the year. Makes you see the country with better eyes. The distant country melting into the sky and the crumbs of human farms scattered over the deserted commons. The road just a threadbare ravelled sleeve between these usual sights. Like three thundering buffalo ran through long ago and that was all the people of Indiana craved for a path. Famers just that bit easier with us than the town folk but still in this thrumming after-music of the war there’s caution and fear. Guess the human-looking bit is Winona but there again we find that Indians ain’t much favoured despite the name Indiana…. ‘

Any two paragraphs could have been chosen in a book that is one continuous stream of beautifully crafted prose, pulling the reader along Thomas McNulty’s journey, through Thomas McNulty’s eyes, into Thomas McNulty’s poetic world, into Sebastian Barry’s polished work of art.

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Another letter to Jeremy ….

Dear Jeremy

Subsequent to my previous letters to you on the subject, I am writing to say I have been pleasantly surprised by how much things have moved on.

Although, as I thought might happen, we did not manage to win against one of the weakest and most inept Tory governments in recent years under Mrs May’s excruciating leadership, we had a strong manifesto and your passion and ideals undoubtedly played a role in increasing the vote, particularly among the young – Glastonbury has given an additional edge to that!!   However for all the feelgood of increasing the vote beyond expectation, we did not win.

I still, therefore, retain my reservations about your capacity to lead the party to electoral success. You will have to do more to command the middle ground where UK elections are always won and that means finding space for some of the old ‘Blairite’ group within the party.   It is also important that you command the support of all your MPs and to do that you need to reach out and listen to those in other parts of the party who can take the Labour message into constituencies and groups of voters who at present will not listen to you.  You also need to give some of these voices more airtime to represent the variety of viewpoints across the party as a whole.

If you can bring yourself to lead a party of all the talents, and to bring out their different strengths, to see yourself as the conductor rather than the soloist, then I think there is a better prospect of electoral success, a success that is surely needed now more than ever.

Yours

Danny Murphy

Another letter to Jeremy

Dear Jeremy,

I am writing to you again response to your tweet ‘The real fight starts now’ to highlight again my concern at the failure of your leadership. The best thing you can do just now for the people of Britain is to resign as there is absolutely no chance of Labour doing anything under your leadership as you will never be able to command the support of the middle ground in the UK, necessary to win a UK election and gain power to do anything.

Please resign and allow someone to lead the party who has a realistic prospect of achieving at least some of our shared agenda rather than a leader (ie yourself) who has some fine ideas which are unattainable and none of which will never happen except in your imagined Britain, a place different to the one which exists now and with a different set of voters to those who exist now.

I really regret having to be so strong and direct, but your personal vanity should not be allowed to spell further ruin for a party that used to want power in order to do worthwhile things but which under your leadership looks more and more like a party which is happier not being in power so that it never has to take responsibility for making the hard decisions anyone in government has to make.

I am so sad for the mess you are making of the party..  even if your ideas were capable of commanding majority support (which they are not), your poor communication skills, lack of organisational management experience and political naivety in relation to everything except the internal manoeuvres of the party at Westminster and inside the London bubble would be enough to make you incompetent as a political leader. It is  your job to bring the party together and to do so in a credible manner which attracts more people fro the centre ground to support it.  You are dividing the party while attracting no-one from the centre.

Go now and go quickly before you destroy this great party which you and I both love and which has delivered so much for people across Britain over the past hundred years.

Daniel Murphy

(member for more than 40 years)

Water Footprint: we all have one. What’s yours?

water footprint‘Carbon footprint’ – the legacy of carbon released into the atmosphere that we leave to our descendants, the people and the planet of future times – is a term we have become familiar with over the past three decades as the science of climate change has moved out of the labs and pressure group handouts into common civic understanding, if not yet common civic action. It perfectly captures the idea that long after we have passed by, the impact we made on the planet and its biochemical systems remains.

The haunting metaphor of the ‘footprint’ – which brings to mind those massive dinosaur prints preserved in stone as a record of their time, millions of years ago – has also been applied to the legacy of a variety of other aspects of human consumption and waste, not least our use of water. New Scientist recently covered current thinking on the ‘water footprint’ in a two page interview with Arjen Hoekstra, a Dutch professor of water management (click here ).

Of course, here in Scotland, we have no shortage of water, so it’s hard for us to imagine that however much we use we are going to have a negative impact on human life in the future, but our ‘water footprint’ is not just what we consume in our own homes, gardens and work. A large part of our ‘footprint’ is elsewhere, left by the production in other parts of the world of the goods we consume here. Three quarters of the water footprint of people who live in the UK is outside the UK, in the countries where the goods and food we consume originate. Whereas our water cycle as an island on the edge of the Atlantic ensures that whatever we put back into the rivers and water table from our use of water will eventually fall back down on us (in fact climate change projections suggest parts of the UK will be wetter longer term in the future), in many parts of the world, water reserves used in agriculture are not being replenished.  Around 90% of humanity’s global water footprint comes from food production and around a third of that comes from animal feed production.  So next time you’re checking those food miles, and the contribution they make to your carbon footprint, just add in your water footprint as well.

More on this from National Geographic here and from the Water Footprint Network .

water footprint

 

Election Briefings from Moray House

I’ve been working with colleagues on this series of Briefings to inform the forthcoming Scottish election debates. Check them out here:

http://www.ed.ac.uk/education/election-briefings

… and here’s an example focusing on education 15-18, the ‘senior phase’ …

http://www.ed.ac.uk/files/atoms/files/electionbriefing12-school-post-school-15-05-16.pdf?utm_source=Briefing&utm_medium=SchoolPostSchool&utm_content=election&utm_campaign=MorayHouseBriefing

 

The Challenges of Equity

This is a full version of the talk I delivered (in an abbreviated fashion!) at the SELMAS Brains Trust in the Malala Building, James Gillespie’s HS Edinburgh on 9th September.

1962794_10202997026913135_7769430376184863284_nThis talk is based on ideas elaborated in Book 7 of the Postcards from Scotland series, ‘Schooling Scotland: Education, equity and community’, available today and from the website:  http://www.postcardsfromscotland.co.uk/book7.html .

9781858566672-114x170The ideas developed in that book have also been applied in the recent analysis of our secondary education system in Scotland – where we’ve come from and where we should be going, ‘Everyone’s Future: Lessons from fifty years of Scottish comprehensive schooling’.

Available at https://ioepress.co.uk/books/schools-and-schooling/everyones-future/

There’s only a short time as we have other very good contributions coming along, so I’m just going to hit you with a succession of ideas to get the grey matter going… with no warm up!

So ‘Challenges of Equity’ – a grand title. Many of us came into education with a commitment to make things better, to do what we could to give every child the best chances, so faced with these challenges we immediately want to do something – it’s our natural condition as teachers and school leaders. We see a problem and we want to sort it out. But I’m not just going to dive in and say what we should do. I want to explore what equity means, and its relationships to another important concept with which it is often confused, ‘equality’, because before we can deliver either equity or equality, we need to ask what kind of equality would we recognise as ‘equitable’. Otherwise, we risk diving into action without knowing properly what it is we want to achieve and what it is that we can achieve.

What then does ‘equity’ mean? The dictionary definition is reasonably clear. Equity, it says, is about fairness, justice, impartiality. That leaves open another question though – ‘What is just or fair?’ and since we’re all likely to make different judgements about what is just or fair, ‘who decides?‘ In a democracy it can’t just be that those with power or might or more money decide and everyone else has to accept it. Nor is it right for the state to make all the decisions and individuals to be disempowered. To understand both what is fair, and who should decide, we need to have recourse to values at the foundation of our democracy. There are lots of contenders, but three foundational values of democracy have stood the test of time – liberty, equality and fraternity (I know ‘fraternity’ has a certain patriarchal ring to it to our ears, so in the book I replaced it with ‘community’ – a concept that has its own difficulties, so for this evening I’ll stick to fraternity, or I’ll end up spending my time debating even more definitions). We need to understand these values of democratic living to understand what is ‘fair’ in a democratic society, and from there what is ‘fair’ in democratic schooling and education.

So what do these different values mean and how do they contribute to ‘equity’.

First of all equality, a word derived from the same root as ‘equity’ and which has three main possible meanings in the field of education:

  • equality of opportunity (one of the meanings used in the Scottish Government’s ‘Framework for Improvement’ issued in draft last week) – this is a weak equailty where everyone is in the same race, but may have very different starting points;
  • equality of outcome (also found in the ‘Framework for Improvement’) – this requires social controls to ensure that, whatever their starting point, individuals end up at the same place. It is a very strong kind of equality, in fact taken to extreme, as to some extent in state communist societies, it ends up being ‘sameness’;
  •  lastly there is and equality of value – this is an important equality for education. It recognises that everyone is different but values what everyone contributes equally.

Often, in political or educational rhetoric, the word ‘equality’ is used in a way which leaves us unsure which of these different meanings is intended. The government’s recent ‘Framework for Improvement’ talks at different points about both equality of opportunity and equality of outcome, without making clear the change involved – two very different forms of equality! The confusion caused by this creates unnecessary disagreements and limits our understanding of what we need to do to achieve fairness.

Liberty (or freedom) is another important foundational democratic value, associated with choice, individuality, difference, plurality, diversity.  Liberty also has an important role in education – education is empowering. It  provides the tools of knowledge, skills and value which allow individuals to make choices and take control of their lives, an important feature of modern democratic living. The language of liberty is the language of human rights, the protection each individual is entitled to in respect of his or her unique worth as a human being. Unrestrained liberty can reduce equality if powerful individuals with more money or other advantages use these advantages to secure their position of power or relative wealth and thus entrench or add to existing inequalities.

Liberty and equality are abstract principles, but fraternity (that word again), or if you will community, puts personal warmth into democracy.  It’s about personal face-to-face relationships of affection, respect, empathy and emotion – in that way it’s both a purpose of democracy and a value of democracy. It says that you’re no democrat if you talk about freedom and equality but then treat the people you meet face to face badly.

I want to explore the relationship between these three important values a little, as I think they are often misunderstood and that’s why we get into difficulties in the debates and arguments we have in education over equity. These values overlap and influence each other and affect our perception of equity and what it is possible to achieve.

The most important thing to say is that we cannot have them each of these to their fullest measure. Each, if pursued to excess, can imperil the other(s). If we take liberty, for example, there is a point at which individual freedom inevitably increases inequality – societies which value individual freedoms highly (such as the USA) tend to be more unequal. On the other hand, the only way to ensure equality is to enforce it – or rather attempt to enforce it (as for example in state Communist systems such as the Soviet Union) with disastrous consequences for liberty. Equality taken to extreme can end up being an enforced ‘sameness’. The point is not to pursue both of these to excess, but to find the right balance point where they can complement each other in our daily lives. Fraternity can also be played to excess where it creates an inward looking ‘here’s tae us’ – it needs the abstract universal values of liberty and equality to raise its sights beyond the immediate community.

The desirable state of democracy then is one in which these three foundational values sit in balance, and that’s a constant dynamic requirement of democratic living – we constantly find these values in tension and have to find a way to keep that tension productive. That’s where ‘fairness’ comes in. We seek a ‘fair balance’. What is true of democratic life in general, is also true of aspects of democratic living such as our education and schooling systems. Here we find liberty and equality in tension with each other – at the macro level of government policy but also at the micro level of school or classroom. Here are some examples.

At the macro level, should individuals be free to choose which school to attend, free to establish their own school, free to set up religious schools? Should parents be free to have or to reject a ‘named person’ (the appeal court case on this was lost recently but now may go to higher court)?

At the micro level, to what extent can a school fairly restrict liberty of dress or enforce the equality of school uniform; indulge individual ‘personalisation & choice’ or require a standard curriculum which gives equal access to important knowledge? In particular in school education, there is the additional dimension of progression from childhood to adulthood, with consequent expectations, particularly in adolescence, of progression in expectations of individual freedom and agency. Our daily lives in the human communities of our schools, and the issues we face in living and working together, are full of tensions between liberty and equality.

Altogether there are nine issues raised in the book Schooling Scotland for Scotland to consider, each one of which has a potential impact on the capacity of the Scottish system to deliver equity. None are about what teachers should do better in classrooms – we already have enough advice on that. These are issues for our politicians and the wider civic community to consider – what is schooling for and how it is organised. Here are three examples from the book, with very  current relevance (given that the book was published at this time last year!). Each of these is about ‘equity’, but underlying the question of ‘fairness’ is a tension between liberty and equality.

The first example is the age children start school. Why do we still have some wee mites starting school at age 4 and a half? On average, they start off behind their peers, all other things being equal, and right through their school careers, they continue to lag behind. The ultimate irony for those who want to leave school at the end of S4, even though they have had the same amount of schooling as their peers, they have to stay on for an extra term – who made that rule up? what educational purpose does it serve? ‘You started school too young, so you have to stay on for an extra term.’ Well if they started school too young, why did we require them to do it? As many ‘winter leavers’ have said to me over the years, “it’s jist no’ fair!’ A substantial number of young children in Scotland start school too young every year, and never catch up. Their self-image as school students is formed in the competitive environment of classroom and playground, and from the beginning they learn to see themselves as less strong, big, mature, skilled, whereas actually they were just a bit too young when they started. Is that fair? It would not be a major change for no child to start school before the age of 5.

My second example is national testing. First of all, let’s look at the word ‘test’. What is a ‘test’ and what is a ‘test’ for?  In medicine, a test involves diagnosis. It’s about investigating, finding out, so that the right strategies can be identified to improve health. However, due to a long tradition of competitive comparison of individuals in school education, testing immediately carries overtones of comparative judgement. We just need to imagine how ridiculous that would be if applied to medicine. You go to the doctor for a test and he tells you that your heart is only at Level 2 or your kidneys are operating at Grade C with the implication that other people are somehow better than you are and that somehow it is your fault. Some people still want to use education tests for comparative judgement – whether at classroom, school or national level – to encourage those involved to do better, even though in a competition there have to be those who come last as well as those who come first. But standardised tests in education can also be used, as medical test are, to inform, to diagnose, to help learning, to ensure that all children are working to the same standard (equality). The tension between liberty and equality runs through the debates :

·         parent, teacher and child can use results to understand the standard expected and to help learning – this use promotes equality and the individual empowerment that underpins liberty;

·         governments, school and teacher can use results to diagnose problems and improve policy responses by observing patterns in provision (by for example noting gender or socio-economic differences) –  this can also lead to greater equality

·         however of late the primary purpose of testing in schools has been distorted – either to allow individual parents and children to make use of aggregated information at school level – league tables  – to inform their choice of school or to allow those in charge of the quality of schooling to take action against schools that are not doing well enough.

 

Are these uses compatible? Can they be balanced fairly? I argue in Schooling Scotland that standardised test do have value, just as they do in the medical world, if they are handled correctly. There may be some merit in aggregating test information for public policy purposes, but because Scottish school education has been so drowned in the notion of comparative judgement, we need a complete break into a different model and that the basis of that should be confidentiality of individual information to parent/child/teacher (medical model). A very strong ring fence around individual information, avoidance of ‘comparative judgement words’ in classroom, in school, in government (local and national) and aggregated information only for diagnostic purposes, not to inform spurious comparative judgements – we have already seen too much damage from simplistic judgements of that sort. Some elements of ‘liberty’ (of information, choice etc) must be curbed in the interests of equality.

The third example is the weakly underdesigned Senior Phase of Curriculum for Excellence – that is if you can call Senior Phase ‘designed’ at all. I could go on all night about this but I know I have to keep to time so it’s an abbreviated approach. All these arguments are further developed in the book. My view is that Senior Phase is weak and fragmented. At 15 Broad General Education and Senior Phase meet and it’s a car crash. Senior Phase neither articulates with Broad General Education, nor has any underlying rationale of its own. The relationship between academic and vocational education which the national debate (remember that) and the OECD report both called for has been left entirely unresolved. Unresolved also are:

  •         the Scottish sixth year, which schools continue to make work despite it anomalous character
  •         ‘two-term dashes’ dominated by examinations         the different values applied to different pathways (with one called ‘Higher’ – and the implication deeply built into the Scottish education psyche, that everything else must be ‘lower’)
  •          the fragmented governance of education 16-18, with different Ministers in charge of different parts of the system, different budgets and different agencies. Some pursue their education in school alone, some in a mixture of school and college, some progress from school to college or training or employment or a mixture of all three and there’s no overall framework or system.
  •         many of the different pathways are not all clear or well understood in the wider world, while the pressure for ‘comparative judgements’ by external users continues to ensure that, in the absence of any alternative framing within the education system,  performance in national examinations becomes the measure of whether an individual has succeeded in their education or not.
  •        as before, in the previous system, the ‘washback’ from S4/5/6 into S2 and S3 is considerable.

As young people get nearer to the end of their schooling, they begin to see how they will be valued by society beyond school and those valuations have variously motivating or demotivating effects on their progress and education.  Why did the designers of CforEx never ask the most important curricular question any country can ask? One which, by the way, was asked in England by the Nuffield Review: what counts as an educated 18 year old in this day and age? Had Scotland asked such a question, we could then have devised a senior phase to deliver such an education, in the same way as we designed BGE. Instead we have the competing philosophies of BGE and SP meeting in a car crash at age 15/16. How can such a system deliver any of the three equalities – opportunity, outcome, value?

In ‘Schooling Scotland’ I argue that we need to a better design frame, a better philosophical basis, for the senior phase. One way of doing this would be through a Scottish Graduation Certificate, open to all, and of equal value, a ‘rite of passage’ qualification that says to each graduate – ‘you have worked hard and have achieved in a range of ways, not just academic’.

·                     At age 18, for every child / young person

·                     An achievable aspiration for all

·                     A balance of aspirations /outcomes – physical (sport, activities etc), academic (literacy, numeracy, language etc), community service and citizenship, vocational development….

·                     Grading and judgement within categories (such as academic performance) – but only one graduation certificate – pass or fail by meeting the criteria

·                     Education 15-18, not ‘schooling 15-18′ – achievable in school or a combination of school and other educational sites.

 

More detail can be found in the book.. but this is not a new idea. The OECD report of 2007 asked for it, since ‘Higher Still’ and even earlier, Scotland has struggled to develop a curricular framework which gives equal value to every young person. This should be our next priority.

I’m going to finish by returning to the third democratic value, fraternity (the ‘forgotten value’ – Bernard Crick).  I know that there are problems with the word and its paternalistic overtones (in Schooling Scotland I substituted ‘community’, in Everyone’s Future we used ‘fraternity’)  but there should be no problems with the concept – personal face-to-face relationships of warmth, empathy, emotion.  It is, of course, a value that imbues our Scottish schools today.  Fraternity / community is just what schools do … It is a value that can only be put into practice in ‘face to face’ communities. It is at the micro level of individual school communities that fraternity / community operates to balance the tensions of  ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’ equitably, fairly.

Fraternity / community

  •         Recognises where impositions in the name of equality have affected individuals unfairly
  •         Understands how some individual liberties need to be curtailed in the interests of equality
  •         Puts a name to a number and a face to a name
  •         Helps create a sense of community, even though individuals have different values and interests

Fraternity is the ultimate bottom-up value that brings joy into our lives together and it has a very necessary place in balancing out the day-to-day challenges of school education.  Without it, school pupils are just performance units, numbers on a piece of paper or in a political comparison or slogan.

Ladies and gentlemen,  the challenges of equity…

·      Are not just for schools to sort by some magical formula imposed by a top-down management solution or learned from a ‘best practice’ site, though both of these have a place in a public managed system

  •      They reflect how we live together in community and in democracy
  •      The most important challenge of equity is equality of value – and that’s delivered face to face
  •      The most important challenge of liberty is recognising how and where it reduces equality
  •      These challenges can’t be properly sorted as bits of paper on someone’s desk, as numbers in a spreadsheet, but only face-to-face – something schools can do supremely well. It’s much harder to be unfair to somebody when you’ re going to meet them again tomorrow and the day after.

Our current civic debate on these issues lacks depth. It sometimes seems as if politicians and the media believe that by manipulating policy they can sort all the problems. It’s true that the national framework matters – look at what I said above about Senior Phase – but so do individuals. If we don’t understand the challenges of equity, if we don’t recognise how freedom and equality work with, or against each other, and if we don’t recognise the importance of that face-to-face element of fraternity, community,  but constantly lose ourselves in wadges of national statistics, where people are just performance units without agency or choice, we truly will not properly address the challenges of equity.

Standardised National Testing – what should Scotland do?

Nicola Sturgeon’s recent announcement about her intention to reintroduce national testing in primary schools and the early years of secondary school has stirred up an earlier debate that became quite heated in the early 1990s, with demonstrations by an alliance of teacher unions and parent organisations against Michael Forsyth’s similar plan – that resulted in the half-and-half compromise of 5-14 national testing which had some of the disadvantages of standardised testing without the advantages.  At that time, there was tremendous suspicion of the motives of a Tory Minister seeking to impose an inappropriate and unwelcome policy on Scotland.  But we’re in a very different place in Scotland now and Nicola made clear that, at least in part, she sees this as providing the kinds of information that will help government to reduce the ‘attainment gap’ (see Andrew Denholm’s article in the Herald here) – and who could find fault with that ambition?

It is clearly important for government (both the Scottish Government and the 32 local governments who actually run our schools) to have some useful information on how children are progressing and at the moment the annual survey information doesn’t really help anyone as it doesn’t give information that can be acted on. However standardised testing can have unwelcome effects on schools and classrooms. High-stakes testing can change the character of the classroom experience, introducing invidious comparative judgements about children’s relative abilities and in some cases distorting the curriculum by encouraging teaching to the test. Moreover when Scottish Inspectors used school-level data to judge the performance of schools, that often resulted in unfair harsh judgements, based on misleading use of the data, on schools and teachers working in the most difficult social environments, where the teachers have a much more difficult job. This undoubtedly had an impact on recruitment to such schools..  only the most dedicated teachers would want to go to work in schools in areas of socio-economic difficulty, knowing that they not only might they have to deal with much more challenging learning environments but also that they might thus make themselves more vulnerable to unjust criticism of their difficult work.

Nicola’s statements on this have left us a bit unsure… it seems that she wants the information for national government but passes on the responsibility for any negative effects on to the media. This would be an abnegation of responsibility. Government can and should accept the responsibility for making the right decisions, and that includes reducing or increasing the potentially damaging effects of standardised testing. So what is the best way forward?  How can we provide the kinds of information that governments need without unintended negative consequences resulting?

The answer, I think, is in essence quite simple. Test the children, not the schools. The use of test results to test schools distorts their use. As I said above, it is useful for governments to have aggregate data about ‘performance’. But the people to whom the information is of greatest value are the teacher, the parents (carers) and the child – the key partners in supporting the child’s learning.  The public and media overemphasis on what governments can do, what local government officers can do, what inspectors can do… obscures and devalues the most important people in any learning – the parents, the teacher and the child.

The most important use of standardised testing is diagnostic, not judgemental.  Every parent is entitled to know whether their child is learning well or whether there are difficulties or issues that need support or attention if they are to become fully literate, numerate and capable of developing their capacities to learn more; to understand what obstacles might stand in their child’s way and how teacher, parent and child can work together to remove these. The results of standardised tests can play an important part in discussions between teacher and parent and child, where they consider what progress in learning has been made from year to year. In much the same way, standardised testing of height, weight gain, sight and hearing and other physical characteristics plays an important role in early years development. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before the introduction of such welfare entitlements as free child healthcare and school meals, there was no standardised testing of physical development and some children grew up with avoidable infirmities. In health, testing is a positive process designed to ensure healthy development. In education, testing has been a negative process, designed to rate, grade, compare and judge. Let’s change the school testing model to a more positive one.

As in health, so in education, I believe confidentiality of test results is the key. Standardised test result information should be information for teachers, parents and children, not aggregated to make spurious and unhelpful comparison between schools – ‘test the child not the school’. The right partnership in supporting children’s learning is between the teacher, the parent and the child him or herself. Parents need to know how their child is progressing from early years onwards, just as they need to know if there are problems with health or physical development. In Schooling Scotland published last year in the Postcard from Scotland series, I argue that discussion about test results should be part of an annual supportive confidential discussion between class teacher and parent and child.. removed from any comparative ‘grading’ overtones but focussed on the individual child. The purpose of testing should not be to judge who is top and who is bottom of the class – a process which automatically turns most of the ‘bottom half’ of any class group away from learning – but to help every child develop.

Here’s what I wrote in Schooling Scotland in 2014 (‘issues’ #4 and #5  are two of nine recommendations for improving Scotland’s schooling system. I stand by these points – they are very relevant to the current debate:

I would rather give a much stronger voice to the parents and pupils of a school community than to inspectors who have provided standardised prescriptions for all schools, who have in the past judged quality on the basis of how well their own limited recommendations are being implemented. When as a headteacher I listened to parents talking about what they wanted for their children from school education, they often mentioned standards, but they would also express other types of wants – ‘I want her to grow up happy’, ‘I want her to have good friends,’ ‘I want him to be able to get a secure job’. These kinds of ‘wants’ are echoed in the pragmatic and sensible judgements which pupils make about their futures, memorably demonstrated in the English research of Hoskins and Barker in their recent report on how academies fail to increase pupils’ aspirations. These outcomes will never be delivered by an education system based around narrow competitive individualism, rating every child on a linear comparative scale of success. They require education in communities of equal respect, in schools which value what every child brings, not just how well he or she can perform.

Issue #4: Scotland needs a system of annual online standardised surveys of all teachers, parents and pupils to balance the ‘performance’ concerns of national government with the voice of the local school community.

In such a system, the grass roots voice of the local community would have an equal say of secondary. This is a minimum threshold level below which their capacity for autonomous living is threatened. Current arrangements for moderated internal assessments by class teachers do not give either parents or teachers sufficiently robust data on this vital area. This is a foundational responsibility of primary schools. All Scotland should speak of this as the child’s entitlement, as important as child protection, or good health, or any of the GIRFEC ‘SHANARRI’ areas. Standardised tests of literacy and numeracy are a quick, efficient and contextually-neutral way of assessing progress, widely used in some authorities.

Ministers are rightly wary of standardised testing after Michael Forsyth’s attempt to impose it in the early 1990s – the campaign against his proposals became a high point of pre-devolution civic democracy. The main objection was that test results would be used to set up a ‘schools market’ based on league tables, to judge rather than to help pupils’ progress. My argument is not for a ‘market’, based on results aggregated at school level, but for confidential individual testing, at key points in the primary school, on the medical model. Standardised measurement in literacy and numeracy can check local expectations against international standards, alerting all concerned to slow development, encouraging appropriate support, stimulating corrective actions.

Test results should be individual and confidential to the child, the teacher and the parent and never seen as part of a competition or individual comparison. Parents and children should be full partners in discussion and in subsequent plans, particularly if additional support or recovery programmes are required. There should be no blame attached to restorative interventions any more than to medical interventions. Each child’s progress, in literacy in particular, is too important to cover up when they are falling far behind. We need a ‘New Deal’ for literacy and numeracy in an expanded partnership of school, home and community. A similar testing arrangement for health and well-being, involving periodic self evaluation against standardised measures and encouragment to plan balanced improvements, might be more politically controversial but would give a structured space within which to engage parents and children about childhood obesity and other legitimate health concerns.

Issue #5: All primary school children should benefit from knowing how they are performing in standardised tests of literacy and numeracy, and take part in health and well-being assessments, including elements of structured self assessment. These should be confidential to child, parent and teacher and discussed annually in a confidential session, where parent, child and teacher plan relevant next steps and, if necessary, access appropriate recovery programmes.