Twitter: Confessions of an unjustified sceptic

I joined Twitter 60 days ago today. I’d put it off for nearly two years as I thought it was either a vehicle for shadowing celebrities, or a mindless activity in which people spent their time telling each other what they had for breakfast.

How wrong I was!!

In the intervening period I’ve come to realise that it’s a unique learning resource – and I talk as someone who has written over 900 posts on my Learning Log. By discovering others throughout the World who share a passion for education, tracking their thoughts, following their links, and engaging in productive conversations – I have been inspired, challenged and professionally invigorated.

The other – possibly most surprising outcome – has been that it has proved to be an engine for policy development. This happened in a completely organic manner yesterday morning. Sitting over a post-breakfast cup of coffee I spied an interesting tweet from that dynamic educational practitioner and thinker in the form of Fearghal Kelly. The tweet pointed to his most recent post on A Framework for Learning and Teaching.

Over the next hour I engaged in a conversation with Fearghal and others from throughout the twittisphere which culminated in the #Learnmeet concept being identified, agreed and committed to action. Not bad for a Saturday morning.

Added to that are a series of conversations which helped to shape a first draft of a senior high school curriculum policy – which is now about to go out for consultation using more traditional lines of communication.

Taken together these examples have shown me that we must embrace Twitter and encourage other colleagues to engage in the dialogue about our practice which can have such a positive impact upon our work, the quality of education we can provide, and – I would suggest – our well being. For too often professionals who wish to engage in professional dialogue can be isolated in their work setting if no-one shares their enthusiasm. With the use of Twitter we have the opportunity to challenge that sense of isolation and create a tipping point where dialogue about education becomes the norm.

To all on Twitter who have made me feel most welcome, thank you.

Release them if you dare

See – Curriculum for Excellence – senior phase options

Option 37. No parent/teacher meetings in senior phase – replace with student/teacher review meetings – parents can shadow.

This might appear to one of the more extreme options to be considered but it’s worth holding back on an immediate reaction until further explained.

By the time students get into the senior phase (the last three years of upper secondary school education) they will have spent 13 years in the formal education system – with at least one, if not two, parent teacher consultations/interviews each year.

Parents are keen throughout that period to know how their child is progressing, know how they can help their child, and generally show an interest in their child’s education. In the early years of education this can be very helpful and builds a strong partnership between the student , the school and the parent.

Yet we still think that by attending parents evenings with our 16 or 17 year old child and think that we can influence them when we get home to up their rate of study or change their attitude to school. Some hope! (I know – because I was that parent!)

So perhaps it is time to consider alternatives?

I wrote a poem when my brother’s son was born which seems quite appropriate for this topic:


Take your child by the hand

and hold the future there

Keep him upright if you can

Release him if you dare

It’s this last line which most of us as parents have difficulty with, i.e. letting go. 

Yet within a year or two they are off to university, or college, or employment and we no longer have the influence we thought we had when they were at school.

So why is it that we don’t try to prepare young people for that transition from the claustrophobic atmosphere of  parental control (even if it is a fallacy)  – where we are metaphorically sitting on our child’s shoulder?

The concept of helicopter parents  has been well documented in the world of higher education – or “overparenting” – yet we, as parents, have been conditioned over the previous 15 years to think that we have to step in to protect and shape our child’s future.

Perhaps we need to consider breaking this umbilical cord whilst our children are still at school and get them to take more responsibility for their own progress? It’s at this point that the change from parent/teacher consultations to student/teacher consultations begins to take on more of logical perspective.

The idea would be based on a dialogue between the teacher and the student, at a time when the parent is available, but where the parent shadows their child and doesn’t interview the teacher.

In this way the responsibility for the learning process shifts from the parent to the child and the learning partnership between the teacher and the student is reinforced.

Of course, I know that many teachers and students would find this observed discussion to be extremely difficult. The tongue-tied student and the teacher who is uncomfortable speaking to the student as an equal is very easy to imagine. But if well managed through a conversation template. e.g Student: “this how I feel I’m doing in this  subject”; “This is how you could help me learn better” and Teacher: “You seem to be having problems with ……..” and “You are showing real promise in ………” and “If you were to try to ……………….”

The role of the parent is essentially observational but could have a concluding element where the student speaks to their parent in front of the teacher about their progress or otherwise.

I know this seems like a radical idea but when you see how ill-prepared young people really are for going off into the world of higher education or employment then anything which prepares them to be more independent and responsible learners has to be a good thing.




A teacher’s primary role?

I was interested in the recent headline from the Scotland on Sunday: 

TEACHERS have been told that their “primary responsibility above all others” is the wellbeing of children, rather than teaching.The comments by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) have been met with disbelief and anger by parents’ groups and teachers, with one union leader saying they defied description.

In the convention’s submission to the McCormac Review into teaching pay and conditions, the authors wrote: “Teachers are part of the children’s services workforce. Their terms and conditions need to stress that a teacher’s primary responsibility above all others is the wellbeing of children within their care, and they have a duty to work in a collegiate way.”

Jim Docherty, depute general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA), branded the remarks “stupid”.

He told Scotland on Sunday: “Cosla is so far off the beam it does defy description. The role of a teacher is to teach.

I won’t get drawn into the rights and wrongs of the  CoSLA submission to the McCormac Review into teachers’ pay and conditions and you could argue that its line of argument could have been more nuanced.

However, as a teacher (I still describe myself as that when anyone asks me what I do) I’ve always believed that the job entails so much more than just “teaching”.  I’ve seen too many teachers throughout my career who were masters of  their subject, had a grasp of pedagogy but couldn’t “teach” because the young people in their care knew that their teacher didn’t have an interest in them as human beings.  
For me the care and welfare of the child must always be the priority.  If a child comes to school unfed, sleep deprived and frightened due to domestic violence, unkempt because their parents are addicted to alcohol or drugs – then how can you expect them to learn?  The best teachers – and we have so, so many of them in East Lothian do care about the whole child.  They do work with colleagues in other services, they are sensitive about child protection issues, and above all they are committed to the well being of all of the children in their care.  None of that means that they don’t care deeply about the teaching and learning process.
I’ve always subscribed to the principle of  “in loco parentis” – when I teach I am in place of the parent.  As a parent my prime concern is – always – the well being of my child.  I expected nothing less from the teachers who taught my children – as  its only from that foundation that any productive learning can take place.  I expect nothing less from the teachers who work in East Lothian schools.

Listening and Learning

I held the second Listen and Learn meeting of the session this week.  They are now scheduled on a weekly basis for the rest of the year.

My colleague Richard Parker told me today that he’d like to be a fly on the wall to see if I could keep to my side of the bargain, i.e. listen!! – I don’t know what he was getting at?

My guests today were five P1 teachers. Last week I’d met with six primary school depute headteachers.

If the last two weeks are anything to go by the sessions are going to prove incredibly valuable in providing me with an insight into some of the challenges and problems facing my colleagues in schools. It’s also a pleasure to sit down with people who obviously love their work – even if there are frustrations and obstacles which sometimes conspire against them.

Concerns have ranged from ICT support – especially in terms of quick repairs to equipment; to questions about how schools are funded; pressures on non-teaching time; buraucracy; support for learning; class sizes; and curriculum for excellence.

Despite my attempting to keep the focus on their concerns they were were uncomfortable with the hour simply becoming a “moaning session” and we explored a range of other educational issues.

I was particularly interested today in how the teachers felt invigorated by the changes which have taken place in early years education in terms of the shift to active learning and how it has had such a positive effect on boys’ learning and engagement in particular.  I even managed to bounce the idea of parent buddies off them and was pleasantly suprised by their response to the idea.

I’m genuinely looking forward to these sessions as we progress through the year and getting the chance to meet colleagues who really do live up to the sobriquet “professional”.

Next week I’m meeting six secondary maths teachers.

Qualifications – A Personal Perspective

The Scottish Government issued A Consultation on the Next Generation of National Qualifications in Scotland on the 10th June 2008. The authority will be making formal response before the closing date of the 31st October 2008.

I thought it might be useful to try to work out my own perspective on the questions. In a future post I’ll consider how these responses might be reflected in a school curriculum.

Q1. Do you welcome the intention to update all qualifications at Access, Higher and Advanced Higher in line with Curriculum for Excellence? Please comment on any implications to be considered.

It seems sensible to update all qualifications to reflect A Curriculum for Excellence

Q2. Early consultation has identified the ‘best’ features of Standard Grade and Intermediate qualifications as:

the ‘inclusive’ approach to certification contained in Standard Grade; and

the ‘unit based’ structure of Intermediate qualifications.

Are there any other features in the present Standard Grade and Intermediate qualifications which should be included in the new qualification at SCQF levels 4 and 5?

The new qualification should reflect the ‘unit based’ structure of intermediate qualifications.

Q3. One of the proposals is to grade units. Do you agree that units should be graded A-C rather than pass/fail?

I’d support the grading of units as it would maintain motivation throughout the course and give feedback to students on progress.

Q4. Do you want graded units to count towards the final award?

I believe the grading of units should contribute to the overall award.

Q5. Which option for introducing compensatory arrangements would you most support?

Please tick one option or suggest an alternative.

Option A Extend the range of grading in course awards to grade E.

Option B Recognise unit passes only.

Option C Compensatory award at the level of the course studied with no grade awarded.

Option D Compensatory grade C award at the level of course below that studied.

Option E Compensatory grade A award at the level of course below that studied.√

Q7. Do you agree with the proposal to offer literacy and numeracy awards at a range of SCQF levels (3 to 5)? If not please offer an alternative.

I agree with the proposal – for students following a more vocational programme of study such an option would be welcomed by employers.

Q8. National Qualifications at Access 3 (SCQF level 3) do not have an external examination. Do you agree that any new awards in literacy and numeracy at SCQF level 3 should have an external examination?

I’d like to see an external examination for literacy and numeracy for all S3 students

Q9. Should the weighting between the internal and external assessments for the literacy and numeracy awards be equal? If not should more weight be attached to the internal or external assessment? Please explain.

Difficult one! I’d go for more external weighting as it would enhance the credibility of the qualification.

Q10. When should young people be assessed for literacy and numeracy awards? Please tick one option.

Option A At the end of S3 as part of the summer diet of examinations.√

Option B In the December of S4 as part of a winter diet of examinations.

Option C At the end of S4 as part of the summer diet of examinations.

Q11. Do you agree with the proposal to allow the study of Highers and Advanced Highers over 12 months, 18 months and 2 years?

The more flexibility we can give individual students over the length of study the better.

Q12. Do you agree with the proposal to introduce a winter diet of examinations?


Q13. If you agree with the proposal to introduce a winter diet of examinations, what subjects and levels of qualifications might first be offered?

Numeracy and Literacy.

Q14. Would you agree with changes to the system which allowed the most able students to bypass qualifications at lower levels and begin study for Highers from S4 onwards?

Totally agree with this proposal. This would enable the two year Higher course to become a reality from S4. Some students may be able to sit some highers after one year thereby allowing a two year Advanced Higher course.

Q15. Do you have any other ideas for increasing flexibility within the senior phase (S4 to S6)?

I would promote the possibility of students choosing to follow some courses within a virtual learning environment.

Q16. It is intended that planning for the new curriculum should commence in 2008/09, with approaches based on the new curriculum introduced from school year 2009/10. This suggests that the new and revised qualifications and any increased flexibilities would be required from 2012/13 onwards to ensure smooth progression between the curriculum and qualifications. Is this indicative timeline realistic? Please comment on any implications to be considered.

This timeline is demanding but some key elements of the new qualifications should be in place by that time – especially Numeracy and Literacy. I don’t see the need to compromise the potential of new curriculum by having to rush through if we aren’t ready. What all schools should have in place by that time is a curricular structure which is able to deliver the new qualifications by 2012.


University Challenge


I’ve just had a very positive meeting with some senior colleagues from Queen Margaret University. The new QMU  has just been built in East Lothian and has been named as one of the top 10 modern universities by the Sunday Times Good University GuideIt’s mission statement reads as follows:

To enhance the quality of life and serve communities, through excellence and leadership in vocationally and professionally relevant education, research and consultancy, as a university which is outward looking and committed to innovation, participation and lifelong learning.

In line with that exciting ambition we discussed the possibilities for partnership and soon recognised that the scope was huge and that what we have at present requires greater coordination and strategic direction.

Here are some of the possibilities:

1. Continuing Professional Development for education staff in East Lothian Council through the University’s Centre for Academic Practice and MSc in Prof Ed.

2. Sharing QMU’s  Learning and Teaching strategy to help to develop independent learners by end of S3.

3. Delivery of QMU part-time learning in EL Schools.

4. Creation of virtual and not-so-virtual learning environments for S6 students.

5. Sharing of kit & equipment e.g. chemistry labs.

6. Joint appointments or secondments.

7. Specific projects in areas such as performing arts especially drama, dance, film-making & theatre.

8. Shared utilisation of space in capital projects.

9. Research evidence for ELC meeting single outcome agreement , eg in health.

10. Engaging with the “Curriculum for Excellence” and “More Choices, More Chances” agendas.

We are already planning an exciting conference to be held at the campus scheduled for June 2009 which will involve every new S6 pupil in East Lothian but this just goes to show the incredible potential which exists for partnership events which will benefit both the university and the community of East Lothian.

 Our next step is to organise a high level strategic meeting to examine other partnership opportunities across the Council, beyond education, and to select a small number of initiatives to take forwards in a productive and coherent manner.

 Other suggestions are very welcome.

Engaging with our communities – the role of social media


We held a meeting last week where we explored the potential of weblogs to assist the community planning process – based on the edubuzz model -although not necessarily using the same platform.

Community Planning is a process which helps public agencies to work together with the community to plan and deliver better services which make a real difference to people’s lives.

The aims of Community Planning in Scotland are:

1. making sure people and communities are genuinely engaged in the decisions made on public services which affect them; allied to

2. a commitment from organisations to work together, not apart, in providing better public services.

There are two further key principles in addition to the two main aims outlined above:

3. Community Planning as the key over-arching partnership framework helping to co-ordinate other initiatives and partnerships and where necessary acting to rationalise and simplify a cluttered landscape;

4. the ability of Community Planning to improve the connection between national priorities and those at regional, local and neighbourhood levels.

As we discussed the potential of weblogs it became apparent that this might just be a vehicle which could be of some real use.  If we could encourage key figures and other members of a local community to keep a weblog where they would reflect upon local issues and stimulate a dialogue within a community, the likelihood of planners and public services to take account of these opinions would be greatly enhanced. The old ways of questionnaires, focus groups, community conferences, canvassing do not enable a substantive, two way, on-going dialogue to take place where ideas can be shaped and developed over a period of time.

I know how I am being influenced by being able to read the weblogs of teachers, parents and children – surely this has some possibility for community engagement?

So how might such a scheme work? Let’s take a community like Tranent.  If we established an area where the weblogs of of the community could be accessed and new members could participate we would begin to build up a very rich picture of the strengths, opportunities and needs within the community.  Officers and elected members could engage with this dialogue and perhaps even have their own weblogs to make the decision making process even more transparent and interactive. 

I know some people might feel very threatened by such a suggestion, as it appears to almost encourage anarchy by handing over the “airwaves” to the public – yet surely that is what community planning is about? – a transparent enagagement with the local community to the point where people eventually (it would take some time) begin to believe that they do have a voice and that it is listened to. Even more importantly those who do make the decisions can explain the thought process and reasoning behind decisions – even those decisions which are unpopular (see example).

Last observations:

  • A councillor recently described how no one had attended any of their surgeries in the last four weeks. 
  • Another councillor described how few people had attended their surgeries over a three year period. 
  • East Lothian Council have started to hold some council meetings in the evening to be more available to the public – very few (less than 10 have attended in any one evening) .

Perhaps it really is time to explore alternative vehicles for community interaction?

Composite classes – a pressure point


I’ve received number of e-mails this week from parents pleading with me not to establish composite classes in their schools. A composite class is one where a primary school class is composed of children from more than one year group, e.g. P3/4 composite class. 

The common theme in all the e-mails is that if I care about children then I can’t allow this to happen.  I should probably point out at the outset that my own children were taught in composite classes.  On first being notified of compositing I have to admit to being concerned – despite my own experience as an educator. As parents we tend to like the status quo – we don’t like the idea of change – especially change which seems intuitively risky. 

Whilst I understand the reflexive reaction that many parents have towards composite classes the issue often has the potential to whip a storm of fury all based upon the supposition that the quality of education will suffer.  When looked at from a certain perspective you can see how this appears to be a convincing and logical argument – which can be captured as follows:

“Children in non-composite class are all the “same age” and can be more effectively taught by a teacher than a class made of of children from two different year groups.”

However, when one considers the reality of this situation most “normal” classes are made up of children who have an age range of 12 months. Yet given the arbitrary way in which we identify cut off dates for entry to school – its very possible for children who are born days apart to be in separate years groupings.

As I have explored before such  range of ages can mean that in child development terms there can be a gap between children of between 24 – 36 months. Chronological age does not equate to stage of development – any of us who have had our own children can testify to that.

The reality is that a composite class will often have a less of an age range than a “year group class” – as we group the class by birth date, e.g. an age spread of a less than 8 months. 

Yet compositing can also strike fear into some teachers – particularly those who have never taught such a class grouping before.  I recently spoke to very experienced head teacher about this and she told me that there is no more differentiation required in a two year group composite class than there is in a single year group class – in fact because of the closer age range there might even be less. Of course some of our smaller East Lothian schools have composite classes composed of up to four years groups – now that is challenging but as I’ve described before can lead to truly stimulating learning situations.

To return to my e-mail correspondence – I do care about children (that’s why I’m in the job). I know it goes with the territory and it’s why I get paid but people seem to think if they apply enough pressure that they can get more money for their own school.  It’s my job to advocate for all children in East Lothian – not just those whose parents might be able to mount a campaign to change a very fair system for allocating teachers to schools.  The reality is that an average teacher’s salary – with on-costs such a pension etc – is £36,000.  One extra teacher for one school means that this money must be taken from another school (93% of our education budget is devolved directly to schools).

Last point –  no parent has ever complained about compositing once their child has moved into such a class – only before.

Solution Focused Planning


The power of our strategic groups came to the fore this week at our 3 -18 Strategic Learning and Teaching Group.

This group has 25 members who represent a wide cross-section of those of us involved in education in East Lothian.  I know its accepted logic that such a large group can’t operate successfully but it’s the very size of, and representation within the group that actually makes it effective.

We started the meeting reflecting upon the impact of our Learning and Teaching policy in the last year.  By splitting up into groups of 3 we were able to identify a wide range of observable changes in our practice throughout the authority that would evidence our emphasis on learning and teaching.

The second part of the meeting was given over to considering our Service Improvement Plan for the coming session. I showed the group a range of the possible outcomes which we have been exploring.  One of the draft outcomes read as follows:

“All children will achieve Level B in reading by the end of P4, level D by the end of P7, and Level E by the end of S2.”

We discussed the thinking behind this desired outcome and the reaction it might stimulate amongst teachers. The problem lay in the notion of “All” and the idea it just seems to reaffirm a focus on attainment – which many teachers just see as a means of keeping the Authority and HMIe happy – as opposed to helping individual children learn.

I’ve written so many plans for departments, schools and authorities now that I’ve become acutely aware of the dissonance between what the writer of the plan might intend and the perception of the plan by those who have to implement it.

The idea behind the outcome is that we would like every child to be able to read by the age of 9 – at least well enough that their reading ability does not limit their progress in any other area of the curriculum. As we wrestled with the problem of how we might come up with an outcome which was clear, kept our focus on reading, but didn’t antagonise teachers we struck upon a solution. That solution was to take the problem to the teachers – let them know what we wanted to achieve, why it was important, and  some guidance on the characteristics of an outcome – and let them come up with the answer.

The power of this idea is that has so many advantages:

  1. It engages teachers with the rationale of the outcome approach;
  2. It will enable us to generate an agreed outcome which has a wide range of stakeholder ownership;
  3. It will enable us to have the impact we desire, i.e. make reading a central focus of our practice in schools.

It’s only through talking through a problem like this with such a wide ranging group that such solutions can be generated.

Leaders of Learning Network

I attended the fourth Leaders of Learning Network meeting in Musselburgh this week.

These meetings are an opportunity for members of staff who do not hold promoted positions to contribute their own ideas towards the development of education in East Lothian and to have direct access to the Head of Education about any matters of concern.

The meeting went very well – perhaps due to the fact that the entire agenda was driven by the group who came up with items with a “talking partner”. The items were as follows:

Finding out more about learning and teaching in primary schools – this is without doubt the single most recurring item I hear from secondary teachers.

What’s happening with GLOW?

Who decides the management structure in a secondary school?

Is it possible for non-promoted teachers to be given more responsibility for leading initiatives in the department and the school?

How could we make better use of CPD sessions planned for Friday afternoons?

How do we promote networking between teachers from different schools within a cluster?

How do we prevent primary teachers from becoming deskilled now they don’t stay in the class with specialist teachers, e.g PE?

Why can’t we develop children’s typing skills and make touch typing as important as the ability to write legibly?

We went through all of these items and such a discussion can significantly help us to shape strategy. we explored the possibility of having a Leaders of Learning Conference on a Saturday morning to develop our network – would people come to such an event?