Can an optimist be realistic?


It’s one of the real benefits of keeping a Learning Log that you can read what other people think about your opinions.

And so it was tonight when I came across a comment on Rob Hill’s blog about a post I’d written on Sunday about Schooling for the Future where Rob suggested that I was being unusually pessimistic about the current situation in Scottish education by describing  it as conforming to the Bureaucratic Model.

I do like to think of myself as being an optimist  – that is I always have a positive outlook on the future – in fact it can sometimes be a weakness. But does being an optimist mean that I can’t describe what I see in the present in realistic terms – even if that description appears to have a negative connotation?

I am very optimistic about the future of Scottish education – but that is not to suggest that change is going to be easy or that we will move to a more enlightened model of education in a seamless manner. However, I believe that without an understanding and appreciation of the true nature of the present that the likelihood of impacting upon the future is greatly reduced. Now is that me being pessimistic or optimistic?  Answers on a postcard

Competition – a dirty word in education?


I spent today at the AHDS (Assocation of Headteachers and Deputes Scotland) Conference where I led a couple of workshops about the Seven Sides of Educational Leadership.

I’ll posts a series of short posts about elements of the conference and I’ll kick off with something which Jim Reid (one of the founders of Wolfson Electronics) said about leadership in the commercial world. Jim believes that one of the key characteristics of good leadership is competition. He related this to knowing where the competition was and benchmarking his practice against others.  Jim also stressed the importance of us being competitors in a global environment and the fact we need to take account of what our “competitors” are doing in relation to their education systems.

I couldn’t help feeling a sense growing unease from the audience as he explored this idea.  Competition is not something which people in education are comfortable with – “we don’t do it to be better than other people”.  

Yet I understood what he was getting at – if we want to be good (or “excellent” in education) then we must refer to how others do. As much as we might like to disagree,  quality is not criterion referenced – what was excellent ten years ago would not be excellent now – our competitors have moved on – we do get measured against others , i.e. norm referenced. 

Perhaps if we were really honest with ourselves we might admit to some competitive instinct – albeit only in whispers, and then again only in an empty room.

Compress it and shift it to the right


I was listening to someone recently who was talking about educational attainment in Scotland and the need to close the gap between our lowest attaining children and the rest – our 20%. This goal has taken on a mantra-like term in Scottish education – although much easier to say than to do.

The additional comment was about getting some “stretch into our system” – in other words how do we extend the upper end of ability? – particularly in maths and science in order that we may compete on an international basis.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with a colleague about Deming’s principle of reducing variation which is something which has driven me for many years.

However, when I argue for reducing variation it is sometimes taken as a willingness to sacrifice high level performance in order to reduce the instances of low performance – however, I don’t see the two as being in conflict as I believe you can “compress it and shift it to the right” – if only it was that simple!!!!

Writing – do we have to accept that boys will be boys?

I had a great visit this week to King’s Meadow Primary School in Haddington. At the beginning of my visit I had a chat with Headteacher Donald McGillivray about boy’s writing. Donald has done a fascinating analysis of boys’ attainment across the school and the statistics show that boys’ writing is of a much lower standard than girls’ writing – in what is a very high performing school. This situation is matched in most schools in East Lothian.

As I visited classes around the school I concentrated on classes which were being taught language. As it happened the classes were all working on spelling -which was being taught in a very engaging and imaginative manner -but I managed to get a chance to talk to most of the teachers and asked them about why boys were underperforming in writing. The concensus was that boys need tasks which are related to a context and that these tasks must challenge and engage their imagination. For me it demonstrated once again that it is the learning task which teachers select that holds the secret to improving learning – the challenge for us is to experiment with and work out the kind of tasks that will lead to a sustained improvement in boys writing. As it stands at the moment boys are behind girls by between 15-20% so the risk is certainly worth taking.

I came across this video from which showed a class where boys had closed the gap on girls. The key points  were:

  • Speaking and listening form a solid foundation for written work
  • Multimedia techniques ease reluctant students into writing
  • Role-play encourages boys to participate

One of the main things to emerge for me when I was speaking to Donald McGilliivray is one that Steven Heppell had been referring to last week and which I’d repeated at our Headteachers’ Conference is that the answers lie in our own hands and in our own schools. We need to move away from the idea that we will resolve problems such as boys writing by buying a package, training all our teachers and then expecting them to implement the programme. The reality is that all our schools are different and what might work in one school would not necessarily work in another. I also believe that such an approach only serves to foster a dependency culture which is anti-professional and ultimately self defeating, as teachers feel  deskilled and are not encouraged to reflect upon and take responsibility for their own practice.

I’d much rather see a school work out some key principles which would guide the type of learning experiences which teachers would provide for boys, then evaluate the success of these approaches then discuss, share and develop these ideas within schools, within clusters and within the authority.

Last thought – if we could close the gap between girls and boys in respect to writing we would – in a single act – raise the levels of attainment in East Lothian by an unprecedented amount, with all the corresponding impact that such a lift would have on children’s life chances.

Political Scrutiny

We had our second Policy, Performance and Review Panel (PPRP) Meeting of the session this afternoon.

The panel is made up of elected members who are not part of the political administration. It’s their job to publically scrutinise the work of the department.

I was delighted that they have agreed to focus upon our Standards and Quality Report. At future meetings we will present our self-evaluation of the various performance indicators. The Panel will examine our practice, review our evidence and validate (or otherwise) our own evaluation. It’s only by this kind of public scrutiny that we can really show that we are committed to providing an improving and high quality service.

The other advantage of this approach is that it will demonstrate to schools that we are subject to (and welcome) the same kind of validation process that our Quality Improvement Team provide for schools’ Standards and Quality Reports.

The first step on a journey to excellence?

The dilemma “Would you sacrifice occasionally excellent for consistently good?”  has stimulated a fascinating variety of responses.

The motivation for creating this dilemma was a conversation I’d had with someone who had said that they would tolerate weak teaching as long as it was counter-balanced by excellent teaching in the same school.

I think it’s fair to say that when you present this dilemma to teachers they invariably believe that weak teachers can be improved by getting them to learn from, and work with excellent teachers – through a form of osmosis between one teacher to another. However, when you speak to parents the answer is almost always the reverse – “I don’t want my child taught by that teacher”.

Everything in Scottish Education is geared up to promote excellence; Journey to Excellence; A Curriculum for Excellence; Building Excellence; Centres of Excellence; Teachers for Excellence; Targeting Excellence and just Excellence

The Scottish Government summarise this as follows:

Scottish education is well-regarded and respected all over the world. But there is no room for complacency – every school should be excellent.

I am personally committed to this goal but I’d like to dig a little deeper into what we mean by excellence and complacency.

Richard Elmore, in his book School Reform from Inside Out: Policy, Practice and Performance suggests that most reform strategies are based on what he describes as the “true believers” who are already motivated and whose commitment is galvanised by concentrating them into small groups who reinforce each other – the bad news, as Elmore points out, is that these small groups of self-selected reformers apparently seldom influence their peers.

From his analysis of research Elmore suggest that the proportion of teachers who are committted to ambitious and challenging practice is roughly 25% of the population and that this % can decline considerably if the climate for reform is weak. There are two issues which jump out for me from Elmore’s work – relying upon self-selecting groups of teachers is not conducive to success; and the critical mass of a school will not be affected if you only rely on the already committed.

Elmore goes on to assert that:

“Every school can point to its energetic, engaged, and effective teachers; many students can recall at least one teacher who inspired them in engagement in learning and love of knowledge. We regularly honor and deify these pedagigical geniuses. But these exceptions prove the rule”.

For me this can sometimes be the source of complacency, i.e. we do have exceptional and excellent teachers in all our schools but they are perhaps there by default as opposed to any consequence of the training or development which can successfully influence other less exceptional teachers.

There exists significant research to demonstrate the impact that good teaching makes on children’s achievement.  To summarise some of the findings of such research it is generally accepted that if a child has a weak teacher for one year it can take up to 18 months for them to make up the deficit. If a child has a weak teacher for two years in a row it can take up to three years to recover and if the child has a weak teacher for three years in a row the child might never fully recover the ground that has been lost.

Primary school or Elementary school  Head Teachers around the world, regardless of whether they are aware if this research,  often try to ensure that children are not exposed to weak teachers for more than one year at any one time. They will therefore place a weak teacher between two stronger teachers to ensure that their negative impact is lessened -see Sanders and Rivers, Using student progress to evaluate teachers and Does teacher quality matter? for more information.

In the secondary school environment Head Teachers and other managers will often place weak teachers with lower ability groups in the knowledge that parents of such children are less likely to complain about the teacher. 

My point here is that all too often in education – worldwide – we conspire to “protect” children from the impact of a weak teacher. Perhaps the first step we need to take on our “Journey to Excellence” is to work together to ensure that no teacher could ever be descibed as being weak.

I believe that such a goal would have a much more transformational effect on children’s education than the ambitious, yet probably unrealistic goal, that everyone should be excellent. Speaking as a parent I would comfortably describe any school as being “excellent” if there were to be no teacher in the school who I did not want to teach my child.

SQA (self questioning anxiety)

Unless you’ve been there I don’t think it’s possible to imagine the anxiety which teachers, principal teachers and head teachers experience at the time Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA) results are published.

I’ve been in there in all three roles and now in my wider role as Head of Education.

Over my 27 years in the business I’ve experienced a wide variety of highs and lows – but it’s impossible to describe the desolation of a year when children have significantly under-performed in comparison to what you expected.

Perhaps contrary to public opinion teachers always blame themselves when this happens and the low is even more pronounced when you feel you have been working flat out through the previous year.  Then there are the other years when attainment completely outstrips your expectations and for a short time everything is rosy – this feeling lasts about a week until the new cohort starts their course.

I’m busy analysing our East Lothian SQA data at the moment and was waiting for the national results to be published today in order to get a handle on how well we had performed in comparison with national figures and our comparator authorities.

The good news is that it looks like our Standard Grade and Higher attainment has improved in comparison to both national and comparator figures. However, it’s possible to take too much gratification from how you compare against others and lose sight of the overall attainment of individual pupils in East Lothian – which, in relation to attainment, must be our point of focus.

However, I’m convinced that the positive and collaborative culture we are developing; the focus on consistently high quality learning and teaching; our application of ICT; the support systems we have for pupils with additional learning needs; the improving links between our schools and sectors; the wide range of extra-curricular opportunities on offer; the support we get from parents; our staff development programme; and the commitment from everyone who works in East Lothian education will enable us to make almost exponential progress over the next few years. What’s more I think we can have fun doing it!

Is it safe?

We had been out at the weekend and I met two teachers who work in different local authorities – neither of which are East Lothian.

One teacher talked about their authority’s Curriculum for Excellence co-ordinator and the other referred to a School Review which she was going back to after the holidays. It made me think about what we do in comparison:

Curriculum for Excellence

  • What some other authorities do  –The Curriculum for Excellence Co-ordinator chimed with something which had been referred to in TESS a couple of weeks ago, in that most authorities now had a dedicated co-ordinator for Curriculum for Excellence.

  • What we do in East Lothian – We’ve gone for making a Curriculum for Excellence the responsibility for all of our authority team – myself included. 

  • Why we do it ? – We hope to permeate the thinking which underpins a Curriculum for Excellence across everything we do in schools. We also think that by making a single person responsible for an initiative reinforces an impression that it exists in isolation from everything else.

  • Potential downside – By spreading responsibility across a number of people there is a danger that no-one actually takes on responsibility for such an important development.

School Review

  • What some other authorities do – The School Review, which is like a local authority inspection requires a formal visit to the school by a review team which will also include some peer reviewers.

  • What we do in East Lothian  – In East Lothian we don’t have a school review process – our alternative is to develop our validation process whereby we rely upon the school’s own self- evaluation and use our evaluation visits which take place throughout the year to validate that evaluation.

  • Why we do it? – We are trying to develop the process of self-evaluation in our schools as we believe that such honest and rigorous evaluation has much more potential long-term benefit than a process where school review is “done” to the school.

  • Potential downside – Schools don’t actively engage in rigorous and honest self evaluation.  Our validation process might not pick that up compared with a “mini-inspection” which might lead to some schools to provide a standard of education which might be unsatisfactory.

So to the question “is it safe?” The connection between this question and the above two strategies might seem obscure but I happened to watch Marathon Man last night.  There is a scene in the film where Sir Laurence Olivier tortures, for want of a better word, Dustin Hoffman, whilst asking a recurring question – “is it safe?”

In our business we often make decisions about health and safety and work out risk assessments for trips or other potientially dangerous activities. But some of our other strategic decisions also carry a risk – such as the two examples quoted above.  What if they don’t work? Perhaps we should be taking a line which reduces risk?


School Standards and Quality Reports


We’ve completed the template which schools can use to complete their Standards and Quality report.

The background and rationale behind to this development can be accessed here

We will be launching the new format for all schools on the 21st March at our Head Teacher Conference.  Those schools who volunteered for the on-line version will receive additional training but all schools will be able to use the new format in a Microsoft Word version after the 21st March.

If you would like to see a draft version and be willing to provide some quick feedback just use the comment box. Thanks