Youth workers – part of the team in schools?

I could only get along to the evening reception for the National Youth Work Summit, organised by YouthLink Scotland

Chief Executive Jim Sweeney summarised the day. He said something which I’m sure is a common phrase for youth workers but hearing it fresh sounded like a great challenge for schools to bear in mind when designing their senior phase curriculum:

“We need to engage with young people on their own territory and on their own terms” (or at least that what it sounded like to me)

Easier said than done!

Inclusion: an adult agenda?

This year I’m going to be visiting schools in East Lothian on a drop-in basis whenever a gap appears in my diary. And so it was today I managed to fit a 30 minute visit to school while travelling between two meetings.

I loved that the head teacher was walking along the corridor with her shoes off. Of course she was a bit shame faced but I’ve always liked the combination between informality and educational rigour. As I visited the classes I was hugely impressed by the quality of work I witnessed and the positive relationships between the teachers and the young people.

Anyway, enough of this, for the point of this article is connected to something the head teacher told me about how they support  children with autism in the school. At the end of last term the school had arranged with their educational psychologist to work with each of the classes who had such a child as a member. In a number of sessions – some which had the child present and some which didn’t – the educational psychologist described what it was like to have such needs, explained the behaviour, and talked about how to accommodate and respond to their classmates on the autistic spectrum. Apparently the children have been wonderful and it has contributed to creating an environment where all children belong to the school community and engage in worthwhile learning.

This description triggered a memory from last year where I led six separate workshops with secondary school students. Under the Right Blether banner we listened to 180 young people about their experiences in East Lothian schools and communities. Their responses were overwhelmingly positive, but there was one recurring theme which got me thinking.

The theme, which came up in every one of the workshops, could be characterised by the phrase “It’s not fair”. The focus of that concern was the feeling that some of their peers were treated advantageously to themselves. The young people they were referring to were those who were typically badly behaved, disruptive, disengaged, and generally not interested in education. Yet the apparent reward such young people got from the school were opportunities, chances, tolerance and recognition that were not available to the typically diligent and well behaved student who was not given such leeway – hence the recurring refrain “It’s not fair”.

This is the parallel I’d like to draw with what I heard about last week. Schools nowadays go to great lengths to try to engage with the hard to reach. So often we know that many – if not all – of such young people come from disrupted backgrounds: backgrounds where drink, drugs, neglect and violence can be ever-present; backgrounds where love, clean clothes, regular meals, and stable relationships are unknown. Yet when we – the school – try to understand and compensate for such experiences through out-of-school opportunities, second chances, and additional support we are accused by the majority of our students of being “unfair”. Yet these are same young people, who, if shown a video of neglect, starvation, violence, abuse, or the effects of poverty on children in developing countries, would happily engage in fundraising activities.

So why is it that they can’t see the “unfairness” of the life experiences of the troubled boy in their class who is always the first to be sent to the depute head teacher? Perhaps the answer lies in what I saw happening in the primary school I visited last week. For they are tapping into the natural sense of justice which every child has – but which can only be triggered if they are helped to understand and empathise with what it’s like to have such needs – or experience such a life.

It makes me think that “inclusion” has for too long been an adult agenda. We, professionals, politicians, social scientists, public health and criminal justice experts, etc, etc all argue for schools where young people from vulnerable backgrounds are included in our mainstream schools. Yet how often have we taken the time to explain “why” we do this to the other young people in our schools?  Is it any wonder that they consider our actions to be “unfair”.

What if we worked with young people, staff, parents and other supporters of the school to tackle this in a structured and positive manner – which did not stigmatise the individuals concerned? By seeking to involve all members of school community actively in the “inclusion” agenda – but especially the children and young people – we have a chance to create places where all young people feel a common sense of belonging and responsibility for one another.

I’ll leave the last words to a young person I met as part of a Right Blether Workshop held at one of our residential homes:

“No-one knows what it’s like to be me.”

Alan Forrest: sculptor

I had the privilege of meeting the famous sculptor that is Alan Forrest this evening.

His work commands huge respect and I am fortunate to own a couple of his pieces of work.

Signing Off

I’ve decided to stop posting to my Learning Log for the forseeable future.

My focus will be taken up with the exciting transformation process we are currently undergoing  within East Lothian’s Education and Children’s Services.  I do intend to continue with my educational research interests and hope to return to my Log sometime next summer.

Thanks to all of you who have taken the time and trouble to comment on the 891 posts I’ve written since August 2005.



An Inconvenient Thinker?

I’ve been called most things in my career but a new one came my way last week when I was described as an “inconvenient thinker”. 

Not sure if was meant to be an insult or a compliment?

On reflection I’m probably quite chuffed that someone took the trouble to come up with such an inventive epithet……………………..I think.

It reminded me of the time when David Cameron (no not that one) called me a “radical traditionalist” – now that really did confuse me.

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.

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?

Subject Learning Communities in East Lothian

I’m writing this post from Queen Margaret University following an exceptionally positive Subject Learning Community meeting with East Lothian Home Economics teachers.   Fearghal Kelly gives a much more comprehensive description of what constitutes a Subject Learning Community than I could ever manage, so I won’t try to describe them in detail, but I have stolen his first paragraph and copied it here:

Although Curriculum for Excellence requires us as secondary teachers to make greater efforts to offer our students more interdisciplinary experiences and to place a greater emphasis on the development of their skills, there will still always be a role for subject specialists in the secondary school. It is important to remember that the changes under CfE should be a shift. A correction in balance. A movement towards. It should not be a pendulum swing. We need to find the right balance between subject content knowledge and interdisciplinary learning & skill development, not jump from one extreme to the other.

In the above extract Fearghal captures superbly our commitment to, and recognition of, the importance of subject specialists to the successful implementation of a Curriculum for Excellence. 

To that end we have been holding a series of evening seminars at QMU to meet with subject specialists to share our ideas for a Subject Learning Community and to ascertain if any teachers would like to be trained as facilitators.  We reckon that by the time we’ve finished our last twilight session that over 25% of secondary teachers will have met with us and discussed the concept and shared their own ideas for possible areas of focus – which is a remarkable testimony to the professionalism of our teachers.

The content and programme of seminars and materials are available here.

Fearghal has established a Blog for these groups and it’s interesting to reflect on the issues they identify at their separate meetings – with primary secondary transition being a very common theme.

I have to say that these events are amongst my most eagerly awaited times of the week.