I’m fed up. I’ve been a headteacher for 12 years and I’m fed up, not with any aspect of leading my two schools. I’m fed up with regularly reading about how bad our education system is; the disaster of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE); how we’re failing our young people; how active learning is making young people disruptive; or whatever the next damning opinion on our schools is – often from people who don’t work in them.
My biggest issue is not the effect that this must be having on the teachers who are subjected to it continuously, although I suspect it might be slightly discouraging. It’s just that I don’t see it. In leading my school, I don’t recognise any of it.
I don’t understand why there is such a desire to talk down our schools, and then to express surprise at the low morale of teachers and the struggle to recruit. I am determined that people should know what I am seeing every day: superb work being done by my staff and its impact on young people.
In St Andrew’s Secondary, we are very proud of our ethos as a Catholic school; we are focused on the dignity of our young people and an education that promotes love of God and love of neighbour. We have a culture built on the highest expectations of every young person, which aspires to improve the life chances of everyone. We also have superb teachers – they are “extra mile” people, determined to do whatever it takes to help our young people achieve.
Prior to CfE, we already had all of that. Now, CfE has given us a framework to build on those things and achieve more through our “vision of excellence”, created in 2011 and structured around CfE. In those six years, we have improved learning and teaching, and that has not been brought about by one thing, but by a combination of factors. We have invested heavily in staff development, for example, and about the full range of assessment, to help our young people progress in their learning. We are continuously looking at how we could improve learning.
Whenever I walk around our school, I see young people working and learning together, and growing through the massive range of learning experiences – from sport to concerts and trips abroad. CfE has allowed our young people to achieve in many ways, whether through sports leadership, creative industries, personal-development programmes, the John Muir Award or our outstanding Duke of Edinburgh programme – which is delivered by teachers who consider nights spent outdoors on expeditions as being part of their job. But we never stop examining our vision to see where we could improve it. We said that we’d try things and if they didn’t work, we would change until we found what worked.
We have spent many hours on developing courses for both the broad general education and the senior phase. Earlier this year, when I had the pleasure of spending some time in each of our subject areas, assuring the quality of courses, I was blown away by the high standards that my subject leaders showed me and the thinking that informed them. We should recognise and celebrate that.
We have a senior-phase structure with three pathways in recognition that, in our school, one size doesn’t fit all. Staff have delivered national qualifications and given our young people the best possible chance of attaining to levels even higher than they thought possible. They have shown outstanding levels of professionalism in evaluating each year and adapting, based on lessons learned, to ensure learning and attainment is improved. This has been supported by a huge range of partners who enhance the experience of our young people in so many ways – but that’s a separate article.
This professional activity can be quantified to some extent, but what cannot be measured are the extra miles run by teachers who make themselves available whenever they’re needed – by providing extra supported study, advice and help to our young people, even if that’s before the start of the day, on a Saturday morning or during the holidays. As one young person said: “It doesn’t matter what time you come into our school, there’s always someone to help you.” These are teachers who are queuing up to be trained as mental health first-aiders, for example; close to 70 will be trained by the end of session.
The effect of all of this? We have more than doubled the number of young people who have left our school with at least one, three or five Highers; 95 per cent of school leavers are reaching positive destinations; and in the past five years, we have more than doubled the number who have gone on to higher education, from 21 per cent to 45 per cent.
So I don’t see it – not at my school and not across Scotland. I don’t see a broken educational system, I don’t see the failure of CfE, I don’t see young people being let down or not learning. The total opposite, in fact.
This is not an academic analysis of Scottish education, it is the story of one school – and, yes, it’s a celebration and I make no apology for that. But the great thing is that, as part of the BOCSH group of headteachers (see bocsh-group.co.uk), and as part of the community of heads in Glasgow, I know that my school is just one of many doing outstanding work. I’ve recently been reviewing the curriculum in my second school, Holyrood Secondary, and I have been so impressed with the engagement of the staff. That will be another great story.
I’m not naïve, I’m not deluded, I know there are challenges in our system and we need to address these, but the starting point shouldn’t be a litany of negativity.
The story of education in Scotland should be about the outstanding work being done in schools. And it should be told by the people who work in those schools, who make the lives of our young people better every day. Let’s do that – and we can build from there.
Gerry Lyons is executive head at St Andrew’s and Holyrood secondary schools in Glasgow