Follow Wales and unleash the braveheart in you

6th May 2011 at 01:00
You have your own Parliament, and with it an opportunity to banish inequality - so isn't it time Scottish education unleashed its inner warrior?

Slainte mhath!" I yelled, lifting my glass to the TV. "Now you'll show `em!" The day Scotland got its Parliament, I was 500 miles away, cheering you on. I wasn't born a Scot, but I've been in thrall to your land and culture for over 40 years.

Sadly, after training and teaching here in the 1970s and 80s, Fate whisked me back to the farthest end of the UK. So when a friend sent me the text of Donald Dewar's speech, I sat in a Cornish park and wept:

"The shout of the welder in the din of the great Clyde shipyards:

The speak of the Mearns, with its soul in the land;

The discourse of the Enlightenment, when Edinburgh and Glasgow were a light held to the intellectual life of Europe;

The wild cry of the Great Pipes;

And back to the distant cries of the battles of Bruce and Wallace.

The past is part of us. But today there is a new voice in the land, the voice of a democratic Parliament. A voice to shape Scotland, a voice for the future."

I wanted to be there. With all your Scottish cockiness and cussedness, and that rich shared culture, I was sure you would forge a better future by creating an education system right for the 21st century. I wanted to be part of it.

So here I am, a dozen years later, home in Edinburgh discovering the other side of Scotland - the one that appears to have flourished over the past 20 years. A land of fine words and broken dreams, of growing class divisions and inequality. A land where everyone is so terrified of sticking their head above the parapet that - despite devolution - education policy is constantly influenced by the flawed thinking issuing from Westminster.

The disappointment is devastating. And it's doubly devastating because in Wales - where they didn't even get their own parliament, and education pre-1999 was firmly yoked to English policy - they have actually done something. Indeed, from my perspective as a literacy specialist, they've done everything international research suggests they should do.

They have dropped the league tables, tests and targets that made English education so pressurised and divisive. They've established a "foundation phase" to the age of seven, based on the Nordic model, giving children from less-advantaged homes time to develop - emotionally, physically, socially, cognitively - before formal learning begins. Children in Wales are now carefully prepared for literacy, as children are in Finland - the country that always comes top of international literacy leagues - with a rich diet of play, story and song.

They have also introduced a statutory requirement on local authorities to provide open-access play opportunities for all children outside school hours - recognising that what happens in the hours around the school day must support children's development, rather than hindering it.

So the Welsh have taken decisive, concrete steps to counter social and cultural factors that drive inequality in a hi-tech, screen-saturated global economy. They have done it by looking at where the children are coming from in terms of personal developmental needs, rather than over- focusing on what society wants them to be. Their education system is now more humane than any other in the UK, and other aspects of social policy back it up.

And what have you done in Scotland since 1999? Well, from what I can see, you've just produced endless ruddy documents.

There you were with your own Parliament, your own education system, geographically and genetically closer to the successful Nordic countries than anyone else in the UK - and all you've done is churn out reams and reams of paper thoughts. And although I've loyally tried to read Curriculum for Excellence etc, I have to admit that after half an hour or so I'm always overcome by a deep sense of ennui.

From what I hear on my travels, many classroom teachers suffer the same weariness. How are they to reconcile the fine words with the need to get a certain number of children to a certain standard by a given date? Or with an early-start policy that emphasises "intervention" rather than supporting human development?

It's heart-breaking. All those years in exile, I believed your testing system was developmentally driven, but now I find it was just words. Because the minute you link tests to targets, you can forget about development. And all too often you can forget about a broad and balanced curriculum too.

Of course, there are many brilliant schools and teachers in Scotland - such schools and teachers tend to flourish whatever the government policy. And there are some bits of Curriculum for Excellence no one could quibble with, notably the eight-word wish-list on which it's built - successful learner, confident individual, responsible citizen, effective contributor.

But at the moment, Scotland is locked into an early-start, target-driven mentality that successfully delivers this wish-list to the most fortunate children (because they're ready to learn), but fails bitterly in the case of the less fortunate (because they're not). And as 21st-century culture rolls on, the gap grows wider every day.

Still - let's not be defeatist. I mustn't forget that distant cry from the time of Robert the Bruce: if at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

From today there's a new voice in the land - a newly-elected Parliament. It's not too late to shape Scotland's future for the better. But only if you do something. Something brave. Sue Palmer, Independent literacy adviser.

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