Wake up, leave the comfort zone and create a challenge

6th April 2012 at 01:00
We should push ourselves and our pupils. After all, if it isn't difficult, it isn't learning

A colleague recently spoke to a leading English educationalist who had spent some time in Scotland. "You have good schools," he told her. "You don't have to follow some of the agendas being pursued in England by Gove but there is a danger: you can feel both superior and complacent, especially on attainment."

He was right. We watch the development of academies and the judgements of schools based on exam output alone and breathe sighs of relief: "At least we're not in England." No one in schools here is uninterested in attainment, even those who insist it is only one of many measures of the quality of schools. We all want improved attainment but that end can be met by quite different means.

We all know that some Highers are easier than others. Whole-school exam results can be improved by entering more students for easier subjects. We can raise attainment by excluding students who might fail exams. The more common example of our complacency, however, is that we under-challenge our young people.

We've long taken pride, especially in schools serving our poorest communities, in the care and support we offer. We guide and advise the students for work and for life. We know their strengths and weaknesses. We don't always demand they leave their comfort zones and attempt tasks outwith their normal experiences.

There's the school whose PE department had a great record in dance but didn't present for Higher dance because that would involve a more traditional, ballet-oriented curriculum and "our kids wouldn't be comfortable with that".

A further variation on the theme, one we identified in my own former school, was a wide range of vocational courses alongside an insufficiently rigorous course-choice system. As a school, we recognised the value for many of our students on vocational courses. Part of the aim was indeed to raise attainment by finding courses, at Intermediate 2, which would engage and offer success to some of our less academic students.

We didn't foresee that some of our most academic students would opt for Int 2 early education and childcare or hairdressing: not only that, but would do one Higher less as a result. For able but under-confident students there was safety in such a choice: safety but no challenge.

We do not need to buy the Gove agenda to understand that improved attainment based on effective learning is desirable. By insisting that effective and worthwhile learning is that learning which at first seems difficult, we'll deliver challenges but also worthwhile achievement to our young people. If it isn't difficult, it isn't learning. Anything less is a betrayal of all that has been best in Scottish education - and of our learners.

Alex Wood works at the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration.

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