Shoestring budgets no object

8th February 2013 at 00:00
Innovative teaching can still go ahead in period of austerity, leading thinker tells conference

A host of eye-wateringly tight budgets will be set by local authorities this month - but finances should not hinder innovation in schools, says one of the UK's leading educational thinkers.

"I am absolutely convinced that there are low-cost, low-effort, high-impact interventions, and we ought to be playing around with them," said Sir Tim Brighouse, at a conference organised by the Association of Chartered Teachers Scotland.

He threw some ideas into the mix: senior management could take classes to release teachers to observe other schools; teachers could swap classes; several teachers could mark the same pupil's piece of work, then compare notes.

School leaders should encourage staff to take risks, said Professor Brighouse, who held up the example of one headteacher who chided staff with the message: "You haven't been putting me at risk enough."

Professor Brighouse believes there is "nothing more important" than CPD. You know you are in a good school, he noted, when teachers talk about teaching, watch each other teach, evaluate each other and teach each other.

He advised his audience at Stirling Management Centre to be wary of an education system established in bygone times, when intelligence was thought to be fixed and predictable.

With that in mind, he made repeated and glowing references to the book Bounce, by Olympic table tennis player turned sports journalist Matthew Syed.

Syed used to attribute his sporting success largely to innate talent, but started to explore why so many of the UK's top table tennis players came from his small corner of England; they had all benefited from the same outstanding facilities and the tutelage of the same remarkable coach.

Like fellow writer Malcolm Gladwell, he became a high-profile proponent of the idea that greatness is largely the result of hard work and beneficial circumstances, and that talent is not fixed from birth - a message that Professor Brighouse believes should be a constant, guiding principle for teachers.

"A child's failure to learn is a challenge to your teaching strategies, not a sign of the ability of the child," he said.

But he also warned of the dangers of setting the bar too high, too soon; that the ambitions of children who in the past may have been written off should be raised carefully so that they do not become discouraged - or, as he put it, "reinforced in despair".

He had been preceded by educational consultant David Cameron, who asked how education could create an "alternative reality" within a neo-liberal society "almost committed to inequality".

Professor Brighouse acknowledged that difficulty, but stressed: "It's not an excuse not to try."


Scotland is "significantly ahead" internationally in educational reform, the conference heard.

"Approaches to reform are no longer piecemeal but ... linked across different components of the system: curriculum, assessment, the profession and so on," the University of Glasgow's Christine Forde and Margery McMahon have written in a paper that explores "accomplishment" in teaching.

But the academics argue that Scotland is under-represented, having had no formal representation at the first International Summit on the Teaching Profession, in New York in 2011, where the UK participated as a single entity, as it did again in 2012.

The paper recalls that when Andreas Schleicher, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's special adviser on education, opened the 2012 summit, he cited the success of the Scottish induction scheme.

"Given the distinctiveness of Scotland's approach to education and its current reform agenda, perhaps it is time to claim its own place at the table," the researchers say, looking ahead to the third summit, in Amsterdam next month.

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