Dear Alex - Review of the year

2nd January 2009 at 00:00
At the end of a hectic year in charge of all things educational, the Education Secretary has given the First Minister a self-evaluating account of her stewardship - exclusive to The TESS

Dear Alex

A further year on and I'm discovering just how like being a mum it is being a Minister; everyone expects me to know everything, find everything, sort everything and take the blame when things go wrong! At least I'm used to the pressures. Still, it has been good to have Maureen so willing to visit all those schools and colleges for me and attend conferences. She's out and about so much, she's hardly at Holyrood.

Which comes first - curriculum or assessment (the chicken and the egg conundrum)?

Curriculum and Assessment are definitely areas that fall to me - and I wonder what everyone was doing before I came along. There was a lot of talk about "not using assessment to drive the curriculum", about "new approaches", about "principles" and "the four capacities", but very little action. Still, I've sorted that out: outcomes - done (albeit they are back for revision!); Standard grade - scrapped; assessment for literacy and numeracy - organised; consultation on new exams - ongoing. This last was a shocker. We got 1,800 responses, not the 500 officials told me to expect. I'm glad we've handed them over to a private company to analyse, but people are all over the place. The teachers want the exams in place so they know what to teach - where's their creativity? - yet they don't like the prospect of extra assessment from units in S4; secondary heads want literacy and numeracy to be sorted in primary; parents don't want to be restricted to only five subjects in S4; and everyone is divided on whether we should grade the units or not. I sometimes think we should leave people to decide what they want to teach and not try to organise it from the centre - come to think of it, that is what we propose!

Of course, the other solution is to give up trying to teach children and just let them play computer games. I see that researchers reviewing a Dundee pilot project found that daily sessions with Nintendo improved maths attainment and concentration, and now games projects, using Wii consoles, are to be tested in Aberdeenshire schools. The teachers are urged to remain in control of the technology, not hand it over to the pupils, but a more forlorn suggestion I've rarely heard. Who's going to sort things when they go wrong? The kids, of course!

Science - mc2 and all that

As you know, I've been pushing science hard. I got officials to respond to criticism from the Royal Society of Edinburgh about the outcomes and asked them to put some actual science into the curriculum; I've developed the science baccalaureate with the intention of inspiring bright youngsters to take it; and I've given oodles of money to Scotland's four science centres to help them work with primary teachers. So, it was a shock when the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss) placed Scotland 22nd out of 36 at P5 and 15th out of 49 at S2 for science - behind England. I responded immediately by announcing a high-powered conference of experts and blamed the previous lot for the problems. But, when you take time to look at the results, it's noticeable how much the science results improve once pupils get specialist teaching. And, looking at stats from the top end of education, Scotland is 5th out of 25 OECD countries in terms of the percentage of school leavers gaining a degree (46 per cent) and is only beaten by Switzerland (not England, note) in scientific research, as measured by the frequency of citation in research papers. Maybe the solution is to stop teaching science in primary and perhaps it's not a good idea to ask science teachers to teach English. I'll have a wee word with Graham to ensure that HMIE don't criticise science teachers for teaching science!

Brain mumbo jumbo

I don't know if you've had time to follow the brain debate, but it's fascinating. In one corner we've had the enthusiasts doing brain exercises, drinking water, listening to classical music and so on. In the other we've got Sergio Della Sala, professor of human cognitive neuroscience at Edinburgh University, saying that brain gym is mumbo jumbo. He should know, but it takes more than an expert to stop a good education theory in its tracks.


Another "run that past me again" moment came when my officials presented a paper from the Goodison Group which said Scotland is the only UK country to have more people with high level skills than with no skills (we'll take the credit for that), yet its productivity is only in the middle of the UK range (we'll off-load responsibility for that). Apparently, skills only account for 25 per cent of productivity levels; the remainder is due to leadership and management of the workforce, transport infrastructure, design of working premises, effective use of machinery and technology and so on. I wish someone had told me that before I spent so many hours devising our skills strategy. The group called on colleges to work with businesses to show them how to make better use of staff and technologies; it makes sense when you look at the credit crunch and see what a mess parts of the private sector have made.

Money, money, money!

Turning to money, I know John's concordat is a great scheme and, to an extent, handing money over to the authorities and letting them get on with it is a perfect get-out-of-jail-free card for us. However, I had not realised they couldwould use it this way too. Any time we try to get them to progress a manifesto commitment they say, "it's not in the concordat" - look at free schools meals, for example. I was glad you took a robust approach in December and told the authorities to put up or shut up because they'd had a 5.5 per cent increase in their funding last year.

Class size

Maybe we shouldn't push that policy too hard. Not only did the Timss survey show no advantage in smaller classes, a review of 50,000 worldwide research projects by John Hattie of Auckland University found that reducing class size came 106th out of 138 in a league table of effective approaches to raising attainment. Don't you hate league tables?

Closing and opening schools

Perhaps another rash pledge was to keep open all rural schools, because town schools are now asking to be treated the same. However, I've found the solution. In our proposals for a new consultation process on closures, I've suggested that HMIE be asked to comment on any school under threat. All we have to do is make sure HMIE knows what we want the outcome to be and

Of course, at the other end of the scale, building new schools is proving problematic. Obviously, I make all I can of opening those which were started by the last lot. However, we'll run out of these soon and the stats are not good. I've set up the inevitable working group to look into the problems but I can't see us meeting our promise of 250 new schools in the lifetime of this Parliament. Let's start planning our excuses.

From neet to mc2 or more choices more chances

There's good news on the Neet front. The name change is paying off as "more choices more chances" is too long for headline writers. Moreover, the statisticians calculate that some 8,000 school leavers, a quarter of the MC2 group, had a "benign connection" because they were on a gap year or similar. Makes me a success without even trying! Otherwise, "every cloud has a silver lining"; that's the case with the skills academy Glasgow set up at the start of the year to train MC2 youngsters in construction skills needed in the city. The idea was the youngsters could go straight from training to employment. However, with the credit crunch, the construction jobs have disappeared, but at least it's easier to find instructors. In 2007, a drive to recruit 200 lecturers in construction and building services attracted 33 people. Bet they're tripping over themselves now!

Teachers and the solution

Oh dear, I have had my head bitten off so many times over the number of newly qualified teachers (NQTs) who have not found a job, I could do the Education Committee on auto-pilot - actually, I usually do! It does not matter that the jobless are a minority group (21 per cent) and only 44 per cent of NQTs responded to the survey; my failure has been pronounced. I am training too many new teachers and then throwing them on the rubbish pile. In fact, we calculated carefully the numbers that would be needed to reach our class size target and replace retiring teachers, and what happens? The authorities refuse to reduce class sizes and teachers decide not to retire - and they say it's all my fault!

Well Alex, that's a quick look at the highlights of 2008; now for 2009; doubtless it will be another year when I'll be fighting off the critics. Still, at least we've got Burns's 250th anniversary as a distraction. If we play our cards right, we should be able to make the celebrations last until the end of the summer term.

Yours aye, Fiona.

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