Head to Head

President's Perspective

There’s a first time for everything … and this is my first time sharing my thoughts and views in Head to Head on matters educational in my new role as AHDS president.

Like any first time or new experience there is a certain amount of trepidation and uncertainty. Being asked to write an article, whilst still very much a newcomer to the role and the expectations of it has set me thinking.  What will I write about? What should the tone and content be? Will I interest and ignite the reader? Will I come across as too self-indulgent or perhaps contentious? Boring and uninspiring? Will you the reader have moved on to the next section in this magazine having lost interest in my  very public musings or will the reverse be true and you wish to read on to find out  more of what I have to say? Hopefully you have chosen the latter and are still reading!

Just as I am new to the position of president there is much that appears to be new in recent years in the educational landscape or has been revised, refreshed or redesigned to appear innovative. The academic and writer J.R.R Tolkien stated that “True education is a kind of never-ending story – a matter of continual beginnings, of habitual fresh starts, of persistent newness”.  Education today is in a state of “continual beginnings and persistent newness” in that it is constantly changing and evolving in line with the oft- times seismic changes in society witnessed over the last couple of decades on both national and global platforms.  One needs to look no further than the present political machinations being played out both at home and far beyond the reaches of the European Union.  The word Brexit, for example, did not exist until it was coined in 2012 and the speed of its inclusion thereafter in the Oxford English Dictionary, a mere four years later, was evidence indeed  of the word being subsumed into the English language and into what is now everyday common parlance.  

In Scottish education new (ish) acronyms, unheard of less than a decade or so ago, include GIRFEC; RIC; SNSA; SHANARRI; SAC and PEF to name but a few of the multitude which pepper our everyday educational language.  Where once the term Scottish National Standardised Assessments gave one’s tongue a workout in the producing the sibilant “s “sound, the reduction to the acronym SNSA (love or loathe what the acronym stands for) is just another example of a new initiative becoming part of the language of everyday school life.

Recent rhetoric around school empowerment, teacher agency, professional learning and leadership and collaborative approaches can make us feel that we are about to learn new things when the reality is sometimes more akin to ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’.  Arguably there is nothing novel about teachers having a voice; schools and their communities working together – collaborating – for the good of the school and CPD freshly repackaged as professional learning. What is ‘au courant’ is the climate of openness; the sharing of practice both within and outwith schools and other educational establishments and an increased appetite for personal and professional betterment across all sectors of the educational community.  Enter the phrase “Professional Learning” on Education Scotland’s website and you will find four hundred and thirty-six results (correct at the time of printing).  Google the same phrase and there are twenty plus pages with “professional learning” in the title.  Coincidentally most millennials will not remember a time when the verb “to google” did not exist just as they would not recognise a past where there was no social media, mobile phones or internet – all now fabric of the new world whereby advancements in technology mean we have the capacity to connect and communicate almost instantly with education colleagues on the other side of the world and where distance is measured by speed of connectivity.  On the matter of digital technologies, does it make me seem really ancient if I admit to teaching at a time when a floppy disc was just that and when creating worksheets meant semi-permanent blue or purple staining of the hands and a dreamy expression on the face of the person working the Banda machine as a result of inhalation of all the fumes from solvents used in the spirit duplicator? Photocopiers were in their infancy then.

As modern-day educators we are seemingly so much better informed.  Information a propos curricula – Curriculum for Excellence and its slimmed down sibling, the new, “refreshed narrative on Scotland’s curriculum” is available to us at the click of a mouse or a tap on a touchscreen.  We are consulted on an almost daily basis in a bid to ascertain our views and opinions with regards to many new initiatives or changes.  Notable amongst these are the GTCS refreshed Professional Standards and Professional Code for teachers which is currently out for public consultation.  The revised Professional Review and Development guidelines have been recently launched as well and implicit in their revision is the school’s readiness for PRD which needs to take place in a culture where trust and openness is the norm.  Some of you reading this will recall when PRD was known as CRI (Career Review Interview) and CPD, at that time, was a sum of hours to be shown at the yearly career review interview.  It did indeed feel like an interview to me as I recall the nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach as the time for the Career Review drew near.  As a young teacher I rarely had the temerity to cross the threshold of the headteacher’s office and yet there I was, once a year, discussing the highs and lows of my professional practice in the context of the CRI.  There was always delight when I, like many colleagues, had managed to fill in thirty-five hours of “stuff and courses” on the self-development continuum.  That “bean-counting“ approach would be anathema to most of us in the teaching profession today. With the inception of Professional Update a few years ago came the assumption that CPD, or professional learning as it is more accurately known, is central to the development and self-improvement of us as teachers and is future focused in as much as we need to be evaluative in relation to our practice and leadership priorities  which in turn leads to school improvement.

Recently too, there has been a plethora of information and raising of awareness relating to the impact of adverse childhood experiences on the learner and the benefits of employing a whole school nurture approach.  Mental health has gained its rightful place and has prominence within Health and Wellbeing.  The intended consequence of educating the educators is that we, as teachers and school leaders, can adopt a more holistic approach to the needs and rights of our children and young people as well as the people we lead and manage, whilst being mindful of our own needs and limitations and taking care to look after ourselves in the process.  As alluded to previously, this is not new but rather a shift in focus and a reframing of issues relating to background and environment.

Each day in school is a new day. The “persistent newness” of learning; improving and achieving is applicable to all of us a lifelong learners.  In the process of writing this article I was reminded of my past learning when, as a student at university, I studied the Ted Hughes poem “The Thought Fox”  and its relevance  now to my “fresh start” and “continual beginnings”.  As I drafted and redrafted this piece, unsure of what to write, my experiences mirroring the writer’s block experienced by the poet as he stared into his night garden and the sense of achievement when the work was completed.

It enters the dark hole of the head.

The window is starless still; the clock ticks,

The page is printed.


Sharon McLellan

AHDS President