Letter from Edinburgh - Friday 23rd June 2017

How does government change the delivery of education? Or maybe a better question is, should it?

For understandable reasons the Scottish government is worried. Scotland’s educational standard has been falling. Successive international studies that compare results on subjects such as maths and look at writing and arithmetic show some worrying trends. 

Nicola Sturgeon has declared that closing the gap between rich and poor children’s school performance is her main domestic priority. But it will take more than a year.

Last week ministers launched the Education Governance: Next Steps proposals. This needs to be about properly supporting schools. Yes, some of that is financial. Out local council in common with others across Scotland have faced cash pressures. That means fewer classroom assistants, ASN support and not enough teachers in our schools.

But this is more than just money. There are many good things going on in Shetland. Many of these things happen quietly and effectively. For instance, helping the transition for young people between primary and secondary school. The Shetland Learning Partnership has been excellent with young people gaining workplace and college experience in engineering, care skills and construction.

Curriculum for Excellence – what and how young people are taught – has been particularly challenging for everyone. Its implementation since 2010 has been less than perfect. Guidance for teachers has been repeatedly chopped and changed.

Parliament’s education committee found out that 20,000 pages of guidance were given to teachers and schools. Far too much. Teachers demanded clarity, simplicity and a sense of direction in what they are teaching and how to teach it. The latest EIS union survey on teacher workload suggests there is still much to do.

So any educational reform must start at school level, not with an endless debate about structures. What happens in the classroom really matters. Teachers and schools need space to work with other teachers and schools. For example, curriculum development in science can be helped by good teaching ideas from neighbouring schools or education authorities. Shetland education works with others across the north of Scotland, including Orkney. That makes sense.

Social factors influence pupils’ performance. No analysis of education can ignore families that are coping with low paid or precarious employment, or no job at all. All that has inevitable and obvious consequences.

The proposals need to allow schools to flourish by recognising and responding to the pressures they face. Any reform needs to be about encouraging teachers to teach, without promotion paths and an ability to lead subject area development.

Above all, any reform must be about making schools the places that young people learn skills that can equip them for the world they all face. 

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