Co-operative Schools: something in the air?

Our ideas for Community Ownership of Schools received some unexpected publicity today in the Scotsman.

It’s interesting that this came out today at a time when I was about to post some of my recent research into the UK’s Government’s support for the Co-operative Trust Model .  Ed Balls, the Cabinet Officer with responsibility for education is quoted as saying:

“I want to see more parents and communities actively involved in schools and the co-operative model is an ideal way to do this. This is about putting power in the hands of those who are directly engaged with local schools, and who know best what is needed in their area.”

Certainly this model chimes quite closely with what we intend to explore and consider in East Lothian – albeit with a very Scottish slant.

The Conservatives also launched their own particular vision for co-operative schools today.

Must be something in the air?

Reading for Change: the answer to closing the gap?

The 2007 OECD Report on Quality and Equity in Scottish Education recorded that the effect of low socio-economic status is more marked in Scotland than in most other member countries. 

The challenge to reduce the negative impact of background is one which exercises the minds of many in Scottish Education today.

And so it was with great interest that I noted a fact quoted recently from the 2002 OECD report Reading for Change  (Performance and engagement across countries. Results from PISA 2000)

Analysis of data showed that students whose parents have the lowest occupational status but who are highly engaged in reading obtain higher average reading scores in PISA than students whose parents have high or medium occupational status but who report to be poorly engaged in reading.

Therefore, the researchers conclude that working to engage students in reading may be one of the most effective ways to break cycles of educational and social disadvantage.

There was also evidence that reading newspapers, magazines and comics could be just as effective as reading books.

Parents who discussed books, articles, politics and current affairs with their children also helped boost their literacy skills.

The report advised all countries to seek means to raise the level of interest in reading among students, especially boys, since the results suggest that improving students’ reading proficiency could have a strong impact on their opportunities in later life.

Fascinating stuff!

TESS Article: “Them” + “Us” = “We”

This is a draft of my next article for the Times Educational Supplement Scotland.  It’s based on a previous post with a good dollop of ideas borrowed from my good friend John Connell.


I reckon one of the greatest challenges facing Scottish education is the way in which people use the third person plural in a negative sense.

Listen to any conversation about education and very soon “they” will emerge as the problem. So teachers will talk about “them” (management), management will talk about “them” (teachers and the local authority) and those in the local authority will talk about “them” (schools and the government).

Of course there are many others groups who can be characterised as “them” – children, parents, IT managers, unions, finance departments, politicians, social workers, doctors, HMI, the media – “if only “they” could do their jobs properly then all would be well”.

By externalising the problem we strengthen our allegiance to our own group – “we need to work together or “they” will ……….” Yet what is fascinating is how it’s possible to move (i.e. through promotion) from being one of “us” to one of “them” and also start to think about those whom were recently your colleagues as “them”. I’m not suggesting here that such language is always used in an adversarial sense but that it demarcates and emphasises the differences between groups.

In many ways it’s natural to refer to any group beyond our own as “them”. So much of our own self-esteem is wrapped up in our social identity where we categorise others and ourselves – often comparing ourselves favourably towards other groups.

Perhaps some of the key drivers for this allegiance mentality are the hierarchies we have built up in Scottish education. Over the years we have evolved rigid and deeply layered hierarchies generating precisely the organizational mindset that promotes the top-down divisions of ‘us and them’

The ‘us and them’ attitude is therefore merely a reflection of the reality faced by most unpromoted teachers in the classroom, for instance, when they look at the phalanx of ‘managers’ piled high above them, both in school and beyond the school.

There is another critical element in this, and that is the almost total disempowerment of classroom teachers that has taken place over the past two or three decades. Teachers simply, in Scotland, no longer have any control over their own destiny to any extent that genuinely recognizes their skills, knowledge and commitment to what they do. People who feel disempowered cannot but help see those who have taken their power away as ‘them’ – no amount of care over use of language will change the structural fact of the situation that teachers find themselves in.

Yet there is hope. Two unique opportunities have aligned themselves in the firmament to challenge the dominant hegemony of multi-layered leadership structures and the “learned helplessness” of the profession. I am, of course, referring to our current and on-going financial crisis in public service delivery, and the Curriculum for Excellence. These two apparently disconnected events provide an imperative for change that has dramatically changed the landscape. In some of my more esoteric flights of fancy I see this moment as our equivalent of the cataclysmic events which wiped the dinosaurs from the face of the earth.

The challenge for us will be to see if we can evolve to survive in our new world. Or will the big beasts attempt to maintain their dominance? Striking out wildly in their titanic death throes at anything or everything within reach?

But what sustains me is my faith in our capacity to face up to reality. To see this as an opportunity to do things in a different way. To create a system which provides people with freedom to make informed decisions underpinned by a mutual interdependence.

Certainly the status quo is doomed. It may take one, two, three, four years or even longer but things are changing. I foresee a time when schools shift back to being rooted in their own communities. Where teachers are interdependent and where we challenge the dominance of “them” and shift to “we”.

Yet before I get too carried away in this euphoria of visioning it’s important to recognise that reality is tempered by a hesitance from all of us to embrace “real” change. Perhaps I should just sit it out for a few years and see if things really do work out as bad as they say things are going to be? Why should I give up the power that I’ve worked so hard over my career to attain? And in a similar fashion why should teachers accept the responsibility for the curriculum which has now been foisted upon them. Why not complain about “them”, sit on their hands, and wait until someone comes up with the great idea of telling them exactly what to do?

4000th comment – thanks

Just noticed that Peter Morris’ comment was the 4000th I’ve received since August 2005.  When you think I’ve only written 866 posts that equates to 4.6 comments to every post – which is a very healthy average. 

I find it incredibly useful to receive comments – even if they appear negative – as they help to shape and sharpen my own thinking.  I’m sorry I don’t respond to as many of them as I would like but I will try to rectify that with the next 4000!

I’ll leave the last word with Peter as he captures something about what it is I’m trying to achieve:

“As this is an interactive forum, and as Don identifies in his blog, there is not a single point that aCfE raises for discussion.
I think that it is clear that Don believes all opinions need to be listened to if we are to ensure the greatest amount of support possible in meeting the challenge of implementing aCfE.”

Thanks Peter, and thanks to everyone who has taken the time to leave a thought on my Log.

Politics Show Scotland: Community Ownership of Schools

The BBC’s Politics Show Scotland carried a piece on our evolving ideas for Community Ownership of Schools.  It was headlined as being about Trust Schools and showed two very interesting reflections on Jordanhill School in Glasgow and Ashington Learning Partnership in England.

You can see the programme on BBC iplayer for the next seven days.  You need to scroll along to the last 15 minutes of the show.  Dave Berry, East Lothian Council’s Leader; Keir Bloomer, former Director of Education from Clackmannanshire; and Anastasia De Wall, a social policy analyst from Civitas took part in a studio discussion with Glenn Campbell.

Curriculum for Excellence: Stand up and speak up

In 2002 the then Scottish Executive undertook the most extensive consultation ever of the people of Scotland on the state of school education through the National Debate on Education. In the debate, many people – pupils, parents, teachers, employers and others – said that they valued and wanted to keep many aspects of the current curriculum. Some also made compelling arguments for changes to ensure all our young people achieve successful outcomes and are equipped to contribute effectively to the Scottish economy and society, now and in the future.

Features of the curriculum which people valued were: the flexibility which already exists in the Scottish system – no one argued for a more prescriptive national system; the combination of breadth and depth offered by the curriculum; the quality of teaching; the quality of supporting material that helps teachers to deliver much of the current curriculum; and, the comprehensive principle

People argued for changes which would: reduce over-crowding in the curriculum and make learning more enjoyable; better connect the various stages of the curriculum from 3 to 18; achieve a better balance between ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ subjects and include a wider range of experiences; equip young people with the skills they will need in tomorrow’s workforce; make sure that assessment and certification support learning; allow more choice to meet the needs of individual young people.

The above description of the genesis of a Curriculum for Excellence is taken from the Purposes and Principles of the Curriculum 3-18 (2004).

Here we are six years later in 2010 and it’s of interest to reflect on the progress that’s been made. I think two key points that are often missed by people when they set out to attack Curriculum for Excellence are contained within the two complementary sentences highlighted in the opening pargraph, i.e. it set out to keep many aspects of our existing curriculum, whilst recognising that there was also a need to better prepare children for a changing world

On reflection perhaps the most remarkable thing about Curriculum for Excellence in 2010 is that it does does so closely match our aspirations identified from the 2002 National Debate on Education, informed – as it was – by unions, headteachers, local authorities, parents and academics. Yet so much of the criticism which seems to be now directed towards CfE appears to suffer from a form of collective amnesia, where the original imperative and drivers for change have been conveniently forgotten. Not only that but there are a range of myths which are continually perpetuated – without rebuttal – until they almost take hold in our collective conscousness.  An example of such would be the claim that CfE is committed to the destruction of subject specialisms and subject specific content.

As someone who is currently conducting a series of seminars with East Lothian secondary school subject specialists, where I’ve been highlighting the importance of their subject expertise, I’ve been mystified by claims that subject specialisms are being watered down by CfE. I’d actually argue the other way – in that there is a much greater likelihood that young people can study subject areas in real depth instead of the “mile wide inch deep” approach that often characterised the previous curriculum. 

What we now have is an opportunity to provide real scope to meet the needs of all learners.  The other key dimension which I’m seeing in our schools is a growing intellectual ambition to stretch our children in a way that will give our economy a leading edge in the next 20 years.

Where implementation is at its most successful I see a capacity to build upon the traditional strengths of the Scottish system: hard work; a passion for learning; commitment to high standards; outstanding teaching; and one other which has not been in evidence over the last 30 years in our schools – innovation.  This latter point is so ironic given Scotland’s international reputation for invention.

Certainly if we listen to observers from outwith Scotland we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to take a real lead in world education – yet it’s as if there exists some self destruct mechanism deep in the Scottish psyche which needs to undermine and attack anything which is vaguely aspirational.

These attacks appear to take on three different forms:

The first of these is characterised by those who select a singular aspect of Curriculum for Excellence for which there may be reasonable grounds for informed critique.  However, that  singular point is then extrapolated from the specific to the general and in the process an attack on everything under the banner of CfE – which covers the entire 3-18 programme.

The second form of attack is from those who seek to represent the silent majority.  I would refer to these as those who claim to be courageous enough point out that “the emperor wears no clothes”.  Yet in my experience its actually quite the reverse, in that the real majority are those who support the change.

The final category of attack comes from those who claim to be “agnostic”.  This is probably even more corrosive that the previous two as it is based upon an assumption that we will judge the success of CfE once it has been completed.  Yet the reality is that CfE is a dynamic development and needs to be continually developing if it is to truly meet the needs of children in a society that is in itself ever changing. 

The bottom line here is that no one is suggesting that Curriculum for Excellence is a “fully formed” solution for Scotland’s education system. No one I speak to would suggest that there are not there are many things that need to improve.  Yes – we need more clarity in some areas.  Absolutely we need continuing support for implementation.  But the reality is that I’d rather be where we are now, than where we were in 2000 faced with a moribund curriculum, disconected assessment systems, static levels of atttainment,  disempowered teachers and, most importantly, disengaged learners.  What we must constantly remind ourselves and others is that CfE – for the first time in our history – is tackling the entire curriculum for children and young people aged 3-18.  The scale of the endeavour is mind numbing – which makes it all the more remarkable that such progrees has been made to date.

We stand on an exciting threshold but it needs more people to start to speak up for the positives – without the need to preface their comment with an apology or some qualifying statement. My greatest fear is for the children whom we teach.  For the risk is not so much that Curriculum for Excellence is implemented , but rather that it isn’t implemented.

A Legal Duty to Innovate?

Interesting link to an NHS  website exploring High Quality Care for All which quotes an extract from that report that Strategic Health authorities “will have a new legal duty to promote innovation.”

They go onto define innovation as follows:

“… too often innovation has been defined narrowly, focusing solely on research, when in fact innovation is a broader concept, encompassing clinical practice and service design. Service innovation means people at the frontline fi nding better ways of caring for patients – improving outcomes, experiences and safety. In this country, we have a proud record of invention, but we lag behind in systematic uptake even of our own inventions.” [High Quality Care for All, pg 55]

Given Scotland’s proud record for invention perhaps we should be emboldened to see public service innovation – particularly in education – as a duty, as opposed to a threat?