The politic approach

8th May 2015 at 01:00

I do not subscribe to the oft-repeated view that education would be much better as a "politics-free zone". Education is far too important for providers to determine policy on their own. And investment demands political support. Or, perhaps more accurately, worthwhile educational ideas too often die of starvation in the absence of political champions.

The political process is mercurial and thrives on easily communicated and apparently straightforward solutions. Experience of educational reform over many decades, however, suggests that quick wins are rare. The challenge is to make good ideas politically compelling.

In that vein, I am delighted that an effort to combat the effects of disadvantage on educational progress looks like being a central issue in Scotland amid the rising political temperature. Schools and teachers can improve all young people's life chances, and we have an increasingly strong understanding of what helps to make the difference.

All too often the profession appears very clear about what it doesn't like but is much less vocal in leading the debate on how to bring about improvement. The voice of the classroom must be heard in the national conversation about how best to serve our most disadvantaged young people. We need a debate informed by first-hand knowledge, expert practice and good research.

The complex interaction of factors shaping each young person's personal and educational story does not lend itself to neat, universal solutions. We desperately need educational, sociological and psychological research that informs practice and, critically, acts as a buffer against "common-sense" policies of the moment.

We also need confident teachers who will draw on their own experience to examine research critically. We must guard against any notion that teachers are technicians who simply apply the received wisdom of the day, however exalted the source. There are no educational magic bullets analogous to, for example, medical breakthroughs.

There are important lessons to be drawn from England's City Challenge programmes, the current Challenge Cymru initiative in Wales and research evidence more generally. They suggest a need for ambitious goals, sustained collaboration, constructive external challenge and good evaluative evidence. But above all, we need the active engagement of teachers and headteachers with the capacity, confidence and resilience to make a difference.

Scotland has a proud tradition of valuing teachers' professionalism. It is currently engaged in major investment to build that professionalism, which will bear fruit only over time. Success will require sustained political vision and commitment. I hope that any renewed focus on education in the political debate will strengthen, not dilute or distract from, that.

Graham Donaldson is a University of Glasgow professor of education and author of the 2011 review Teaching Scotland's Future

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