Turn the kids on
It takes a brave man to travel half-way around the world to criticise Scottish education. But the University of Melbourne's Richard Teese, who will deliver a keynote on the curriculum at the Scottish Learning Festival, is aware of the challenges.
He also comes from a position that makes his opinions especially valuable and likely to be listened to. He admires the "outstanding features of Scottish education", particularly our comprehensive system, and is determined to grapple with its intricacies. "The Scottish education system is well researched," he says. "It is also complex and not easy to understand. But it is worth struggling to do so - and I have."
Professor Teese was rapporteur and chair of the team from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development which produced the review of Scottish schooling published last year. It concluded that "Scotland performs at a consistently very high standard", particularly in maths, reading and science and, at the same time, has "one of the most equitable school systems in the OECD".
His interest in the Scottish educational system has continued beyond the report. A key challenge, he says, is to tackle the divide between vocational and academic learning.
Parity of esteem between the vocational and academic is seen as one goal of reform. He is not convinced: "There is no point in trying for parity of esteem between physics, for instance, and fingernail technology. The fundamental issue is quality of learning. We need the teaching of physics to be as accessible as possible - and continually refined so that kids from blue-collar backgrounds can relate to it and succeed in it."
"If you look at why vocational studies are popular among young people, you find three principles. These studies are collaborative - they learn together. They are problem-based - there is something to fix, to solve, to build. And they are practical."
So rather than aiming for parity of esteem, a key objective of curricular reform should be to put these principles more widely into practice, he says. "These are good principles of learning. They are what turn kids on. Let's see if we can get these into how we teach academic subjects."
In A Curriculum for Excellence, Scottish teachers have the opportunity to get more young people engaged with learning than at any time in history, Professor Teese believes. But the very features which appeal to many teachers create anxiety among others. "We must have the courage to change how we teach, to connect it with student experience. Those teachers who just want good results in exams are thinking only of the school and their own reputation. They are not thinking of the child. Good teaching is about converting what you know into something a child can relate to."
The biggest challenge faced by Scottish education, claims the report, is "to reduce the achievement gap that opens up about Primary 5" and continues to widen in secondary. Children from "poorer communities and low socio-economic status homes" are more likely to be on the wrong side of that gap.
The highly ambitious, inclusive agenda of ACfE will not be delivered by documents written by the Scottish Qualifications Authority or Learning and Teaching Scotland, he insists. "It has to come from the teachers. It can't come from some university academic, because they have no responsibility for the learning of schoolchildren. We have to see A Curriculum for Excellence as an engine of achievement. It is there to get work done. But it has got to be good work - not garbage."
Richard Teese will deliver the keynote seminar "Reforming the high school curriculum: tools for raising quality of learning and improving equity" on September 24, 2.30pm.