Is it time to put politicians through the wringer?

9th October 2015 at 00:00

Something didn’t add up. Education secretary Angela Constance was speaking to hundreds of delegates at the Scottish Learning Festival. Her appearance followed several weeks of opprobrium over her government’s plans for standardised national tests. Questions were invited from the audience. Here was a chance to grill the government’s representative, to vent frustration over this deeply unpopular idea.

So how much heat did Ms Constance take over testing? None. Three hands went up, two belonging to teachers, who asked about multi-level teaching of science and how the loss of English as an additional language teachers would affect Scotland’s ability to help Syrian refugees.

It was a similar story days later, when the first consultation event about the National Improvement Framework, from which the testing plan sprung, was held in Edinburgh. Only about 25 teachers turned up, but they found themselves round tables with Ms Constance and high heidyins from Education Scotland, free to fire questions at them directly.

What to make of this apparent inertia when opportunities present themselves to interrogate the powers that be about the most controversial education issue of the day? Is the prospect of standardised testing not vexing teachers as much as unions and Twitter would have us think?

That’s too neat an explanation – there’s a lot more to it. It’s intimidating to take on the education secretary in front of hundreds of colleagues, and people have complained that the consultation events were hastily arranged. Others see little point in arraigning government ministers: “No wonder people don’t bother,” tweeted one educator of Ms Constance’s vague answers to the two teachers who did ask questions. (This seems depressingly fatalistic – you won’t get an answer if you don’t ask a question, and in any case an evasive reply can speak volumes.)

The muted response to Ms Constance’s speech is nothing new. Over the years, we at TESS have attended countless education conferences at which ministers have spoken, and it’s rare that delegates seem inclined to pose difficult questions. Why is this? We don’t claim to have the answer, but here’s a thought. One of Scottish education’s greatest strengths is that the protagonists, by and large, pull in a similar direction; new School Leaders Scotland general secretary Jim Thewliss reckons the system has never been more cohesive (see page 14). That strength may, however, have a worrying flipside.

Where some see cohesiveness, others see a stifling orthodoxy that implicitly discourages challenge. Some on Twitter queried whether the failure to cross-examine Ms Constance was symptomatic of a “culture of passive acceptance” in Scottish education.

One dismayed educator, after hearing of Ms Constance’s easy ride at the learning festival, couldn’t work out whether the explanation was contentment, disinterest or fear of putting one’s head above the parapet. But he knew one question that urgently needed to be asked: “Is our professional culture a healthy one?”

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