Conformity no comfort to the disadvantaged

5th January 2018 at 00:00
A lockstep approach to change hasn’t closed the attainment and poverty gaps

The consultation on the provisions of the Education Bill began in November 2017 and concludes at the end of this month – barely three months later. By contrast, in November 2003, the Curriculum Review Group was set up to identify the purposes of education following the 2002 National Debate. It published Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) – perhaps Scotland’s most significant educational reform ever – in November 2004.

A remarkable consensus had been achieved, with near unanimity on the purposes of the school curriculum. These were expressed as “four capacities” and – in spite of a poorly led and poorly managed CfE implementation period six years later – these have continued to enjoy widespread support.

It could be argued that it was the strength of the commitment across Scottish schools to the ideals of CfE set out in that 2004 publication that sustained the whole enterprise throughout not only its 2004-10 development period, but also throughout the difficult implementation phase from 2010 to 2016.

During this 12-year period, schools were very closely monitored by local and national bodies and were very reluctant to publicly voice concerns, for fear of being accused of betraying the “transformational” aims of CfE. Even in the face of increasingly incoherent national guidance during the implementation phase, schools continued to comply with their local authorities’ CfE policies and to conform to what was expected of them by Education Scotland.

This culture of conformity was not new to Scottish education – schools have always been subject to rigorous monitoring by local authorities and stringent guidance from the inspectorate. The number of headteachers to have publicly offered a critical perspective on any new development in school education has, for decades, been few and far between.

This is disappointing because, in the case of CfE implementation, a robust critique from school leaders might have been very helpful. There was also a significant disparity between the claims and assertions for the supposedly transformational nature of CfE, made by politicians and Education Scotland – and the deeply sceptical discourse at school level about increased bureaucracy, lack of clarity, incoherence and mismanagement.

Indistinguishable leadership

In such a climate, it is little wonder that many schools chose to “re-name and re-badge”, rather than reform and restructure.

Many existing S1-2 courses were renamed for CfE’s broad general education (BGE) and S2 options, which many thought incompatible with CfE’s three-year BGE, were shoehorned into conformity. The government’s decision to avoid any independent evaluation of CfE implementation meant that any transformative change was impossible to verify and tended to exist only at the level of unsubstantiated assertion.

But none of this is new in Scottish education. One of the legacies of more than four decades of school improvement in Scotland has been a national declarations on the progress of lockstep transformational change across the system to sit alongside scepticism at school level. If now, more than ever, major innovation is needed in schools, then that can only be achieved by greater diversity across the system.

Although we have 32 local authorities and 359 local authority secondary schools, we have very little diversity in governance. Schools are line-managed in a virtually identical way. In spite of their diverse intakes and local circumstances, they have similar leadership and management structures. The consequences of this are that secondary schools in Scotland are largely indistinguishable in their leadership and management practices. Thus the decades-old strategy of “sharing good practice” has failed to make any measurable impact on the attainment or any other poverty-related gaps.

Scottish education’s lockstep approach to change needs to be challenged. This holds that change in schools must be introduced by every school at the same time. So it is with the latest proposals for school reform: change is to be top-down, mandated from Holyrood, led by Education Scotland and implemented across the entire system at a point in time determined by the government. As a consequence, the culture of conformity and compliance in Scottish school education, which has served the least advantaged young people in our schools so poorly for decades, seems destined to continue.

'Headteachers' charter'

It need not be so. The proposals to significantly increase school autonomy, including a legislatively-backed “headteachers’ charter”, are genuinely innovative and to be welcomed. They represent a historic opportunity to change the culture of Scottish education. However, the top-down, mandatory, lockstep approach undermines the government’s claim that the case for change is about moving towards “a school- and teacher-led system”. Schools need not only new decision-making powers, but the professional capacity and confidence to use them.

Crucially, if the government is serious about moving to a school-led system, then schools should be allowed to evaluate their readiness to take on the new powers. Professional confidence cannot by mandated to schools by statutory instruments.

The alternative would be to introduce the changes incrementally, by encouraging schools or groups of schools to adopt them when they feel ready. There are, of course, dangers in both approaches. The lockstep approach runs the risk of grudging compliance from unwilling schools and those that feel unready. Risk-averse schools and local authorities might find some comfort in conformity – every school being in the same boat – but history suggests it will do little to improve the lot of the disadvantaged.

The fact that not one of the 32 local authorities has supported the government proposals for greater autonomy for schools might not be surprising – they might see it as turkeys voting for Christmas – but that level of conformity is deeply disappointing. It indicates an aversion to diversity and radical reform, even if reform is incremental. An incremental approach, they might argue, would divide schools into early and late adopters – with possible implications for equality if early adopters were to experience advantages or disadvantages. However, it would also be almost certain to create a more dynamic culture of innovation.

What is certain is that the challenges facing schools cannot be addressed by carrying on as we have been for decades – that’s how problems were created in the first place.

Frank Lennon is an educationalist and former secondary headteacher

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