Kids exiting school

Sorted: Learning

Nicola Biggerstaff

The attainment gap is widening, the prospects for our school pupils and students appear to be stagnating despite consistently improving achievement averages. Rates of mental illness among young people are at their highest recorded levels, and our educational establishments are ill-equipped to deal with them. Are we approaching education and learning in Scotland the wrong way? How do we get this Sorted?

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, we must prioritise wellbeing as a core goal of both early and senior education. Somewhere along the line, the priorities of educators, parents, and governments changes from happiness to attainment, making their children compete for the best grades, higher and further education placements, and jobs. This ‘exam factory’ model of producing good results above all else increases the pressure placed on pupils to achieve, causing undue amounts of stress which have been proven to stunt brain development.

While introducing wellbeing elements to the curriculum was a core aim, the Curriculum for Excellence has failed at this. By keeping the examination process in a similar structure to its predecessor, but shoehorning in wellbeing principles alongside, it has dampened the overall value of the qualifications on offer. We simply cannot have it both ways. By stretching teachers and resources this thin, our education system has become hostage to government interference for the sake of good publicity, but that is all it is: publicity. It’s throwing a grant at the next problem to make the headlines then moving on without a second thought, without any plan for continuity and improvement, a classic sticking plaster.

Schooling during Covid was a massive missed opportunity to make the necessary changes to focus the curriculum on wellbeing, but instead the focus shifted to changing the examinations to fit the needs of lockdown measures. Teachers tried as best they could, often in their own time, to offer support to their students not as their teacher or mentor, but as a fellow human being suffering from the same isolation and pressure.

A Curriculum for Wellbeing, implemented from primary school upwards, would ensure that the focus is shifted to the rounded development of our children and young people. It would close the gap between primary and secondary education, currently a massive shift for pupils in terms of goals, aims and achievements. With this through schooling concept, treating education as a continuous progression and not a series of jumps, teachers and educators of all levels would remain in regular communication with each other for more than the purpose of pupil transitions and logistics, create better working relationships between the education stages and more opportunities for continuous feedback on development.

Schooling stages should also be reconsidered. By adopting the Scandinavian model of outdoor early education, with a formal school setting not being introduced to a child until the age of seven, pupils will be free to develop at their own pace, developing their self-confidence, creativity and curiosity in a no-pressure environment, these core concepts being the gateway into learning core skills of reading, writing, and numeracy.

We also propose the setup of a National Education Council to manage this transition. By absorbing the functions of both the curriculum and assessment agencies, this will ensure that education in Scotland is truly being driven by individual pupil outcomes, not statistics. It would be driven by those with experience in the sector, made accountable in equal measure to teaching representatives (including teaching unions), parent councils and politicians.

A lack of resources due to extreme budget cuts over the years has also left some teachers unable to provide for their students. Primary schools in particular have found themselves vulnerable to this, with many teachers paying out of their own pocket for privately-sourced teaching materials created by for-profit companies because their local authority simply cannot provide it for them.

A National Education Council would also be responsible for producing high-quality learning resources, including textbooks, assessments and even visual materials such as documentary series, produced in conjunction with the national broadcaster and educational bodies (such as the Open University).

Teachers in Scotland have the lowest amount of contact time (the amount of time in their working day spent actively teaching in a classroom) in Europe. The rest of their time is taken up by an endless onslaught of bureaucracy, paperwork, and professional development which is often of little or no benefit to them or their pupils. Once again, this has recently been the fault of the Curriculum for Excellence, with its haphazard implementation causing confusion among teaching staff, leading to the production of more paperwork and guidance, increasing bureaucracy all-round. We should also be aiming to remove the target-setting culture from education that encourages teachers to chase impossible standards over the ability to provide a quality education for their students.

This is not helped by the decreasing availability of pastoral services in schools, with the burden being increasingly placed on teachers to observe their pupil’s welfare. Teachers are not social workers and, while they so have some training on managing the consequences of poverty, such as disruptive behaviour and mental health issues, they are not equipped to fully meet their pupils’ needs in this area, and should not be expected to either. There should be social workers embedded in each school, who have the knowledge, understanding, and resources to hand to deal with the personal problems that may be affecting a child’s education.

We must be able to set teachers free, allow them to teach without hindrance or interference, in a way which is natural to them, and not mandated by management or political whims. To give teachers the time they need to give their pupils the best possible education, the first and most obvious step to take is to hire more of them. At the moment, student teachers are left scrambling for placements and posts that budgets simply do not allow to exist, and they must be accounted for. Student and probationary teachers make massive sacrifices in their lives to complete their training, including resigning from paid employment, and should be afforded the job security of a guaranteed post.

We would like to take the opportunity to thank our Schools Working Group for their continuing assistance in developing Common Weal’s policies on education. If you would like to find out more, you can buy your copy of Sorted: a Handbook for a Better Scotland, here.

3 thoughts on “Sorted: Learning”

  1. Mary MacCallum Sullivan

    One key element in education that is not adequately highlighted is the need for education in what might be called ‘human relations’ – how we get on together. Our children and young people could very usefully sit down together in various forms of ‘circle time’. A skilled facilitator works with a smallish group to encourage their capacity to speak freely but thoughtfully to each other (particularly between girls and boys), and to listen and be responsive as well as adding their own thoughts.

    If this work is handled well and with discretion and care, it will help develop confidence and a sense of having the right to be heard across our school-age children.

    Is this happening in schools? If so, I’d really like to hear about it and see it discussed and researched.

  2. Thanks Nicola for setting out a clear and wide ranging prospectus for positive change in our schools.
    Scottish education is still locked in a schizophrenic mindset between Curriculum for Excellence on the one hand seeking to develop broad experiences and capacities, and the Victorian SQA exam system pushing pupils through the grinder in service of universities and employers. This needs to change. We need to put young people at the centre of what we do in a consistent and systematic way.
    The tricky part is in developing a way of certificating skills, knowledge and attributes accurately and in a way that supports school leavers whilst avoiding the pitfalls of an anachronistic summative memory test. I agree with Mary’s comments about relationship skills. Efforts have been made with various forms of cooperative learning but in the secondary school setting these have been largely abandoned by teachers under pressure to apply individual pupil assessments and to cover punative amounts of course content, especially but not exclusively in senior phase.

  3. florian albert

    The schools’ revolution envisaged here is not going to happen. There is no appetite for schemes which take a ground zero approach to problems.
    Curriculum for Excellence was vastly less ambitious and it proved to be a failure. It further embedded the disparities between affluent and deprived areas.
    For much of Scotland, prosperous Scotland, the schools system works well. You do not need to go to Finland to find a place where the schooling system meets with approval; you only need to go to Bearsden or Dunblane.
    At least Common Weal is no longer claiming that Scottish primary schools are among the best in the world.

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