In a small, nondescript conference room in a Glasgow hotel last Friday, we saw a sign of the times. Put bluntly, at an event dealing with often esoteric elements of Scottish education policy, you don’t expect to be slapped in the face with the idea that 1930s-style fascism is on the march again.
This was the prospect Professor Louise Hayward raised at the EIS teaching union’s event for headteachers, which was ostensibly about “excellence and equity” in schools. The University of Glasgow academic’s previous appearances in Tes Scotland show that she is an expert in the minutiae of different assessment practices. On Friday, however, she stepped back to look at a far bigger picture.
Hayward, in addressing a roomful of headteachers, mused on the increasingly flimsy influence that facts and evidence have on public opinion – dictionary publisher Collins, of course, last month made the term “fake news” its word of the year.
“Sometimes I worry that this may be what it was like in the 1930s,” she said.
Critical thinking takes on ever-greater importance in a “post-truth” world, blighted by a torrent of misinformation – and education is not immune to these changes. Ideologically-driven education policy, Hayward told me, was from the “same stable” as US president Donald Trump’s style of political leadership, with his incessant disparaging of critical voices – albeit Trump is an “extreme example” of such an approach.
Certainly, in recent times, education policy in England has been moulded by ideology from on high, with local authorities shorn of influence and – compared to Scotland – far more emphasis put on competition rather than collaboration between schools. The driver of such change was, of course, former Westminster education secretary Michael Gove, who would go on to say during the EU referendum campaign that “people in this country have had enough of experts”.
Grand claims watered down
Sometimes, policymakers proclaim that their handling of education is driven by evidence, when in practice that “evidence” largely equates to narrow assessment data with limited usefulness – a topical issue in Scotland, of course, where the grand claims made for the government’s new flagship assessments have been watered down over time. (“New Scottish standardised tests ‘cannot give a valid national picture’”, 24 November).
Attempts to drive up education performance too often put the burden on teachers, while doing little to address the societal problems that are the root causes of so many problems in the classroom. Poring over the international evidence reveals that high-flying countries such as Finland drive educational success largely from spheres outside classrooms, with decades of strategic planning that encompass factors such as health and housing.
Now, more than ever, teachers and students must be adept in critical thinking and making good use of evidence, because their political masters are falling short in this area. It’s not enough for children to learn to read: decoding words should be a step towards the literacy of understanding the interests served by different texts. It’s not enough to do the odd bit of fundraising for distant charity projects: pupils must get their heads around why charity is required in the first place. It’s not enough to learn the mechanics of political systems: students must explore when and why those systems are abused.
Scottish education does not have its troubles to seek just now, but it cannot afford to become fixated on domestic matters. In these times, a global perspective, shaped by reason and reliable evidence, may never have been more important.