This is an initial working paper of a Common Weal Policy Lab on education. It will be developed further based on feedback from those involved in the Lab and others
“We do not need another policy paper. We need a manifesto for change”
Participant, Common Weal Policy Lab on Education, 7 August 2015
AT the Common Weal’s first ever Policy Lab on 7 August, a group of academics, experts, educators, pupils, and parents spent the day discussing and debating four specific issues chosen by the group:
– What should education in Scotland be for?
– How can we ensure the goals of Curriculum for Excellence are achieved?
– What role can the education system play in attenuating inequality?
– How can we ensure success after school for all of our students?
While the group recognised the impossibility of holistically tackling each of these issues in one day, a broad consensus on several ideas and methods for addressing them emerged.
This report summarises these ideas, while offering possible avenues for innovation in education in Scotland.
What should education in Scotland be for?
> universal free education
> comprehensive system, from beginning to end
> enabling a true, ‘community’ education by preserving catchment areas
> involving universities in teacher education, in both thinking and doing: the theoretical advancement in the field of education needs the chance to take root and grow in our schools
> a democratically developed curriculum
> providing children the tools to participate as a citizen in society
What is education?
From a humanist perspective, education should be the holistic betterment of the individual as a whole. We must shift the focus away from assessment-led education towards a broader concept of human flourishing which accounts for this aim. Normative approaches such as assessment are no longer justifiable, and must be replaced with alternative methods which ambitiously and fearlessly endeavour to achieve the Curriculum for Excellence.
How can we change?
We need a system-wide change if we truly want to innovate our education system. We need a sustainable collaboration between politicians, civil servants, the educational leadership class, the institutionalised profession, local authorities(1), pupils, and parents. While we can continue to change ‘easy’ things, we must be dedicated to considering ‘big’ ideas for systemic change. Real democracy should be at the heart of this ongoing conversation, where curriculums adapt to changing democratic decisions, and children learn participation from their interaction in the school system.
We need mechanisms which connect the incredible and exciting work in education in our universities with teaching professionals in our schools in order that children benefit from new ideas and methods, and that this research realises its potential.
In its current form, Scotland’s Education system tests too much. While recognising the need for our students to gain specific skills and knowledge to gain access to higher education, the role of assessment should be marginal in our education system, instead of its primary goal. This will be elaborated further in section 2.
‘Tings’ as a methodology for creating citizen forums emerges as an answer to our lack of democracy in education. Decision-makers and service users should regularly come together to assess development, implementation, and strategies for education, at both a local and national level. This will be an opportunity for our universities to also participate, bringing new ideas and expertise to develop a robust conversation on the standards and practices of our schools.
A ‘great’ school can often be traced to one or two dedicated individuals who pioneered and made a lasting impact on a school’s system/infrastructure/community/culture etc. These ideas are powerful because they are location-specific: local knowledge and understanding affords the ideas an organic grounding. In Scotland, with some of the largest and smallest schools in Europe, in both urban and rural locations, we cannot assume that a one-size-fits-all education system can work. By encouraging these schools to share their experiences in Innovation Forums, we can value their enterprise, and facilitate connections with other schools who may learn or improve as a result.
New teachers leave graduate studies armed with ideas and methodologies which could benefit their respective schools and communities. However these ideas are often discouraged as they begin their teaching career, without access to time, position, or resources to facilitate change.
A dedicated Education Development Fund could encourage these new teachers to be bold and brave with their ideas, gain respect from their peers, and use vital expertise from their teacher education. New professionals would have the opportunity to apply for funding for their project, and dedicate time to realising them. This would encourage new teachers to see long-term connections with their communities, and would serve as an ecosystem of new ideas and change for education, which could be fed into the Innovation Forums.
2. How can we ensure the goals of Curriculum for Excellence are achieved?
While the foundational principles and goals of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) are still the blueprint for a future education system, we must assess why we still fail to achieve our goals. Why have so many apparent changes in Scottish education resulted in so little difference in terms of outcomes for young people? What are the missing ingredients that would secure that sort of change?
There needs to be a concerted effort on behalf of the educational leadership class to communicate the principles of CfE to both teaching professionals and to the pupils directly. This should be part of the process of redefining education not as an endless scramble for more grades via assessment, but instead as a process of betterment with various interpretations of success. This could be achieved within the local and national education ‘Tings’ set up in order to address the lack of direct democracy in our education system.
With an education system which measures itself on attainment via assessment, we lose grasp of the founding goals of education. Teachers are pressured to achieve certain grade proportions in their classrooms, which drives their energy into delivering grades instead of well-rounded learners. Learners lack the bigger picture of their learning, as lessons are crafted in response to assessments rather than the pragmatic and individual needs of the learner. And this affects expectations of success: attaining a university place via achieving a certain roster of grades becomes the highest form of success, which is at best unrealistic in terms of employer’s needs, and at worse reproduces and legitimises inequality. How can we ensure that any ‘exam system’ is not a barrier, but a gateway to success?
We must consider and design alternatives: What use do online or on demand exams have in our future? Why do we need to annually assess? How can we credit ‘experience’ or ‘projects’? How do we design an assessment not simply based on retaining content? What would replace qualifications if they were to be abandoned? And how do we involve parents and pupils in this conversation?
These are difficult questions, but they must be addressed if we are to achieve the Curriculum for Excellence goals.
This would have a dramatic effect on the wider structure of our education system including:
With increasing evidence in support of project-based learning, we need to begin to move subjects into a marginal position in the global learner experience. Subject-based learning removes the content from its pragmatic context, which could have an integrated and comprehensive approach via a diversity of projects. Subjects could provide focussed, individual learning possibilities for students who wish to attain specialised knowledge (for example for university admission), but the majority of learning should be around projects and experience. Finland recently decided to limit subject teaching, and it is rated as having one of the most educated populations in the world.
With an acceptance that subjects should play at least a minor role in our education system, project-based learning makes the issue of age-segregation an interesting point of analysis. While separating children into age groups is necessary in some contexts, it can enforce abstract differences and comparisons of ability that are not helpful. Rural schools in Scotland have pioneered, out of necessity, systems which integrate older pupils with younger pupils, facilitating the learner experience as a give and take between a diversity of age groups. This is something that could be modelled in more urban school settings.
What does a timetable for a school with mostly project learning and less age segregation look like? Imagine students could learn empowerment and agency by designing their school days in such an environment, where their education provides them the pragmatic tools for competency after school? Thirteen-year-olds should not feel that their education choices will go on to define their careers and lives. We must pay credence to our concept of Lifelong Learning, and ensure that our students realise their potential through a diversity of activities and projects throughout their school careers. To achieve this, we need to redesign our timetabling models to account for this, and to afford schools the options to implement a variety of models to fit their needs.
We need to hold our universities to account for the undue influence they have on high school students. The blunt instrument of a roster of necessary grades leaves many students feeling helpless, and means the most privileged have easiest access to achieving those grades and the requisite personal statement (whether through private tutoring, parental investment and guidance, better learning materials etc.). Instead, we need to focus on ‘skillsets’ and how we can use our innovation in assessment to guide students into better higher education options after school.
Pupils attending the lab expressed an interest in more work placements and valuing work as an integral part of an education system, whether in the evenings or at the weekend. Students said they felt better prepared for the working world because of regular, part time employment, which, on top of the job-specific skills, provided them experience to manage their time effectively and budget their personal finances.
3. What role can the education system play in attenuating inequality?
Inequality in education can be income-based, or through discrimination, for example with homophobia, sexism, racism, sectarianism, ableism etc.
Education in Scotland is currently a combination of training and coaching. Since families from more privileged backgrounds will always be able to invest in more coaching, it becomes very difficult to level the playing field, and in fact assessment in its current form in Scotland serves to legitimise the existing inequality. This is a problem facing all teachers in Scotland, as it is increasingly evident that it is not the school you attend, but your family’s economic background which has the biggest impact in your chance of success in the current system.
With this knowledge, and the understanding that teachers are under more and more pressure to deliver certain grades from their classrooms, our most vulnerable children are continuing to lose out. What role can our school system and teachers play in attenuating this inequality?
One step to reducing this inequality would be to remove unnecessary religious segregation from our school system, and remove the charitable status of private schools, with the ultimate goal of rendering them redundant. Further, reducing unnecessary labelling between children (for example into the ‘best’ subject set etc.) has proven to encourage holistic attainment for all children. In the spirit of all desegregation, one student shared her experience of mentoring and caring for a disabled peer. If we encouraged such a programme for all of our school children, co-mentoring a peer in their community whether disabled or not, we would see lasting impacts on tackling discrimination as well as more well-rounded, worldly, and empathetic students.
Evidence has proven that investment in early years education has the biggest impact in the long term attainment of young people. We could invest in this early education by having a robust, universal free childcare system led by professionals, which leads into a comprehensive and equally accessible early years system. The emphasis of early years should be on play rather than formal education like writing and numeracy, so that children learn the necessary social skills and relationship with their environment which acts as the right base from which school education can be built upon.
As part of a strategy to attenuate the impact of discrimination, we need a revised PSE syllabus which enables students to engage in vital discussions (for an example, look at the work of the TIE campaign). Currently, the PSE syllabus has an unnecessary focus on career prospects, and should instead delve into the multifaceted way that we interact in society as citizens. A fundamental part of this is recognising inequality and how it functions in society on both a structural and everyday way. Schools should demonstrate their dedication to human rights as the foundation of all of their teaching, and thusly, new developments in learning, like empathy education and conflict resolution, should be incorporated.
Developing an Infrastructure of Care
When we arrive at any NHS service, we understand the chain through which our information is passed and the routes through which we will receive care. There is no such robust infrastructure within our school systems, despite the fact that they are the state institutions most visited by most people. We need to design better services for parents and pupils to interact with the school system, and return our schools to their rightful place as assets and ‘commons’ of their communities. This involves not only using our schools for more community events and as a local hub, but also directly engaging parents in the progress of their children and the school as a whole.
4. How can we ensure success after school for all of our students?
Ensuring after-school success should not be simply a bureaucratic process in the last year or two of high school. We need to reframe the conversation from ‘I teach [subject]’ to ‘I teach children’. Success is not a linear process, and it should not be taught as such to young adults, who feel pigeon-holed into following certain career routes/university courses without the requisite tools to recognise the totality of options available to them. Fundamental to this is redefining what success is: Is it happiness? Valuing and contributing to our community? Love and compassion?
This will be an ongoing process of change to peel back our engrained system and the assumptions it has worked into our collective psyches, possibly delivered through the democratic methods developed around our school system (see section 1), and through building partnerships and local relationships between teachers, parents, pupils, and our universities (see section 3).
The cornerstones of a strong education system which delivers young adults prepared for the world should include:
Young people should be helped to understand themselves and the role they play in wider society. For example, this could come in the form of understanding local politics and their routes to the levers of power and participation, or perhaps through the various mechanisms discussed in section 3 to remove segregation from our school system. Each student should be made to feel valued in this process, recognising that there is no one way to contribute to society or to achieve success.
Not limited to the bullet points in a subject syllabus, a focus on projects and problem solving will provide learners the capacity to be resourceful and enterprising. This involves a holistic approach to their interaction in the school: whether in helping develop budgets for classroom equipment, cooking food for school lunches, or aiding janitorial staff in building management–all examples of vital skills for after school success.
Through a revised syllabus with an emphasis on projects and problem solving, a better-developed democratic infrastructure in schools, and the ongoing conversation to resolve assumptions around after school ‘success’, education should be emancipatory in its intentions, helping to develop resilient citizens. Moving away from social ‘mobility’, to social ‘change’, learners should recognise that education as a process should be connective across society, with the ultimate goal of benefitting the whole local, national, and international community.
We recognise that there is the will to see an innovative education system in Scotland, but we must be brave and accept that there are risks in the journey towards such an enlightened system, where children are empowered and engaged in an active learning, and develop as thoughtful, compassionate, and skilled citizens. We need a manifesto for real change, not another policy paper. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?
Picture courtesy of Common Weal