Education secretary Angela Constance has just addressed a packed hall of nearly 1,500 delegates, most of them classroom teachers. She has time for questions, so the session chair scans the hangar-like venue in Aberdeen for raised hands; assistants with microphones get ready to dash between distant aisles.
Despite several appeals, not one person puts up their hand. Labour councillor Angela Taylor, clearly aghast, mutters into the mic about her political rival getting off lightly. The education secretary is allowed to breeze out of the north of Scotland’s showpiece event for education staff without being grilled by a single teacher. Which begs an obvious question: why?
Given recent fulminations about national testing, some might have expected Ms Constance was entering the lion’s den at last week’s Aberdeen Learning Festival (see “A week in primary”, page 8). That the atmosphere was more like naptime at the panda enclosure was disheartening but, if you’ve been to as many conferences as I have, not surprising.
Ms Constance faced a similar-sized audience at the Scottish Learning Festival in Glasgow last September, shortly after plans for standardised national assessment were launched – but no one asked her about that. Instead she batted away three easy questions on peripheral issues, only one from a teacher.
Of course, it’s intimidating to cross-examine a government minister in public, but that doesn’t even go halfway towards explaining the deathly silences in Aberdeen and Glasgow.
In Glasgow I wondered whether teaching unions’ anger about national testing was not entirely shared by their members. High-profile figures in education gave us other theories: teachers were so overwhelmed by workload that they had no energy to complain; or were convinced that the plans were a fait accompli and saw little point in objecting.
Here’s another: the bodies that run Scottish education don’t like challenges to prevailing orthodoxies – and teachers, being well aware of that, are fearful of making them.
This is supposed to be the era of professional dialogue, when teachers zing ideas around the country and join forces to power pedagogical innovation. And sometimes they do. The University of Glasgow’s Professor Christopher Chapman recently showed me how the success of the Schools Improvement Partnership Project (Sipp) was measured: by the volume and regularity of genuine dialogue it forged between education professionals. These new connections were recorded on something resembling the map that pops up when you book a flight on Ryanair’s website, showing multitudinous connections between once-exotic European cities.
If the level of dialogue encountered by Ms Constance is more typical, however, a map of the transport connections to an abandoned Hebridean village would suffice.
John MacBeath, a pioneer of school self-evaluation, recently told TESS of councils that were too “dictatorial” to let teachers try new ideas. Local and national authorities can provide invaluable support for teachers and they can act as moderating influences against market forces, but the balance tips too far the other way if they restrict innovation and stifle independent thinking.
Teachers should be encouraged to wake each morning buoyed by the knowledge that they can take calculated risks and challenge established practices with impunity. The best education is gathered from a cornucopia of free-flowing ideas – not chiselled into shape by edict.