The issues that won't go away

26th December 1997, 12:00am
David Bell


The issues that won't go away
David Bell looks back on his 12 years to Christmas - and the next 12 years to come

Twelve years ago the editor of The TES Scotland was indulgent enough to allow me to write a number of back-page columns. As a fresh-faced young teacher from a Glasgow primary school, I had all the boldness of youth as I ranged far and wide in my subject-matter. Not for me was the diplomacy I have later learnt as a chief education officer as I pontificated on everything from the role of headship to the intellectual woolliness of HMI.

And yet, when I get over my embarrassment, I realise that some of the issues I raised are still around to haunt us. I would not claim to be the Mystic Meg of the education world, but many themes from the mid-1980s are still around in Scottish education in the late 1990s. Let me take three examples.

First, environmental studies. This issue is highly topical given the recent decision of North Lanarkshire Council to advise schools to spend less time on this subject and more time on English and mathematics. Yet, a more fundamental issue remains and that is what The TESS called "the epistemological question". Is environmental studies just a convenient shorthand for the combination of history, geography and science in the primary school? Or, is it a separate form of knowledge in which, as I put it in 1985, the discrete subjects "fuse in some metaphysical union"?

It is not clear that this issue has ever been satisfact-orily answered. The past few months alone have seen a number of stories about the difficulties primary teachers have faced in implementing the environmental studies component of the 5-14 curriculum. Science in particular has been a matter of particular concern, which only demonstrates that the epistemological question (Scottish education's version of the West Lothian question?) has never properly been answered.

In the end, I wonder if this has been more a matter of educational politics than educational philosophy. Issues of balance within the primary curriculum were as much a Scottish problem as an English one in the 1980s. However, the English solution was to establish a national curriculum which made no pretence at integration. Each subject had its own discrete knowledge and skills. Nobody would pretend that the national curriculum was a rip-roaring success, particularly in its first incarnation, as it led rapidly to teacher overload. Certainly the matter remains unresolved, with talk about literacy and numeracy hours in English primary schools. But there is little argument about the notion of a subject-based curriculum.

But to have adopted a subject-based curriculum in Scotland may have been a bridge too far in the late 1980s. It would have only reinforced the argument of the Educational Institute of Scotland about English influences on Scottish education. Yet it appears clear that Scottish primary teachers have not made the same progress in teaching science as their English counterparts. The greatest irony of all is that I wrote my original article, 20 years after the publication of the Primary Memorandum. I suggested it was only then, in 1985, that primary schools were "beginning to really understand the meaning of environmental studies". Twelve years on, has that really happened? And if it has not, can you really blame the primary teachers?

The second theme is headship. In 1985, I suggested that the most pressing issue was the professional independence of headteachers vis-a-vis their local authority. I argued that it was legitimate for local authorities to appoint headteachers who were in tune with the overall philosophy of the council. However, I also suggested that headteachers needed to be given the freedom and responsibility to run their institutions as they saw fit.

Having spent the intervening 12 years in England, this theme seems curiously dated as headteachers now exercise considerable independence as a result of local management of schools. In fact, in some areas the local authority has become an irrelevance because of mass opting-out. Even in areas like my own where there are no opted-out schools, the local authority operates more by consensus and educational leadership than by centralised control.

However generously one interprets the recent history of Scottish education, it would be hard to argue that headteachers exercise such a degree of professional autonomy. At its simplest, headteachers and school boards do not have the same degree of delegated control as their English counterparts. It is often suggested that this is because headteachers have no desire to manage their own budgets, with all the hassle of cutting teachers and so on. Yet I wonder how true this is, particularly if we move away from a caricatured view of local management. Dare I also suggest that it is not necessarily the view expressed by some Scottish headteachers when you talk to them privately?

The advent of local government reorganisation in Scotland has prompted some interesting new thinking. The very size of some authorities has required greater partnership between officers and members on the one hand and headteachers on the other. Both headteachers and directors seem very positive about this development. Yet, at heart it remains a line relationship with directors "responsible" for headteachers.

That may be appropriate given the particular nature, history and culture of Scottish education. But is there an authority out there that is prepared to break the mould and consider a full blown system of delegated management of schools?

And finally, assessment. I was writing in 1985 in the aftermath of the Munn and Dunning proposals. Yet the area I focused on was manageable assessment. Looking back, perhaps I exhibited too many of my primary teacher's prejudices as I expressed frustration at over-complex models of assessment which generated information that was not utilised in secondary schools. On this later point, there is now a sense of deja vu, as recent articles in The TES Scotland demonstrate.

On the more substantive issue, I did write in 1985 that "there is a suspicion that some of the newer forms of assessment will prove to be too complicated or time consuming". I got that one right, but has this issue been properly resolved? I advocated a much simpler form of assessment but it could be argued that this kind of view only led us to the debacle of national resting. Yet, teachers cannot have it both ways in that there is no point in complaining about methods of assessment which are over burdensome if they are not prepared to accept simplified approaches.

The Inspectorate, in Learning and Teaching in P4 and P7, wrote in the early 1980s: "It is up to schools to make certain that their assessment procedures keep up with the times, and stand up to the widest scrutiny." Er . . . yes, but we are not there yet.

So, "nothing really changes, everything remains the same" as the song would put it. The question is, will it be any different if I write another retrospective piece in the year 2010?

David Bell is chief education officer, Newcastle City Council.

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