We are competing in a marathon, not a sprint

5th August 2016 at 01:00
The journey of educational change should be long-haul, with those who teach having involvement in planning to guarantee the delivery of a sound system

IT STRUCK me recently that we may be facing, in the very near future, a great challenge to our education system.

The history of educational change always seems to be punctuated by oddly contradictory changes in direction, making it rather difficult to ever find real consistency. National testing Mark 1 was followed by Mark 2. Tracking, monitoring and evaluation, appraisal and a host of other initiatives could be added to the list. The 5-14 curriculum lasted nearly 20 years, while Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), lasted – unbowdlerised – for a few years anyway, until national testing Mark 3 hit the headlines recently, prompted by those pesky results from the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy. How long before the shibboleth of the broad general education gives way to the demands of raised attainment?

To be fair, things do – and should – change. Those changes in what we know about how children learn will, and again should, be built into what we do in the classroom. But how is the concept of (pardon my neologism) future-change actually managed, if it is at all?

One iteration of curriculum change was the replacement of 5-14 by CfE; two more opposing educational paradigms it is hard to imagine. Yet the management of that particular change was emblematic of how we as an educational system deal with change.

On a recent visit to a school, I happened to notice, with faintly wistful nostalgia, some 5-14 language textbooks in a base room. When I asked if they were still being used, I was informed that pupils were given the textbooks gratis for homework purposes because they liked the activities. The really interesting caveat to all of this, though, was that I was also informed that staff were not allowed to mention 5-14 – as if it had never existed.

Colleagues of a certain age will recognise this phenomenon. A bit like looking back uncomfortably on your 80s hairstyle, you giggle nervously and return the photo to the photograph box – to be quickly forgotten. In the same way, while CfE was supposed to build on 5-14 – no one really believes it did – in actuality, it simply replaced it. This tabula rasa approach, coupled with a failure to future-plan cogently, gives rise to the challenge I referred to at the outset.

When we deal with planning, it always relates to every aspect of the education system other than those tasked with its implementation: teachers. No one ever really asks those tasked with change if it can be done or even more importantly, the impact on teachers of it being done at all. It simply becomes another thing for teacher to do within an increasingly elastic 35-hour week.

Here lies the core of the problem. I started by equating education to the idea of journey. To extend this metaphor, that journey is certainly long-haul, more marathon than sprint. Yet the management of education has constantly expressed itself in a reversal of these terms. Have you ever tried to begin a marathon by sprinting?

There are two key impacts to this paucity of future-shaping, the first of which is on the “experienced” teacher, a cadre of which I now, sadly, find myself a member. The impact is that teaching becomes more demanding and tiring – even exhausting. Few teachers, although there are some, relish the idea of working until they’re 60, let alone 68. Have the professional expectations incumbent upon teachers been adjusted to cater for this significant change? Because when teacher-working conditions become student-learning environments, the impact in the classroom is not restricted to teachers.

The second key impact is on the “younger” teachers: fresh, vibrant, animated and, above all, eager. They have little idea of what faces them in terms of seemingly endless internal assessments, where teachers also bear the responsibility of being ersatz examiners – exclusively at National 4 level and partially at National 5.

Curriculum change is a demanding endeavour. I had to make maybe seven such changes over nearly two decades while teaching in schools. It took its toll. Young teachers, many of whom are jaw-droppingly good, are a precious commodity in these fast-paced, postmodern, neoliberal times. Yet, are we really planning on how to nurture such talent through a career spanning perhaps 50 years in the classroom? Because that is both the economic reality and the necessity. Indeed, in many subject areas – Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) springs to mind – graduates are failing to be lured by a career that looks less and less manageable over an extended working life.

Not convinced? Recently, while discussing a dissertation topic with a former student (and current teacher) I was surprised to learn that he was returning to his home country in the next year or so. Why? Things were becoming increasingly difficult after two or three years in primary teaching in Scotland, and it was simply easier back home. Was he alone? Well, no, as all of his non-Scottish peers were also returning home. That’s not a good sign, as their journey out of Scottish education has begun very soon after qualifying here.

In short, future-planning must incorporate both a strong element of pragmatism and a genuine sense of dialogic collectivism – the idea of full discussion and partnership with all teachers that builds their views into policy – among those who actually teach, in order to guarantee the delivery of a sound education system for both students and teachers. To do anything else would be to ignore a nascent problem in education.

Willie McGuire is a senior university teacher at the University of Glasgow

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