Keeping up with the Finns

Neal McGowan

Ian Smith's comment piece, "All that glitters is not gold" (TESS August 29), referred to two headteachers whose schools had produced "stunning" results with early examination presentations in S3 last year. As one of the two, I feel it is important that readers understand our rationale.

The purpose of early presentation in Larbert High has quite simply been to come to terms with a national system that has proved itself to be both inherently flawed and obsessed with examinations and attainment. Despite its public statements to the contrary, HMIE continues to make its judgments about any school's overall effectiveness largely on the basis of examination results.

Having been fortunate enough to have had the experience of leading several secondary schools with widely differing academic characteristics, I feel knowledgeable enough to spot which outcomes influence inspectors' judgments. However, that is not the reason we have become involved in early presentation. The economic and social climate demands that as many young people as possible leave school with marketable academic qualifications. We are trying to make progress by ensuring that our pupils can compete in the harsher world outside school, including keeping themselves from becoming part of the bottom-performing 20 per cent and falling into the potential "Neet" (as was) category. There is no doubt in my mind that early presentation is helping us to work towards achieving such goals.

Nevertheless, early presentation only has a bearing on playing the game by current rules. These rules need to change totally if we are to justify removing our emphasis on ensuring that our young people are as well qualified as they can be. Ministers and civil servants appear to be awestruck by the performance and achievements of learners in Finland - and quite understandably so. However, Finland has a very different educational context to our own, both socially and professionally. Teaching is a much sought-after profession in Finland, with only the very best graduates gaining entry to it.

More critically, the Finns recognise the role of the professional in the school. As such, their educational system eschews external inspection, publication of inspection reports, simplistic reporting of attainment data and the publication of meaningless league tables. If you add to this a basic requirement for all schools to be creative and inventive and to develop those same qualities in their pupils, it would appear that Finland might well be an ideal benchmark for A Curriculum for Excellence.

But if we want to perform like the Finns, we also need to behave like them, particularly in the way we evaluate school effectiveness and assess the resultant skills and qualities of our learners.

If we can take a major step towards creating such effective conditions for rich and deep learning, our school might then be at the forefront of an attempt to delay pupils from tackling national examinations for as long as possible, instead of presenting them a year early.

Neal McGowan is rector of Larbert High.

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Neal McGowan

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