Primary Education in Scotland – is it fit for purpose?
Is Education fit for purpose? The world is changing. Society is changing. Curriculum for Excellence encourages us to reflect on the purpose and the educational outcomes children should achieve. But what competencies should children have to equip them to succeed in life now and in the wider world when they leave the formal school education system behind? What are we doing to ensure that we address the needs of the ‘whole child’ and build their personal capacity and their resilience in this ever changing world?
Curriculum for Excellence is and should remain ‘child centred’. Personalisation is welcomed, though challenging, as staff plan the curriculum and learning experiences to meet the needs of each individual to ensure that they have the best possible life chances.
For primary education to be fit for purpose, the discussion around Curriculum for Excellence must encourage staff to be confident in their own professionalism, their own decision making. If they are putting children first, they cannot go wrong. Listening to children will lead the way. Children need to have certain conditions in place to learn effectively: to be happy; to feel confident; to be curious and to be interested in learning and excited by it. Only they can tell us if this is the case.
Every primary school in Scotland should now be moving away from a 90s ‘one size fits all’, box ticking, technical model of curriculum and assessment. Every classroom should be child centred, purposeful and interesting, a joy to teach in and a place of joy in which to learn.
Through the inspection and self evaluation framework, Scotland leads the way in encouraging staff to be reflective pedagogues. The best reports on inspections in Glasgow identify the following features of excellence: young people are engaged; challenged; and independent learners. Teachers create a culture where there are very positive and caring relationships with children, with each other and with parents. One excellent primary school was described as having a ‘dynamic, innovative and creative learning environment’. Excellent schools are committed to the highest standards and continuous improvement.
Excellent schools are also ones where the Headteacher provides excellent leadership, with a vision which puts continuous improvement at the heart of the school. The Headteacher empowers staff and children to develop new ideas, new initiatives – focusing on ‘what works’. Leadership in these schools does not just sit solely with the Headteacher. Leadership can be found in other promoted staff, in front line staff, in parents and in children and young people in the school community.
Underpinning these features of an excellent school however, is a systematic approach to improvement: tracking achievements of individual children; rigorous monitoring and evaluation; helpful feedback to children from staff; to staff from promoted staff; there is clarity of expectation and praise. In particular, there is a ‘systematic approach’ to learning and teaching; to quality assurance. Staff observe each other; staff are reflective practitioners – professionally curious. All staff are confident in their craft.
Although the majority of schools in Glasgow have significant challenges: one fifth of Scotland’s Looked After Children; high numbers of foreign national children speaking 138 languages; high numbers of children affected by poverty and disadvantage, the area which fails to feature strongly in HMIe reports on schools, is the considerable efforts of education and other services to assess and meet the needs of the ‘whole child’; the ‘whole family’ especially in areas of poverty.
The current education system must take account of the individual attributes of a child, including the personal circumstances which contribute to their development or, indeed, inhibit their development. What can education do on its own to address the plethora of inhibiting factors? It cannot do it alone.
Schools are well aware that they can have the best possible conditions for learning, but for many children, the challenges are so enormous that more services than education are required to ensure that they develop to their full potential. Stark inequalities require special attention; enhanced supports beyond any classroom or school.
Over the years, the HMIe framework has been helpful in ensuring that there is a common language; common approaches to standards throughout Scotland and in all sectors. However, how reflective of our communities are inspection reports which comment in the introduction to a report on inclusion by saying, for example, ‘free school meals are well above the national average’; ‘attendance was below the national average’ and praises ‘the strong and highly effective emphasis on health education and ‘pupils’ responding positively to opportunities to adopt healthy lifestyles’. One wonders if these actual comments, fully reflect the efforts made by schools to work with children, their parents, other services and agencies to meet the needs of the ‘whole child’, the family in their community. This particular school has an outstanding nurture group; has sought significant funding from external agencies to support a vibrant after school club and attracted funding to support parents who have an addiction develop their parenting experiences over 12 weeks of activities, including a residential weekend experience. It is a truly nurturing school.
Can HMIe, as change agents, build on their excellent self evaluation framework for early years and schools and develop a framework which ensures that establishments are encouraged to work with other services and agencies. Because, without supports from outwith the school, our children can have the best education in the western world but we will not dent the appalling poverty statistics. Only through an integrated self evaluation framework around children and families will we improve the life chances of children and families in these circumstances. We need a ‘How good are our local child and family services?’ to encouraged improved integrated working across education, social work and health services.
This approach, should not be based on a deficit model of the child or family. Partnership working includes the connectivity required to provide sports, arts, cultural and health promotion activities and opportunities. Capacity building is a moral responsibility for all who provide public services in a local community.
Has the Children’s Services agenda in Scotland lost its way in recent years?
Have we missed the opportunity to build on the work of New Community Schools with successive Ministers constantly changing the goal posts, depending upon their particular interests. SEED departments remained in two silos and sought ring fenced solutions in spite of feedback from stakeholders than planning in silos was not an effective way to meet the needs of the ‘whole child; the whole family’.
Did we miss the opportunity to learn from our colleagues in England where, by statute, Directors of Children’s Services were appointed to ensure that there is joined up working across all services, especially education, social work, health and community services, to children and families with a focus on year on year improvement in 5 broad outcomes. There are so many lessons to learn from the Every Child Matters framework and the way in which it has developed.
Did we miss the opportunity to develop a coherent and inclusive national Children’s Services strategy which is not concerned solely with the deficit model of the child? Do we need to grab Getting it Right for Every Child – and ensure that all services are signed up to converting the rhetoric to reality. Can we be clearer about roles and responsibilities of each service around the core services of early years’ establishments and schools, where universal services are provided to children and families throughout the year and services are enhanced according to the additional support needs of a child within and outwith the ‘school day’.
Did we miss an opportunity when we designed the Additional Support for Learning Act 2004? An education – dominated act which asks social work and health services – not what they can do for the child – but what they can do for the child’s learning. Education and producer – capture! This is a blinkered approach which potentially alienated other services and agencies who went off in search of the Integrated Assessment Framework – the holy grail. What about the additional support needs of the child – the whole child being coordinated? This will require investment in integrated management information systems – especially across education, health and social work services.
I am a great fan of the self evaluation and inspection framework in Scotland. However, the closer it gets to children, to learners, the narrower it has become. There is so much potential in widening out the self evaluation framework at grass roots level to supporting schools and other services and agencies to work together around the shared language of self evaluation of services to children and families – services which are ‘fit for purpose’. Services which will work together to address the barriers to a child’s learning, to a child’s development, to a child’s life chances.
Early years’ establishments and schools should not work in a bubble. They are a key resource in the community. The building is a community resource with the potential for before and after hour activities, for children and their families – delivered by other services and partner agencies. Integrated working should not solely be concerned with education and social work services – but integrated sports, arts and cultural activities, for children and for families. There are positive childhood experiences and positive family experiences which can be provided when these services work together, in local areas, to meet local needs in partnership with stakeholders. Extended services in Scotland are not as far advanced as in England. Schools which offer supported study; a broader diet of out of school learning opportunities, experience a learning gain. There is also more connectivity in England between out of school activity and childcare which supports parents into education, training and employment.
Children will have a ‘fit for purpose’ education service when they have an education system which ‘fits them’. It will be an education in which they are engaged, and enabled to develop qualities, competencies and essential life skills such as teamworking and initiative; creativity and innovation; literacy and numeracy; communication; personal and interpersonal skills in a variety of contexts. They can do this within the school day, in project and contextualised learning and in afterschool and holiday initiatives delivered by partners and the voluntary sector. A rich learning environment set in a variety of contexts.
Children should also be decision makers in their own learning. They must be given choice and opportunities to be actively engaged in dialogue to determine their own outcomes with their peers and the teacher.
Finally, at the heart of our education system, there is much we need to learn about how we create the conditions for learning in the future. What will it take to create new styles of learning and teaching which take account of this fast changing world? What will motivate our children to learn?
Scotland has a proud history of invention, innovation and creativity. Reinventing education for the 21st century should mean challenging assumptions that we all take for granted. On a daily basis, the primary teaching force in Scotland invents, innovates and creates – with confidence. It needs the freedom to continue to develop its craft. It also needs to be creative, along with people in other services and agencies to find solutions which will maximise the human capability of our children, for now and for their future.
Reinventing education should be about children having the desire, the confidence and the motivation to learn, to be all they can be, and to see a bigger purpose in life.
Margaret Doran, Glasgow City Council