Letter from Edinburgh - Friday 2nd September 2016

Tavish writes about smartphones and schools. 

On Tuesday I talked to three brilliant teachers. They were responsible for nursery and primary education at the Raploch in Stirling. Raploch’s housing estate was known for poverty and deprivation. It has been turned around by lots of hard work.

I visited the impressive community campus which includes two primaries, a nursery school and Raploch Secondary School. People also know about the area because of music. The Big Noise youth orchestra started in 2008 is a great success. Music, as the teachers explained, gives focus and purpose to children and young people.

The discipline of learning and playing music, of having fun, of being part of something popular and positive has changed lives. It is inspirational. Stirling Council built the new campus. It is very impressive.

The teachers I met talked through the challenges of education. Banning smartphones in school was high on the list. Young people live with many more pressures as they grow up than children even a decade ago. The downside of smartphones and social media is the pressure they can exert every day, or even every hour on someone.

The chairwoman of the parent council observed that when kids used to fall out on a Friday at school, the row would be forgotten by Monday. Now the disagreement can be relayed, expanded and given oxygen by social media. Mobile phones are in all our lives. But these teachers could not see any disadvantage to kids having no phone during the school day.

One recently retired secondary head teacher from Stirling was brilliantly forthright. Give schools the room to innovate. He argued that Scottish education needs less dictats from the Scottish government and its main agency, Education Scotland. Teachers need the professional room to develop their approach, a schools’ approach to their area. That is true in Stirling and Shetland.

Head teachers and their management teams know what they want to achieve. The need the space to do it free from central bureaucracy. Few teachers had a good word to say about this week’s epistle from Edinburgh telling them how to implement Curriculum for Excellence. This was meant to simplify language, give clarity on what CfE is about and provide a framework for the future. Instead, as teachers told me, it is a rehash of everything Education Scotland has said before. It was also issued by education inspectors.

As it came from them teachers fear they will be monitored against it. So there is little space for sensible interpretation. We discussed changing Education Scotland.

School inspectors should be independent of policy advice to ministers. Policy should be in John Swinney’s civil service team. But most of the £23 million of Education Scotland’s budget should be devolved to local government. That could help schools, teachers and the future of education.

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