Kids exiting school

The Problems with Scotland’s Schools

Nicola Biggerstaff – 19 May 2022

Late last year, I applied for postgraduate teacher training. Of my three applications, one made it to the interview stage. One of the questions I was asked: what did I think was the biggest challenge in teaching today? At the time, I panicked, producing a half-coherent answer pertaining to the vast increase in workload over the last few years, failing to mention that I believed this was a specific issue in the context of Covid recovery in education (needless to say, I didn’t get in, but I digress). The pandemic has taken the cracks in our education system and ripped them into supermassive black hole sized issues which can no longer be ignored for the sake of both learners and educators. 

The Muir Report published earlier this year highlights the desperate need for a rethink of a system which currently places data and analytics of attainment and outcomes over the wellbeing and individual attainment of its pupils. Because as we all know and remember from our own experience, the knowledge obtained in the classroom is only a single dimension of the educational environment. The welfare of other students, teachers, and support staff are all interdependent in the school environment, each one crucial to the other. The report does not tell us anything any competent teacher doesn’t already know about our education system: that the issues of attainment, poverty, and teacher workload cannot be addressed under a system which does not value the thoughts and expertise of its practitioners. Teachers already know the current examination system does not accurately reflect the abilities of their students, and they already know it is not fit for purpose and hasn’t been for a long time. They also know that the Muir Report itself is just a façade, an attempt to assuage the fears of educators in light of the SQA’s catastrophic mismanagement of assessment during the pandemic. 

From the algorithm controversy of the 2020 diet, leading to less affluent students’ teacher-based assessments being downgraded based on where they went to school, to the complete lack of communication over the format of the 2021 diet, which was eventually abandoned in favour of teacher-based assessment only two months before the start of exam season, it is abundantly clear that any SQA reform will not succeed without an increase in both trust and respect for our country’s educators. We need the government and local authorities to put more faith into our educators. After all, they are the ones who see our young people day in, day out, and are therefore much more capable of assessing pupil attainment than the randomly assigned markers of the screeds of papers sent to the SQA every year. Any trust that was there in the previous decades has been shattered, and we desperately need to rebuild into a fairer, more competent system for our schools. 

Perhaps we should look elsewhere for inspiration on how to ensure this trust. In Finland, as far back as 2009, experts attribute a ‘lack of high-stakes testing’ to their consistently high scores on the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). These scores have only continued, with Finland scoring among the top performing countries in the PISA programme in 2018. In Scotland? We pulled out of PISA back in 2010 in an attempt to cut costs. Some sources claim this was in fact in response to public hysteria surrounding falling education standards at the time, and while I personally may not concur, it is rather convenient that this was the same year in which the Curriculum for Excellence was introduced. Would it not be an excellent indicator of our world-leading education system to have it assessed and compared with others from the beginning? While it may seem rather duplicitous to call for further use of data to assess education standards while also calling for teacher-based assessment to take the lead in our schools, it highlights an important balance which must be struck in our education system, one which we cannot allow to be decided by those who can only think in numbers, who have not seen or experienced the modern-day classroom. 

Furthermore, as our pupils and teachers return to the classroom post-Covid, we cannot possibly expect them to single-handedly take on the burden of closing the ever-widening attainment gap at the same time. Change needs to happen at both ends of the school and examination management structure to ensure that our pupils are returning to a safe and supportive environment in which they can flourish and reach their full potential. 

Here at Common Weal, we’re delighted to announce that we are introducing a new schools-focused working group. Following on from the success and influence of our social care reform group, and the more recent introduction of our healthcare working group, we would now like to appeal to any interested parties who would like to join us in changing the broken education system in this country. Are you a recently qualified educator looking to address the bureaucracy of the registration and probationary process? Are you an experienced practitioner, looking back in horror at the deterioration seen in recent years? Do you fall anywhere in between? We would love to hear from you! Whether to give us your opinions to inform us, or to participate in our working group, please get in contact with me at nicola@common.scot.

It’s time to sit up and face the front, class is now in session.

1 thought on “The Problems with Scotland’s Schools”

  1. Ian Davidson

    In very general terms I would say that Scottish education is afflicted by: inappropriate politicisation; the dominance of the bureaucrat over the professional; a lack of ambition. Teachers should indeed be trusted as professionals rather than as obedient employees of the state! However this also requires teachers to recognise that the trades unions are not the same as professional development bodies and vice versa. The withdrawal of teachers from unpaid extra curricular activities (the Saturday morning football etc) as part of a regimented “conditions of service/rule book approach” to teaching has done them and society a great disservice. As with other professions requiring a big emotional commitment, early exposure to classroom experience is essential; the academic pedagogy should perhaps come later so that students can decide early on if they really want to be teachers? Likewise, more flexible working and phased retirement options might help to reduce burnout? As with everything, these ideas require long term financial commitment from the state. Apologies if any of this is outdated nonsense. I walked out of school in 1978 having completed my O grades and never returned! I completed my educational journey via part time study from Highers to Masters degree etc; this “informal apprentice” approach, combining paid work (and thus some financial freedom/responsibility) with study suited me better than the full time school and full time college/university route (which seems to dominate educational policy including how most teachers are recruited?).

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