Remember that pastiche of the Edward Hopper painting, Nighthawks, in which James Dean, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis converse in a moodily lit bar? Last week, I witnessed Scottish education’s version of that scene. The former image concentrated Hollywood star power at its highest wattage into a highly unlikely and compact confab; the latter gathered countless years of educational wisdom and experience into a single room in a way that I’ll never see again.
Our former managing editor, Neil Munro, was marking his retirement with a farewell party in a hostelry nestling under Edinburgh’s Old Town. There to wish him well, a remarkable 43 years after he had started at Tes Scotland, was a phalanx of movers and shakers in Scottish education, past and present: education ministers, headteachers, education directors, union leaders, academics, colleagues and more.
Amid the glow of nostalgia, there was also plenty of commentary on the current state of Scottish education. And, if there was a consensus, it was this: it’s all become a bit of a muddle.
In the same week that consultation closed on the Education (Scotland) Bill, there were rueful shakes of the head aplenty about the current reform agenda, a feeling that it’s all a bit pick and mix. From the headteachers’ charter, to regional improvement collaboratives, to the proposed Education Workforce Council, many fear that each new solution to our educational ails has been hastily plucked from the air, with little sign of a coherent strategy or recognition of what research tells us about the impact of such reforms.
As one sage said, the big problem is the emphasis is on relatively quick fixes; the best educational and social reforms might take decades to be fully realised. Another said that the regional collaboratives typified a long-standing failing of Scottish education: policymakers start with something radical-sounding, then take fright and end up with a half-baked mess – Curriculum for Excellence being the classic example of recent times.
Welcome or terrifying?
The confusion and rising sense of panic about the headteachers’ charter is emblematic of more general worries about the trajectory of Scottish education. Welcomed by some headteachers and viewed as “terrifying” by others, the Education Bill consultation has tagged it with a litany of health warnings: councils say it might leave heads of struggling schools exposed to litigation; union leaders fear that heads are sinking into an HR and admin swamp, and that, in any case, structural change like this simply isn’t how you improve education.
But the gathering in Edinburgh last week, for all the misgivings expressed, also gave off some hope. A strength of Scottish education, on view in that room, is a sense of common purpose and shared endeavour (notwithstanding the danger that this sometimes creates an echo chamber). The path through the current forest of reforms is deeply uncertain, but the collective will is still there to make the best of them.
The final word should go to Neil. As one attendee said last week, he is Scottish education. For more than four decades, he has absorbed and reflected every major change the sector has seen. He has achieved that hugely difficult balance of asking searching questions while maintaining the respect of all for his measured and fair-minded approach. His encyclopaedic knowledge and unerring ability to find the stories that matter, as well as his unstinting support for colleagues, have been a lasting influence on all who have worked with him over the years.
Neil is not one for grandstanding or milking praise, however. So, cap duly doffed, we return to his former business of scrutinising Scottish education – there’s plenty to write about.