Time for change as radical ideas ring out

22nd August 2014 at 01:00
Scotland's schools are already world-class but the innovations keep on coming. ?Julia Horton reports from an event where the abolition of the school bell was just one of many revolutionary notions

For generations, the school day has been punctuated by the familiar ringing of a bell, with pupils responding like packs of Pavlovian dogs, moving from class to class. But maybe young people would learn to think for themselves sooner if we abolished the endless dinging and encouraged them to take responsibility for their own timekeeping.

Perhaps this is madness. Perhaps that way chaos lies. But this vision for Scotland's schools was nonetheless mooted by one independent expert at a Scottish Labour Party education policy forum in Glasgow earlier this month.

If Scottish independence is rejected at next month's referendum and the SNP loses power at the 2016 election, this discussion could indicate the direction of travel for an incoming Labour administration. The idea of encouraging independent thought in teenagers north of the border is certainly timely, as 16- and 17-year-olds prepare to exercise their historic right to vote in the referendum.

However, the end of bells and buzzers was not the only idea up for discussion among the representatives of the various charities, unions, campaign groups and educationalists who were in attendance.

Let pupils lead the way

Other suggestions that triggered debate included giving pupils more say in how their schools were run and scrapping the "endless" rounds of inspections and targets.

Morag Pendry, development manager at the Co-operative Education Trust Scotland (CETS), who proposed these ideas along with the abolition of the school bell, said: "The spirit of Curriculum for Excellence has been lost and the mindset is wrong because we have all this bureaucracy and all these targets, which restrict the curriculum and stop it being what it was supposed to be: more holistic, more natural and child-led.

"We need to remove a lot of the bureaucracy. Keep targets for numeracy and literacy but remove the rest. Targets infantilise students. We've moved from the pupil getting a row if they fail to the teacher getting a row instead."

Expanding on the idea of establishing more pupil-led systems of assessing schools, Pendry cited an ongoing pilot scheme in Edinburgh involving the CETS, in which children were being encouraged to voice their opinions.

"Pupils in some of the toughest areas of Edinburgh are working with pupils from some of the wealthiest parts," Pendry said. "Primary pupils have been visiting other schools [to give their views] and it was interesting that the school they all said they wanted to go to was in the poorest community; they wanted to go there because it had the best playground.

"They also liked the school that they all thought had the most fun maths lessons."

As discussion focused on how to assess schools, Finland was held up as an example of the success of an inspection-free approach - the country's institutions tend to be of a very high standard. However, Jules Oldham, national policy and practice coordinator for Homeless Action Scotland, defended Scotland's current inspection system, saying it helped to "keep a watch" on how schools were performing in the same way that "every other sector" was monitored.

Playing devil's advocate, Talat Yaqoob, a consultant for Scottish Labour, added that "blind trust" was not a good alternative to the existing regime of inspections. But she agreed that a more child- and teacher-centred approach to school assessment might be preferable.

Sticking with Finland, that country's policy of free school meals for all children divided delegates. In the six months since first minister Alex Salmond announced that all Scottish children in P1, P2 and P3 would receive free lunches from January 2015, demands have grown for the SNP to clarify how the policy will be funded.

More warmly welcomed by attendees was Finland's view of the value of teaching. As Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour's education spokesperson, noted: "Being a teacher there is like being a doctor here."

Then arose the age-old issue of how to encourage more girls and women to pursue Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers, with the group debating calls to address the "misconception" that boys and girls learned differently. Linked to that was a perceived need to tackle a lack of confidence among some primary teachers (who are predominantly female) in relation to science and technology. This, according to delegates, fuelled a "sexist" Scottish culture that taught boys that females were lesser beings.

Emma Ritch, executive director of the Scottish feminist organisation Engender, said: "It has been a supposition that boys and girls are intrinsically different, but there actually isn't any evidence to show that there is any difference in the way boys and girls learn.

"If it's not intrinsic, it must be socially constructed. Popular culture says to boys `women are less important, less interesting'. I agree that if you have a teacher in the classroom saying, `I'm not good at science or technology', that will have an impact on boys and girls."

The conference heard that one possible solution to the gender issue came from Sweden, where, rather than refer to boys or girls, teachers at one pre-school used neutral terms such as "friend". Ritch, however, said this was a step too far.

Turn to technology

With growing concern in wider society about the environment and waste, and an increasing reliance on technology in daily life and work, it was perhaps unsurprising that the notion of paperless schools was debated.

Andy Pendry, a former employee of Education Scotland and now an ICT teacher at Penicuik High in Midlothian, said: "[I know of] three or four schools [that] have got rid of paper altogether. They looked at the business case and with that money [they would have spent on stationery] they bought all the kids devices.It's a really good way of unlocking money. I think in the future it's going to go that way."

Oldham, however, expressed fears that children from poorer backgrounds would be disadvantaged because too many had "no access to electricity, much less broadband". Pupils from troubled families might also face the prospect of parents or other relatives "pawning their school iPads", she warned.

Also on the issue of technology, Andy Pendry (husband of Morag) mooted the idea of adopting Google's work ethic to maximise learning.

"Nobody can concentrate 100 per cent of the time. So, at Google, staff are expected to work 80 per cent of the time and use the remaining 20 per cent to work on their own ideas. I think that would be a good idea in technology classes," he said.

Delegates at the event, held at Community Central Hall in Glasgow, also discussed policy ideas for health, social care, energy and community. Questions to guide debate at about half a dozen tables of delegates were based on previous discussions within Scottish Labour and among its supporters.

Among the subjects under discussion was how to achieve parity of esteem between vocational, creative and academic qualifications, and between colleges and universities. In an unfortunate typing error, one question debated by delegates was printed as: "How can we improve numeracy and literacy levels in Scotland young people?"

There was no shortage of ideas or enthusiasm, however, and no apparent need for a bell to keep anyone on schedule.

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