It takes a community to raise a child

“Broken society”, “disconnected youth”, “dysfunctional communities” have been just some of the headlines following the recent riots across the UK, and torrents of words have followed, but vital in all of this and little mentioned is the relationship between a school and its local community.

As society looks for explanations and solutions for the recent troubles, those of us in Scotland cannot be complacent. Gang violence, knife crime, and youth offending in some Scottish communities are among the highest levels in Europe. Yet in these communities we have schools where these same young people conduct themselves in a very different manner. They are not perfect in any way, and statistics would suggest that far too many of our children are disengaged, excluded and failing to achieve. But it is a fact that our schools are essentially safe places where standards of behaviour are generally good.

So why do we see such a discrepancy between what happens in school and in what happens in our communities?

I would suggest that for too long schools have seen themselves as islands within their communities. Too often we have sought to create a school environment which sets itself outwith the local community. It creates its own ethos, values, and standards of behaviour, and as long as young people conform to these values in school, we feel that we’ve done our job. As educationists, we labour under the misapprehension that young people will be able to carry these values out into their homes and communities – and in that way we’ve done the best we can.

The reality is that many of our young people don’t see any connection between the school and their community, and perhaps that’s where we need to focus our attention.

Seeking definitions of what we mean by “community” does not really help – at the last count there were over 95 separate definitions. However, if we look for the common threads within these definitions, there begins to emerge a consensus around some key features.

A community usually has a number of characteristics, namely, membership or belonging, influence, integration and fulfilment of needs, and a shared emotional connection. I’m pleased to note that our schools fulfil these characteristics for many of our young people. But how many of our communities can claim any such fulfilment? Young people repeatedly claim to be excluded from their communities. They have no sense of membership – in fact, for some young people, they are explicitly excluded. The community certainly does not fulfil their needs, nor do they have any influence over community (at least in legitimate terms). But above all, a significant minority of our young people have no emotional attachment or sense of belonging to their community, or the other people who share that community.

So what do they do instead? They create these attachments to geographical territory (not their communities). They seek approval for acts which reinforce their connection to their peers – these acts are often referred to as “anti-social” in our terms – but are highly social in terms of the young people themselves. Finally, they see their needs met by membership of a group that provides them with a sense of belonging.

Before those of us in schools become too comfortable with such an accusatory view of our local communities, I would suggest that some of the blame lies with ourselves. Of course, one might expect that – schools are often put down as the source of so many of society’s ills. Yet I believe schools have retreated from their communities over the last 50 years. This is done partly to protect their own integrity, and partly because communities themselves have not seen a part for them to play in the education of young people.

It was Morgan Scott Peck, the eminent American psychiatrist, and author of A Road Less Travelled, who suggested that there were four stages of community building. The first of these was what he termed “pseudo-community”. This is where we pretend to be a community but in actual fact we hide our differences for the sake of being able to claim community status. I’d suggest that is where most of us reside in terms of relationships between schools and their local community – happy to use the terms of reference but, when examined in any real depth, failing to fulfil the any of the previous characteristics of a true community.

Peck saw the second – and necessary – stage of community building to be chaos. That is, he thought that the only way to break free from the comfortable phony community status was for some form of chaos to ensue which brought the community to confront the reality of the situation.

Perhaps that’s what we have just experienced in the UK. The chaos has brought us to our senses. It has made us reflect upon the reality of the situation.

Peck’s third phase is where most of us now are – a sense of emptiness and loss. But if we follow Peck’s line of travel, there is a chance that we could see “true” communities emerging from this process.

For me – ever the optimist – I see this as an exciting opportunity to challenge the pseudo-community links that we often have between schools and communities and, instead, create something which conforms much more to the aspiration of “It takes a community to raise a child”.

Reducing Bureaucracy in Education

It was  Cyril Northcote who came up with the adage known as Parkinson’s Law which appeared as the first sentence of a humorous essay published in The Economist in 1955:

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

I’ve been thinking about this a great deal in recent meetings with teachers (and managers) who complain that their time is taken up with trivial and meaningless bureaucratic tasks.  So perhaps it’s time to step back from our practice and reflect – with some rigour – upon the way in which we conduct our business? Many of the tasks and jobs that we all have to complete have been layered – one on top of another – as one initiative goes and another one comes in – yet the associated practices which came into practice with each initiative remain. 

At a time when we are looking for efficiencies in every walk of life we need to challenge anything we do which does not add value to the central purpose of our job – in our case to improve the outcomes for children and young people. 

Why have we created bureaucratic processes which overload our system? I reckon the first reason is that we often “over engineer” our systems.  Over engineering is when we construct something way beyond the tolerances required to fulfil the object’s task, e.g. we build a bridge which can carry a weight ten times heavier than anything that it will ever be required to carry.  The associated costs in additional materials and  construction time are not required and can be regarded as waste.  And so it often is in educational bureaucracies that we develop solutions to problems/issues which go way beyond what is actually required to solve the actual problem. Perhaps because we don’t trust each other?

The second characteristic of our system is that  we often create a solution to meet a time specific problem, e.g. we establish a meeting of people to address a particular problem – we solve the problem that generated the cause for the meeting but the meetings continue because we don’t have the confidence to stop doing it.

So what might we do to reduce bureaucracy at all levels in education – from Government down to the individual classroom, and every level in between?

The first thing to do is to reflect upon our practice – not because we want to stop doing everything but because we want to spend our time doing those things which make a positive difference to children’s lives. Part of that process must be to reflect upon the cost benefit.  I’m not encouraging here a “know the cost of everything and value of nothing” approach, but simply to work out what something costs in terms of time, money (often directly related to time) and the associated value. For example, a weekly 30 minute meeting of principal teachers in an average secondary school along with members from the senior management team equates to £18,000- £20,000 a year. Such a meeting may have been instituted for very valid reasons a few years ago but has continued long beyond its actual purpose and value.  Similar exercises can be carried out for every bureaucratic process and  procedure.  However, before we disappear into a further bureaucratic vortex it’s best to start small and select those areas where we reckon we can make quick wins – and at the same time release people to undertake more valuable activities directly related to improving the educational process.

So, having identified some processes of dubious value what next? There would seem to be two alternatives 1. STOP doing it (does the sky fall in?); 2. REDESIGN the process, i.e. do it “just well enough” (rather than over engineer) or come up with an alternative solution to the problem but which streamlines and simplifies the process.

The first of these solutions, i.e. to stop doing something – cannot be left to personal preference, unless it is a bureaucratic process which you have instituted as part of your personal behaviour.   However, a key stage in such reflection is to try to understand why we do things in a particular way, i.e. what is the purpose of the process? (I would also suggest that a bit of research into the history of when and why it was originally introduced can be exceptionally helpful here). Having identified the process consider the risk of stopping doing it, e.g. would stopping doing it put children’s health and safety at risk?   I know that to some this sounds like a recipe for anarchy but the key here is a collective analysis and shared decision making process.

So if stopping is not alternative perhaps the process itself could be redesigned? As above, the starting point should be the purpose of the process.  So often a process have been introduced within a particular time and culture which is no longer relevant.  That may certainly be the case with some of our processes which have been introduced at time when economic considerations did not feature in the decision making process. Once again the key to redesigning processes is to see it a collective process.  Remember one hour saved each week by every teacher in a school of fifty teachers over the course of a year is equivalent to £75,000-£80,000 – or two teachers. Now that would make a difference!  Good luck.

Accumulating Credit for Learning

One of the conclusions I’ve gradually come to over the years is that in order to facilitate real change in any system it’s necessary to change the landscape.  It’s come to me slowly and for all that I believe that focusing upon cultural change is still fundamentally the correct route to improvement – I’ve also come to recognise that we just tinker at the edges if we are asking teachers to change their practice within a system where the fundamental features remain static. 

So when it comes to a Curriculum for Excellence I fear that little will change unless we shift some of the key building blocks upon which our practice is based, e.g. how we give credit for learning; how we organise learning, and how we deliver learning. 

My thinking on this has been influenced by a recent trip to New Zealand where I encountered their qualifications system. Much like our Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) their system is based upon levels and associated credits for learning.  However, there are two important features of their system, which appear to have an advantage of our Scottish version.  Firstly, their levels and credits equate exactly with university entrance requirements, whereas SCQF has to be translated into UCAS points; and secondly, they differentiate outcome by a simple system of Pass, Merit and Excellence in any unit of study. A New Zealand student needs 80 credits to gain a National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) at any level.  That certificate can be endorsed with “Merit” if 50 of these points are achieved with “Merit” and likewise for the student who gains 50 points or more with “Excellence”.

It was while this was fresh in my mind that I recently visited Jewel and Esk College of Further Education with a group of our secondary Headteachers and senior staff. In something of a damascene moment I began to see how we might begin to change the landscape for organising and delivering learning in our schools and the example has been under our nose for a number of years now – you don’t even have to go to the other side of the world!

One of the understandable strategic elements of the Curriculum for Excellence implementation process has been to try to keep the qualifications issue separate from the curriculum development – as it was feared that the focus of secondary teachers would always swing to what was going to be tested and ignore some of the more fundamental questions about the experiences and outcomes of the courses they taught.  However, with hindsight this may have been a mistake as it denies the reality of secondary education and its links to access to employment and further and higher education. 

The other lesson to be learned from our New Zealand cousins and, more pertinently, from our colleagues in further and higher education – is how to trust internal assessment.  I’ve written before how colleges in Scotland can give credit for learning up to Higher National Diploma (which is a couple of notches beyond Advanced Higher level) without having to rely upon any form of external assessment) – while schools continue to have to rely heavily upon external assessment – at levels of learning significantly below HND.

So how might we use this knowledge to create a framework within which our schools can innovate, develop practice and improve the outcomes for learners? Perhaps we could create a common assessment and accreditation that could overlay the curricular model being developed in our schools?

Imagine a scenario where each relevant unit of work taught in S1 – S3 carried a credit for numeracy, literacy, health and well-being – and skills for work, i.e. all those experiences and outcomes that are the responsibility of all teachers. By creating a matrix of learning experiences learners could, through moderated internal assessment, which builds upon formative assessment strategies, be awarded credits at a range of levels of learning with outcome being recognised through Pass, Merit and Excellence. As these credits are accumulated the learner could achieve a local Certificate of Achievement that could be endorsed with Merit or Excellence. By the end of S3 a learner will have undertaken a broad education and will also have a record of their achievements in these crucial building blocks for learning.

Such a system would provide teachers with a clear framework; yet enable them to create innovative and challenging learning contexts where these outcomes can be achieved. Some schools may create units of study which fill identified gaps in provision, which may not sit clearly with a single subject domain.

Finally, such a system would enable students to become familiar with the likely curricular structure and national accreditation model, which they will encounter, in the senior phase of learning and beyond school in further and higher education.

Learning from the Past: Taking a line of sight from Scottish parish schools



Perhaps the time is right to explore alternative delivery models for education where we shift our thinking from people being users or consumers, to being participants? Ironically there is much to learn from our Scottish educational heritage as we consider our future.

The shift from School Boards to Parent Councils – which surely must be one of the best things to happen in Scottish education in the last twenty years – begins to provide an insight into the potential of true community involvement in the delivery of education at a local level.

Our current system – as it has evolved – has been dominated by the tenets of centralised control – both from the government and, in their turn, local authorities. The dependency culture, which this has created, is not the fault of those who work in schools, yet – in an ironic twist – it has become one of the key barriers to enabling teachers and school leaders to grasp the opportunity provided by a Curriculum for Excellence.

So how might we release the potential that so clearly exists in our schools and our communities?

Maybe the answer lies in our past? For when Scotland led the world in education it was through schools that were “owned” by their communities. The Scottish parish schools, which originally were purely elementary, were encouraged to provide at least the elements of secondary education. These schools played this role so well, that the Argyle Commission in its report of 1868 reported that over fifty per cent of the students attending the four Scottish universities came direct from parish schools. Parish schools were later joined by the establishment of burgh schools, essentially secondary schools, and in this way both types of schools became universal education providers, and gave to Scotland an education system that was the envy of Europe.

I want to make it clear here that I am not relating the traditional parish school with any religious affiliation – but instead see the concept as a powerful one where a community’s emotional bond to their schools is matched by an opportunity to translate that affinity into an active and substantive role in shaping and improving the quality of education delivered in their name.

What I have in mind is community-based management of schools. To a certain extent this concept has been trialled in certain areas of Scotland. This is where the local primary schools and secondary school work to promote links to smooth the journey for children and to benefit from sharing good practice. In some areas these developments have had dedicated management time allocated in the form of Learning Community manager or leader. However, the governance of these schools still lies with each of the respective head teachers. But what if we could establish a Community Educational Trust to which was devolved the entire budget for running education within that community? The main change that such a system could introduce is the notion of the schools being “owned” by their community. The shift in the perceived ownership of the school would actually match what people feel about their local school but where the perception of a centralised power base still keeps them removed from the real running of the school.

The reason I opt for community- based, as opposed to school-based management, is drawn from the lessons from South of the Border where schools have actually sought to limit their intake to particular types of student. This has resulted in huge variations in terms of the quality of education provision, with “magnet” schools and “sink” schools existing in close proximity to one another. The community-based model perceives the provision of education to be a much more inclusive and universal process. This is where the concept of “these are our bairns” underpins and permeates policy and practice.

Of course, the practicality of community-based management of schools throws up as many questions as it does answers. Not least of which would include how such schools would relate to their local authority? How would they manage budgets and systems that currently benefit from large-scale procurement? How would such communities relate to other Council delivered services and other agencies: and; How would the authority ensure that the needs of ALL children were being met?

Despite these, and many other such questions, I’d like to think that the potential of such a scheme is worthy of serious consideration and exploration. Even if such an idea comes to nought, it may indeed allow us to create different forms of educational delivery that might emulate the genetic traits that so characterised the success of the Scottish parish school system.

TESS Article: Resisting the pressure to “dae sumthin”

Every educational leader, regardless of position, has to wrestle with the powerful temptation to intervene or to meddle in the business of those whom they manage. The logic is fairly simple – “I’m being paid to manage and to be accountable for the work of others – so it’s reasonable that I take action in order to ensure that the desired outcome is achieved.” Maybe it’s something to do with the Scottish work ethic that we feel there’s a need, in the inimitable words of Billy Connolly, to “dae sumthin”.

It’s perhaps one of the most addictive elements of management – “I can fix this” – as the manager learns to solve the problem through direct action. Unfortunately the hidden cost of such behaviour is that it helps to create a dependency culture as everyone comes to know that any problem belongs to the manager – and that the manager will “sort it”.

The ironic consequence of such a relationship is that it leads to dissatisfaction from both sides, i.e. the manager complains that people don’t accept the responsibility which goes with being a professional; and the managed complain that the manager is always interfering with solutions, policies and structures which run directly counter to their ability to do their job.

Yet to challenge such orthodoxy is much more difficult than one might imagine. The pressure to conform to the traditional role of the manager is almost overwhelming. Not to take action, is to be seen to be indecisive, lazy, cowardly, unimaginative or simply not being up to the job. In a similar vein the manager’s own boss has expectations about effective management behaviour and in many cases is expecting the manager to come up with a plan of action that is, most probably proactive, innovative and definitive. It’s this latter adjective which is the most telling in terms of the relationship between the manager and the managed. The definition of the word “definitive” in this sense is “final and unable to be questioned or altered”. In a sense this form of manager’s plan is the Holy Grail, that is something that can be passed on to others and is implemented without question.

Of course, things are never as simple as that for as we know others must carry out the manager’s plan and there exists “many a slip twixt lip and cup”, especially if the “managed” do not fully subscribe to the manager’s solution. It’s into this educational Middle-earth that the manager’s initiatives and centralised plans are launched only to be subverted, modified or ignored. And so it goes on with managers having to conform to their role by taking action, to which they are probably addicted anyway, and the managed expecting the action, criticising if no action is taken, but being free to criticise the action as they have played no part in it’s development.

So how might we help managers escape from the tyranny of the need to always “dae sumthin” in the face of a perceived problem? Perhaps a starting point might be for local authorities to shift from being action focused, i.e. we will implement, act, do; to becoming outcome focused and supporting and enabling the schools to work out the most appropriate action for themselves.  The reality is that what works well in one school is not necessarily the best solution in another school. Yet the pressure to work out the universal solution and to implement it across an entire council is difficult to resist – particularly for those of us who have been addicted to taking action throughout our careers. That’s not to say that local authorities should never seek to implement an action across all schools but at the very least there should be a loop where we ask ourselves if our preferred course of action empowers or disempowers our colleagues in schools.

Nevertheless, Scottish education does appear to be thirled to the idea of “daen things”.  It would be a brave person who wouldn’t back a highly technical, carefully managed and comprehensive plan to implement a course of action across every school in an authority, against a strategy which placed the decision about what type of action to take in the hands of the individual school.

Unconditional Positive Regard – does a child need to be liked?

Does a teacher need to like all children in order to be an effective teacher? 

The dictionary definition of the verb to “like”  is essentially  to display a favourable opinion or disposition towards a thing – in this case children.  Yet in conversations with teachers throughout my career I’ve met with resistance to the notion of having to “like” in order to be able to teach. In fact one of the most memorable quotes was when a teacher exclaimed “I’m not paid to like kids – I’m paid to teach them!”.

Which leads me back to the original question – is it possible to teach without displaying a favourable disposition towards all children? If you break teaching down into its most simplistic form, i.e. the effective transmission of information from the teacher to pupil, then one can see how the disposition of the teacher is of no consequence. Yet for those of us who have been pupils we know that the disposition of the teacher towards us as learners has a major impact on our willingness to engage and learn. Even the “traditional” no-nonsense, subject-oriented, results focussed teacher can show through their actions that they care about every child in their class – and the learners respond accordingly. 

The reality of human nature is that we tend to “like” people whom we find pleasant or value. In that sense our tendency to “like” is conditional upon the appearance or behaviour of the person. In the classroom this can take the form of a teacher changing their disposition towards a child in direct response to the child’s behaviour.  But what if the child does not respond to the teacher with equitable response? What if the child’s behaviour is inappropriate? Surely the teacher is entitled to change their disposition towards the child to one where they can legitimately change their disposition towards the child both an implicit and explicit manner, e.g. “I don’t like that kid”

The logic that unpins this assertion supposes that it’s human nature not to like everyone and that we are entitled to make judgements about those whom we will treat with positive regard. So if in our classroom there is a child who does not conform to our expectations or standards of behaviour then we can legitimately express our disfavour either through our choice of language, tone of voice, or actions. The problem in such instances is that that most children can cope with being told off or punished as long as it’s fair. However, all too often the teacher will give an additional “punishment” through a noticeable shift in their disposition towards that child on a permanent basis, such a shift is picked up by the child – and just as importantly by their peers in the class.

The Scottish education system is founded upon the concept of “in loco parentis” – in place of parents – which is intended to guide the practice of the teaching profession. Almost all parents treat their own children with positive regard – in fact regardless of whatever their child might do they will continue to treat them with enduring warmth and not be deflected by the human frailties of their child. Such an approach can be referred to as unconditional positive regard.  The true teacher adopts the perspective of the parent and is able to step beyond the reflexive response to dislike the child for their actions and separate the behaviour from the person. Such a stance does not mean that the teacher ignores or condones poor behaviour – in fact quite the opposite – but it does mean that even in the midst of dealing with an incident they make it clear through their own behaviour that they still value the child as a person.

I believe that a person’s capacity to treat children with unconditional positive regard lies at the very heart of what it is to be a professional teacher. Although, at first glance, the term smacks of psychobabble it is actually possible to tease out it’s meaning in a way that translates very well in to the Scottish classroom.

If I am to be allowed one dream it would be that every teacher, leader and professional person connected with Scottish education set out firstly to treat every child with unconditional positive regard, and secondly, to treat their colleagues in a similar manner. What a place we would have created!  

“The Vision Thing”

It was George H.W. Bush (the father of George W. Bush) who in 1987 responded to the suggestion that he turn his attention from short-term campaign objectives and look to the longer term by saying, “Oh, the vision thing”. I wonder sometimes if many of us in Scottish education suffer from Bush’s same discomfort with the “vision thing”?

At risk of stereotyping the Scottish psyche we are often more comfortable when faced with practical problems, which require “fixing”. Over the last twenty years this “fixing” mentality has been at the core of school development planning, i.e. identify what’s not working; work out a solution; implement solution; check if it’s fixed the problem. What happened in such an environment was that we ended up with lots of discrete tasks that “fixed” individual things but did not necessarily combine to move the system forwards.

Yet such an approach has much to commend it:

  1. Change can be represented as a technical enterprise, which can be controlled and managed.
  2. It gives the impression of productive activity (a prerequisite for the Scottish educator); and
  3.  It often results in a concrete product, which can be admired and shared – often to the credit of the person responsible for the action.

Perhaps our proud engineering and scientific heritage has positively reinforced our belief that the solution to a problem can be found through reliance upon technical mastery and hard work? The technical model has much to commend it for many discrete tasks that suit a linear, logical and controlled environment. Such an approach is sometimes referred to a “waterfall model” of development that maintains that one should move to a phase only when its preceding phase is completed and perfected. Phases of development in the waterfall model are discrete, and there is no jumping back and forth or overlap between them. In many ways educational change strategies in Scotland have depended upon this “waterfall” approach  which have been bureaucratic, slow and inflexible.

Yet there exists an alternative strategy that exists in practice in many Scottish educational contexts which promotes a more flexible, creative and effective approach to change, which can be used in conjunction with the waterfall model. As the waterfall approach takes its example from the scientific world, so the alternative takes its example from the artistic world. The model I have in mind is that of the sculptor. A sculptor will often start with a vision in mind about the final outcome. But as they commence their work and interact with the media with which they are working they begin to modify and change the original vision they had in mind.

This form of thinking is sometimes known as an “iterative” process where progress towards the eventual vision takes place over a series of versions where the creator reflects upon the original purpose but takes account of the shifting perception of what is actually required – which might be quite different from what was originally envisaged. This contrasts significantly from the dominant approach in education we often remain locked into “plan-driven” model where no allowance can be made for any change in the environment, or the needs that originally informed the need for change.

So where does the “vision thing” sit between two such contrasting approaches to change? As I suggested earlier many educational leaders are more comfortable when focusing upon technical problems that lend themselves to a linear and sequential problem solving approach. The very complexity of education sometimes means that it can only be conceptualised by breaking it down into manageable chunks – each of which can be managed, considered and improved in isolation, in the belief that they can then reconstituted into a “better” whole.

In many ways I agree that many of the elements of education can be considered and effectively changed in such an isolated manner. However, I would argue that the overview, or gestalt perspective, should be seen through the eyes of the sculptor as opposed to the eyes of the technician. For the educational leader must have a vision of what it is they are seeking to create in partnership with their colleagues. That vision should be clear but it should not be so “locked in” that it shuts out the emerging reality of the situation. It has been my privilege to work with a number of educational leaders who have adopted such a creative perspective – the results have to be seen to be believed!

TESS Article 8 – Revolution, not evolution


The oft-repeated mantra for managing change in education is “evolution, not revolution”.  Such a strategy takes account of the sensitivities involved whenever change is proposed and recognises the tacit (and explicit) resistance to change that can exist within any large organisation. The accepted logic is that we make change gradually and incrementally by building upon good practice and hopefully extending this across the entire system.

Such a cascade – or “viral” approach – where new practice is supposed to create a dynamic, or critical mass, which sweeps the system into the new world, is generally accepted as good practice. Unfortunately for us research into change strategies in education on a worldwide scale have shown the singular failure of such approaches. Initiatives which depend upon the willing volunteers, who create the perception of change within a system, disguise the majority who have learned to ignore the initiative, safe in the knowledge that “there will be another one along later”.

Yet even a cursory glance at the history of the social and physical world tells us that evolution is not always a smooth and gradual process.  On occasions in the history of the earth significant change has taken place in a relatively short period of time.  Perhaps we might have been reading this article today with scales on our bodies had not a meteor struck the earth and ended the dominance of the dinosaurs?

My point here is that it might be time to consider whether or not we should engage in radical change to our curriculum and delivery systems.  Of course another powerful metaphor is often used to counter such a suggestion “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water”.  Yet this seems ignore the consensus within Scottish education that there is an imperative for change and that the plug does perhaps need to be pulled from the bath?

In recent discussions with head teacher colleagues and teachers from throughout Scotland I have been impressed and encouraged by their willingness to engage with a more radical agenda that will best meet the needs of young people, which if translated into action would result in a revolution which could create a curriculum framework around which new professional practice can be developed, nurtured and supported.  I would even suggest that such a change would enable Scotland to take a leading role in educational development.  So what might such a revolution look like?  As with any revolution there are many aspects, which are already in existence in many areas of Scotland to some extent or another.  However, revolution would require that we fundamentally change the landscape upon which the large beasts of Scottish education currently roam.

The following are a selection of five agreed actions identified by a group of head teachers that might collectively make a contribution towards significantly changing that landscape in a revolutionary manner.

Each young person will have a unique learning programme (timetable) that will include home and school learning in its widest sense – Such a concept presents learning as extending beyond the school day and school grounds and begins to actively engage the young person and the parents in designing learning experiences.

Young people over the age of 16 may devise their own curriculum by accessing courses available at their own school, other schools, further education and higher education institutions, and on-line learning environments – Again we begin to conceive of education as being something more than what can be offered within a school.

Children and young people will be progressively taught, from an early age, how to make the best use of virtual learning environments – Such a development reinforces our obligation to consider how the learning process and environment has changed and will continue to change in the future.

Every child will have an on-line space in which they can keep a record of their experiences and achievements that will track through with them from the age of 3 – 18, – Perhaps even from birth where they reflect upon their learning, their experiences and achievements.

Schools will develop and promote their identity through a strong emphasis upon wider achievements such as music, creative arts, performing arts, sport, community volunteering, local politics, outdoor education, community leadership – these will be referred to as “core activities”  – By inverting the core we build the traditional curriculum around those activities which often have “real” personal meaning for children and young people.

Vive la revolution!

TESS Article 7 – Early years have a lot to answer for


This is a copy of the article which was recently published in TESS. It was based on the following post and comments.

Ever since I started teaching, I’ve been frustrated with the idea of “Christmas leavers”.The school leaving age regulations state: “Children may leave school once they reach their statutory school leaving date; this is dependent on date of birth. For children born between March 1 and September 30, it is May 31 of their fourth year of secondary school. For children born between October 1 and February 28, it is the last day of the December term of the school session in which they are 16.”

It never ceases to amaze me how many of the children with the most challenging behaviour are in this latter group. In a recent visit to an off-site behaviour support unit, I was struck by the exceptionally high proportion of boys who were – or would be – “Christmas leavers”.

It’s interesting to relate this to the correlation between age and Standard grade attainment. There is a significant negative difference in attainment for boys who fall into the Christmas leaver category, whereas there is no such correlation for girls.

I can’t think of any better evidence that early years education has an influence upon attainment in later years. Yet we continue to send children to school as young as possible. As a colleague recently commented on my learning log: “I have never been able to understand parents who send their kids, boys or girls, to school before they have to.

“But he/she is ready for school” is the usual refrain. It’s nonsense. If kids are “ready” at four and a half to start school, they will be even more “ready” when they are five and a half.

To continue this link between early years and secondary school outcomes, it’s interesting to reflect that many boys find themselves in the “bottom group” in their early primary years and, unfortunately, stay there throughout their school career. The move to active learning in early years is certainly countering some of this, and I’m greatly encouraged by what I am seeing in our classrooms. There is a much greater level of engagement in the learning process than had previously been the case.

Nevertheless, the gap in attainment between younger and older children does require that we think very carefully before allowing “young” children to commence their primary school education.

Recent research, and our intuitive understanding, into the link between the ability to read and the ability to access the curriculum would suggest that a child’s developmental level is a key factor in their success or failure. Yet we treat younger children, who might be 20 per cent behind in their development, in exactly the same way as their peers. Is it any wonder that they struggle, disengage and seek displacement activities in their later years? If we don’t get things right at the beginning, children are playing catch-up for the rest of their time in school – yet so many of them never catch up.

TESS Article 6 – The Cheesecounter Effect


One of the things that schools sometimes fail to appreciate is just how intimidating they can be, especially secondary schools. We all have our memories of school, and for those of us in the teaching profession they are, for the most part,   likely to be positive recollections. Yet when you speak to some parents you begin to realise that the fortress mentality, which many schools strive to overcome, remains such a massive obstacle.

So when I became a headteacher in my own right I was determined to continue the approach that I’d encountered at my previous school. In my first few weeks I visited many homes to talk to parents and children in their own environment – as opposed to the headteacher’s lair. Such visits were almost always worthwhile and resulted in me being able to build some exceptionally strong relationships with parents who might otherwise never have crossed the threshold of the school

Which leads me to a true story. Most of my initial home visits were related to attendance issues and there were a number of pupils who got a shock when their new headteacher arrived at the door to ask why they weren’t at school. I rarely had to come back to the house once I’d had a ‘blether’ with their parents. Anyway – a parent approached me at an information evening and explained how she was having real difficulties in getting her 16-year-old son to school, as she often left home before he had to get out of his bed. We agreed that the next time he wasn’t at school that I could make a home visit. As it happened the very next day he was absent – I asked the office staff for the address and directions and set off with a colleague (always go accompanied). I went up to the door and rang the bell …… answer, knocked on the door……………no answer, knocked harder………….no answer, listened at the letter box and heard loud music (he must still be in bed!!!), shouted through the letter box……….the music got louder!!, tried the front door……… opened, walked in the house……………shouting for him to come out!!………………….no answer – imagine my surprise when at last a terrified woman with a baby in her arms came out of a bedroom to explain that no one of that name lived in the house – I’d got the right house number but the wrong street. Huge apologies, a letter and bunch of flowers helped to diffuse the matter – but from that day on I’ve always double-checked the address!

Nevertheless, it’s possible that benefit came from even an error such as this as it was the talk of the town for a couple of weeks “A’m no wantin’ that man at oor door, so get yirsel tae skil”. The home visits for attendance issues certainly worked but what proved even more worthwhile were readmission meetings after exclusions, or meetings to explore other problems which children might be having at school. To sit down, accept hospitality (” no just a cuppa thanks”) and speak as equals about the child is such a useful strategy. I can’t tell you the number of times that my perception of a child has changed by seeing them in their home environment.

I’m not suggesting for one second that headteachers should spend all their days visiting homes but don’t think it’s possible to underestimate the impact it makes when the most senior person in the school is prepared to step outside the expected. The example that such visits set empowers so many others to do the same and can dramatically change the perception of parents towards the school – even those whose experiences as children had been so negative.

I sometimes call this phenomenon the “cheesecounter effect”. It goes something like this – two people are at the supermarket cheesecounter and look into each other’s trolleys and see a range of products for children – inevitably they begin to talk about their experiences of the school. The conversation can go one of two ways – an upward spiral, with the sharing of positive experiences – or a negative spiral. One can’t ignore that so many of parental perceptions are shaped by what they hear from others. It can be through relatively small, infrequent and seemingly inconsequential activities, such as headteacher home visits, which combine to influence the perception of parents towards a school.