Is all this reform a case of plus a change?

20th June 2014 at 01:00

Audit Scotland's exhaustive look at school education is one of those reports people could spin any way they liked, so crammed is it with both uplifting and dispiriting detail.

Scotland compares well with the rest of the UK, less so internationally. Ingenious ways are being found to save money, but the more short-sighted cuts are wreaking havoc. Attainment has improved nationally by all measures, but the differences between local authorities and schools can be huge.

What is certain is that teachers are suffering, and the report says things will only get worse. But to what end? Teachers are feeling their way through long tunnels of curricular reform and public service cuts. Can they be sure that, once out the other side, education will have changed for the better?

Education in its purest form springs from the curiosity of the learner. In this week's Short and Tweet, a headteacher describes his P1 daughter initiating an impromptu lesson about 3D shapes at the breakfast table, using an Oxo cube and a box of pasta. The best classroom teachers, too, cut a swathe through the undergrowth of bureaucracy and externally imposed targets, providing space for pupils to explore new ideas.

Curriculum for Excellence, similarly, promised a different approach, one less fixated on narrow exams. Sure enough, schools are placing more importance on the Duke of Edinburgh's Award, the John Muir Award and their ilk. Yet there are no national performance measures of pupils' wider achievements.

Meanwhile, councils show no consistency in monitoring pupils' educational progress from P1-S3 - that kicks in when exams start to loom. The importance attached to exams by society at large remains huge, and the education system will have to show more conviction if that is to change.

The Audit Scotland report contains plenty of worrying statistics, with education spending down and many jobs disappearing. Schools are locked in more than a simple numbers game, however - an ideological dilemma remains unresolved, too.

"It is widely acknowledged that a successful education system needs to be based within a culture that values education, and where all members of society have high aspirations for pupils," say the auditors. Scotland has always esteemed education but has CfE really rebooted what we value in it? Or, ultimately, will a student's 13 years at school continue to pivot on the few months leading up to Highers?

Scottish teachers are drowning in what the EIS teaching union has described as a "workload tsunami". This is more than trade union hyperbole: Audit Scotland, too, is worried about sagging morale and increased sickness absence. Let's hope that, once the pain eventually subsides, teachers can at least take satisfaction from a radically changed education system that is the envy of the world.

For now, however, that scenario is far from guaranteed.


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