Sound in theory, but flawed in practice?

16th May 1997 at 01:00
Over the past decade major advances have been made in Scottish education. We approach the millennium with a coherent theoretical framework operating under the umbrella of convincing philosophical and intellectual principle. There is widespread acceptance of and agreement with the direction in which we are progressing. While there is a considerable concern about the pace of change, few question seriously any of the components of our new educational orthodoxy.

I certainly do not. I fully support differentiation, profiling, records of achievement, ability groups, friendship groups, mentoring by senior pupils, enhanced ethos, organised provision for homework, home-school links, quality assurance, development planning, health promotion, sport for all, devolved management, 5-14 and Higher Still, among others.

Each of these enhances the quality of education and when one takes the benefits deriving from each of these initiatives and multiplies that by the large number of valuable developments it is clear that Scottish education must be much improved on what it was in the past. And indeed it is. We have arguably the most professional and hard-working teaching force we have ever had implementing educational strategies planned in detail and supported by empirical research and sound theory.

We should therefore be able to demonstrate that Scottish education is increasingly successful. And this is where doubts begin. There are indeed pupils completing their 11 years of statutory education who are functionally illiterate. We do not do at all well in international comparisons of attainment.

The main difference is that these last two factors are focused on pupils, while almost all the new developments mentioned earlier focus on methods, issues and structures. Does this mean that somehow we fail to make full or proper use of these developments to improve the educational experience of the pupil and the quality of learning? That could indeed be argued.

Most schools operate differentiation fairly extensively. It allows mixed-ability teaching to extend all pupils equally according to their ability. But does it? In how many schools does it really mean the reverse, that pupils are labelled the "foundation" group and are given work of a level appropriate to that group, with the implicit expectation that they will never improve their level of attainment above that expected from the particular group. Pupils accept that that is their correct level and continue to operate at that level.

Almost all schools have given consideration to enhancing their ethos, but in many cases no specific action is taken. There may be full and detailed evaluation of the way in which the school operates, with questionnaires completed by pupils, parents and staff and carefully illustrated reports compiled and conclusions drawn. These reports may be widely distributed but no action results. Perhaps more perniciously, the focus on enhancing ethos might render attempts to improve pupil attainment ineffective. If the object is a warm friendly atmosphere in which pupils and staff feel valued and liked, it might be considered too risky to push pupils to aim higher, and to challenge teachers or departments to consider changing how a subject is taught. Either challenge might lead to friction and discontent.

Quality assurance initiatives are an excellent tool in maximising the effectiveness of learning and teaching. However, these can often become ritualised to an extent that they become meaningless. Boxes are ticked to show that particular targets on aspirations have been achieved. Instead of being an analytical tool the process becomes corrupted and ends up being a method of consolidating and justifying existing practice, irrespective of how effective that is.

Development planning used properly can focus and control the efforts and energies of a school. However if the process is carried out in a legalistic or ritualistic manner it is possible to inhibit progress, discourage innovation and allow the institution to stagnate.

All four examples illustrate the same point. Such developments are sound in theory and potentially effective. What Scottish education fails to do is to ensure that they are implemented properly, and when this happens their introduction can be counter-productive. The challenge facing us is to ensure that they achieve what is intended, to help improve the quality of pupils' learning.

John Aitken is an assistant headteacher at Elgin High School, Moray. His views are personal.

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