‘Scottish education system needs a fundamental reboot’

Curriculum for Excellence had the right intentions but the reality has fallen far short, says this independent school headteacher

‘Scottish education system needs a fundamental reboot’

I’m very proud of Scotland. I’m proud of its history and its heritage, of its innovative past. And when we look at our great inventors, I am struck by something which caught me quite by surprise.

Did you know that Alexander Graham Bell was home-educated by his father until high school? That John Logie Baird was taught by his mother until high school? Or, that inventor John Boyd Dunlop taught himself for 10 years at home, and then managed to get into Glasgow Vet School? Glasgow Vet School, and yet he invented pneumatic tyres that changed our transport system forever. That’s diversity of learning and diversity of application of learning, and it's interesting, isn’t it? What was he learning for those 10 years at home? What were they all learning?

I wonder whether they had success criteria to consider? I wonder if they thought about the outcome of their learning, or whether they simply built a body of knowledge which then opened up other avenues of thinking. Often, the best learning takes place when children lead us off into tangents and take us “off plan”.

I’m a huge fan of Curriculum for Excellence, I love what it seeks to do. But when it comes to its “experiences and outcomes”, I do wonder whether it should provide experiences only – because if you provide the outcome for each experience you’ve pre-determined the learning and that’s detrimental to the learning process. It is as if we are only interested in the right answer…


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If I showed you The Blue Planet for an hour and said nothing before the start of the programme, if we just all sat down and watched it, then we’d all take something different from that programme. We’d all learn something, we’d all be stimulated in different ways, and that might then spark our own self-motivation to go and learn more.

But what if I said in advance of The Blue Planet that we’re going to watch this programme and I want you to concentrate on the journey the sperm whale makes? And by the way, in a week’s time I’m going to test you so that I can evidence your learning. If I do that, I’ve actually killed the learning process. And maybe that’s what we’re doing in schools.

And here’s the important bit: I think teachers’ focus has switched from providing valuable learning episodes to providing evidence of a child’s understanding. Teachers are much more focused on now making sure they have the evidence of learning, rather than concentrating on the learning itself. It’s a subtle change, but it’s one that is taking place in classrooms up and down the country.

The collection of evidence actually kills learning, as tasks are defined by predetermined goals. Children should not be told the success criteria.

We don’t do enough in terms of recognising that Curriculum for Excellence was set up to provide personalisation, breadth, choice. So tell me, how many schools in Scotland can our students study music, drama, and art in S4? I don’t think there are very many at all, and that is shocking. It would appear that the powers that be have decided that there’s a hierarchy of subjects, that some are more important than others. Well, I’m sorry. I want a Rudolf Nureyev in my school, I want a Pablo Picasso, I want a Sean Connery. I want children to experience life and I want schools to feed their souls so that they follow the journey that’s important to them, not what’s important to some national strategy regarding the future workforce.

So, in the final analysis, the curriculum matters, but not nearly as much as the culture and ethos of learning. Learning is meant to be fun and yet we’ve done everything possible to create a system that few teachers could ever conceive of as fun. Scotland needs to take a long hard look at itself and stop tinkering with a system – because the system actually requires to be fundamentally re-set.

Rod Grant is headmaster at Clifton Hall School in Edinburgh. This article was originally published as a blog post on the school website

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