There is no such thing as the right way

4th July 2008 at 01:00
Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop has written to every school saying that "the aim of A Curriculum for Excellence is to transform the Scottish education system"
Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop has written to every school saying that "the aim of A Curriculum for Excellence is to transform the Scottish education system". She asks all staff to engage with the reflective questions posed in Building the Curriculum 3.

Yet there seems to be a problem. At the launch conference Brian Cooklin, president of School Leaders Scotland, said there was a fundamental need for reassurance that teachers were going about things the right way (TESS June 13). But why?

The problem lies within our inspection method, measuring as if all is in place with pre-determined level descriptors. If we know, why are we going to all this bother? If we do not, how can we constrain the developmental journey with fixed indicators, let alone calibrate them to six-point accuracy?

In his article in the same edition, Graham Donaldson, senior chief inspector, said inspection would continue to provide independent assurance. But that is not what the current system is doing. It is constraining creativity with fixed idealisations: "How good is ...?" leading inevitably to "What good is?".

John Seddon in his book, Systems Thinking in the Public Sector, has shown how centrally-imposed audit measures have tyrannised Britain's public sector, turning inspection into centralised service direction and undermining service professionalism.

The way to prevent this is constructing measures only to answer questions drawn up for specific purposes at any given time, processes which should be integrated with work. This leads to building quality in rather than inspecting it out.

In the 2008 "enhancement-led" institutional review system for Scottish higher education, reviews are not now conducted in accordance with measures or indicators but in accordance with the institution's aims and objectives. The Quality Assurance Agency seeks "confidence" in an institution's capacity to manage its own enhancement and the reasons for the enhancements it has selected.

This provides a means to achieve the recommendation in the Crerar review of public sector scrutiny that "responsibility for improving services lies with the organisations that provide them".

This is very different from the summative method of HMIE, the feared "what are they looking for?" which marks the bow-wave of an impending school inspection. This is Taylor's scientific management from 100 years ago, "scientifically" deriving the "best" way of doing a task and then specifying, measuring and inspecting for compliance.

Such a way of thinking is inappropriate for the exploratory questions of ACfE, which seeks to stretch our imagination concerning the potentialities of learning and the means of realising them. It is a process which cannot be anything other than formative and collegiate, or else it simply won't happen.

So where would assurance come from in a new formative model of school developmental enhancement? It would come from contact and engagement regarding purpose, drawn up in conjunction with the relevant communities of interest. The role of central scrutiny is then to ensure due process.

Through such means, we could "free our minds to what we would like to see" and we would have a better chance of "getting it right", if for no other reason than there is no "right" except in achieving purpose. But there can be no universal purpose for all educational institutions in all contexts, just as there can be no universal outcome for all pupils.

Niall MacKinnon is a headteacher in the Highlands.

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