The freedom to innovate

21st September 2001 at 01:00
Ian Smith continues our series on the way forward for Scottish education by looking at what the Education Minister must do to transform bold words into practical action

Of my many thousands of conversations with teachers, some stick clearly in my mind. One was during a conference where I was about to run a keynote session on what makes a good teacher. A head from a small rural school described how a pupil had brought a dead field mouse into class and she had based the whole morning's activities around it.

When I remarked how wonderful it was that teachers could improvise in that way she said: "You might call it wonderful, but I went home feeling guilty: what outcomes had I covered?" I used this anecdote later to illustrate a key point about how good teachers operate: they improvise.

It was well received by other delegates. I was even presented with a cartoon one had drawn, showing a teacher at her blackboard holding up a dead mouse and telling her class: "Pay attention. We are going to spend 20 minutes of our flexibility time on this mouse." Someone else had written on it: "What flexibility time?" Since then I have heard similar complaints repeated many times: "Focusing on learning is all very well, Ian, but we have a curriculum to cover and exams to think about." I know some teachers use these to avoid examining their own practice, but I am struck by how many of our best classroom practitioners make the case against curriculum and assessment constraints most strongly and most passionately. These are people who get good results and help turn out children who are self-motivated, resilient, creative and good learners. But for them, the fun has gone out of the job: they feel any achievements are despite the system, not because of it.

You can imagine my delight, then, to read reports in this paper of Jack McConnell's determination as Education Minister to ease the reins on teachers and put the ball back in their court. Talk about getting rid of a "compliance culture" and "freeing teachers from the real and perceived constraints of the curriculum" is welcome indeed. Mr McConnell refers to the recent discipline report and the need to make education more relevant to disaffected youngsters as well as the need to ensure that more able pupils do not mark time.

As a former teacher, he must recognise the need to balance improvisation with planning if learning is to be enjoyable and meaningful. I am sure he also knows that you cannot ensure the quality he cares so passionately about through a curriculum prescribed on paper and policed by external inspection. What really matters is what goes on between teachers and children in the classroom on a daily basis. Both the morale and skill of teachers are vital.

He will also have noted that there is a gap between the qualities and skills many children learn at school and what they actually need to be citizens, workers and parents in the 21st century. The arguments for a lighter hand on the reins, if not removing the reins altogether, are compelling. But what are the practical implications of Mr McConnell's statement? Much more needs to change than tone. We need actions as well as words.

Many schools and authorities have a good track record in innovation. But unless there are changes at national level, innovations from the grass roots are likely to be random, uncoordinated and difficult to sustain. The need for national leadership becomes clear when considering the necessary changes. Here is my own five-point agenda for action:

* The purpose of school. Reach a national consensus that schools are first and foremost about personal learning. If we get that right, the rest - good citizens, creative and productive workers, caring parents - will follow.

* The critical life skills. Hold a national debate to decide what the critical life skills are which help young people to develop. Then review our whole concept of "core" skills and their place in the curriculum.

* A learning curriculum. Develop a learning curriculum to support these critical life skills to run alongside and in conjunction with the present content curriculum. Explicitly recognise the processes and experiences of learning rather than just the content and learning goals presently expressed through performance targets.

* Teachers as learners. Launch a national initiative to encourage and support innovative methodologies in the classroom allied to the new chartered teacher status.

* Schools as learning organisations. Focus on making schools better places for teachers to work and learn in. Schools are for young people, not teachers, but they will only be better places for them if they are better places for teachers too.

hanges such as these require genuine national leadership. Teachers must be assured that the quality assurance arm of the inspectorate actually encourages flexibility within established guidelines. The current obsession with national testing and external examinations needs review. Policy-making in education must become more open and accountable. It would be worth while considering a national body for innovation in education to operate at arm's length from government but open to a broader public, including young people.

In my darker moments, I doubt that we have the political will to make such changes nationally. But I console myself by thinking that if we don't, the action plan outlined above can be taken forward at authority and school level. Indeed in some classrooms, some schools and some authorities it is already under way. And for those brave enough to have embarked on the road anyway, perhaps a change in tone will be all that they need to keep them going.

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.

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