It's all about what colour hat you wear

30th March 2007 at 01:00
I've spent a lot of time in this column trying to tease out what we actually mean by the four capacities set out in A Curriculum for Excellence. Perhaps I need to accept them as valuable aspirational statements and move on to focusing more on how we make them happen.

Most people seem to have done this. But I suspect many out there are telling themselves that they "won't work" and it will all end in tears.

That's what Edward de Bono calls "black hat" thinking and there's nothing wrong with that if we don't overdo it. There are, after all, plenty of reasons to think that achieving the ACfE aspirations is going to be a long haul.

Look at the recently-published Unicef report, Child poverty in perspective: an overview of child well-being in rich countries. It puts the UK at the bottom of a league of 26 countries. In educational well-being (one of six dimensions considered), we are 17th.

Given that I am working on a booklet on assessment by pupils, I found one of the statistics challenging. When 11, 13 and 15-year-olds in the Netherlands (who were top of the Unicef league table) were asked if they found their peers "kind or helpful", 73.2 per cent said yes. In the UK, it was a stunning 43.3 per cent.

How much is a school system which emphasises performance and comparisons, rather than improvement, to blame? And I said I would take the black hat off, so let's go yellow (what's worth doing: why can't it be done?). ACfE has described what teaching and learning must focus on if we are to meet the challenges that the report has highlighted. Most teachers I meet recognise it requires a huge shift in emphasis and that this presents a huge challenge to schools, but an even greater one to politicians and the educational establishment.

This challenge was crystallised at a recent meeting after a member of that establishment heard about ground-breaking work being undertaken by classroom teachers which exemplifies how the ACfE aspirations can be achieved in the classroom. He asked: "How can we measure this?" The teachers were upset and annoyed by the question. They immediately donned red (no need to justify feelings) hats. "We know this works," they said.

"Talk to the children."

The best response the teachers could have made was to fling the question back. In Scottish education, we now have a consensus on what we need to teach to tackle the challenge the Unicef report poses. This includes qualities which are difficult to measure, such as confidence, enthusiasm, openness to new ideas, resilience, working in partnerships, self-reliance, enterprise and creativity.

The challenge for politicians and the educational establishment, particularly the Scottish Qualifications Authority and HM Inspectorate of Education, is to develop a system which can hold schools and teachers accountable for helping young people to develop these qualities rather than making it difficult to do so.

No wonder SQA and HMIE's silence on this so far is deafening. It will require fewer external examinations and less emphasis on grades and levels - one external examination at the end of secondary school will suffice. It will require going beyond simply describing what an excellent school looks like to helping schools to improve, building on the AiFL model. It will not only require us to provide more support to schools and teachers, but also to trust them.

Oh dear, I seem to have slipped my green hat on somewhere along the line (crazy ideas are OK). Those in positions of power know all too well that you cannot control what you cannot measure.

Ian Smith is Founder Of Learning Unlimited

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