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'In the UK, we need to learn from our neighbouring countries, not dismiss them'

Responding to a controversial article suggesting teachers should vote Conservative, one educationist suggests that the piece fundamentally misunderstands schools policy in Scotland and Wales

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Responding to a controversial article suggesting teachers should vote Conservative, one educationist suggests that the piece fundamentally misunderstands schools policy in Scotland and Wales

It was interesting to read the educational case being made for voting Conservative or Labour in Tes, but, regardless of allegiance, Jonathan Porter’s contribution (England is a ray of light in a gloomy education nation) was particularly depressing.

One expects the coercive cliché and ill-informed soundbite from the politicians, but it is disappointing to encounter them from a colleague. The dismissal of the Welsh educational reforms in a single sentence was high-handed enough to remind one of the Thomas More quote from A Man for all Seasons: “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world...but for Wales?”

The reality is that Wales has engaged with an extensive programme of change based on a thorough review led by a well-respected educationalist (Graham Donaldson's Donaldson Review). The curricular changes are rooted in that context and are not a roll-out of the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence, as Mr Porter airily alleged.

These changes are aligned with reforms in governance, teacher training and development, assessment, pedagogy and the use of digital technology. The pace of implementation is challenging, but there is trialling and evaluation. There is enthusiasm for the reforms among many teachers and school leaders as well as consistent political support. At a recent event drawing together representatives from all four countries within the United Kingdom, the commitment and optimism of the Welsh delegates was striking.

It is far too early to argue that the Welsh reforms will be a success or to say what their impact on attainment will be. It is certainly far too early to patronise and condemn them.

Mr Porters's comments made about developments in Scotland also raised questions about how much knowledge he has on that subject. 

Requiring improvement

Whatever one may think of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), one cannot deny that it is rooted in traditional subjects. The Experiences and Outcomes, which were the main means by which the curriculum was defined, covered all the traditional subjects. Certification remains based on the same subjects as the predecessor examinations.

Subject options in secondary schools look familiar to parents. There are many teachers in Scotland who would argue that Curriculum for Excellence has been far from radical. I think that you would struggle to find one who would consider it a “futuristic, “skills-centred” "phantasmagoria”.

There are arguments to be had about the extent to which content or knowledge has been specified within CfE, but that debate is open. Professor Mark Priestley, of Stirling University, has been a leading voice in that discussion. He argues powerfully for a knowledge-rich curriculum and did so recently at an event organised through a Scottish Government agency.

Interestingly, his conclusions are not that CfE is fatally flawed, nor that it has created a recipe for failure. He argues that it was soundly conceived and has brought positive outcomes, but it requires examination, evaluation and improvement.

Equally interestingly, at a time when funding is a massive concern to many in England, Scottish schools have received unparalleled additional resourcing over which they have total control.

None of this allows complacency in Scotland. The performance in Pisa tests needs to be examined and the outcomes of the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy are concerning. These results are not any more uniform across schools in Scotland than in England. In both countries, there are schools that were notably more successful than others in Pisa, which would suggest that there were many more factors at play than the curriculum or governance arrangements.

That view would be well supported by educational research which appears to suggest, at the very least, that external factors have far less impact on student performance than the sorts of factors captured in the Education Endowment Fund Toolkit among others.

Ultimately, though, my purpose in writing is not to demean the views of a colleague. It is to regret a far more widespread culture of polarity and dismissal, rather than engagement and consideration. It is something that is well explored in Martin Robinson’s Trivium in the 21st Century, where he seeks the dialectic and rhetoric. We need both. The diversity in policy, provision and practice in the four countries of the United Kingdom provides some massive “petri dishes”, rich in cultures from which we can all learn.

Shared values

England has shown itself capable of enacting change with urgency and has attempted to resolve perceived problems within the timescale of children’s experience in education. Scotland continues to offer comprehensive education to all children within their communities and achieves positive outcomes for all young people as a result. This has seen more young people than ever moving from schools into positive destinations.

Northern Ireland continues to achieve remarkable outcomes for many young people despite the unique challenges that schools face. Wales is embarking on a programme of reform which is ambitious, coherent and rooted in research.

They all merit study more than dismissal. When we hosted a Four Countries event in early March, there was a huge consensus among the attendees about values, the purposes of education and how these purposes could be fulfilled.

When politics became involved, the likelihood of adhering to values and achieving ambitions tended to recede. Teachers work too hard to waste time in needless dispute. Children deserve better than educational discussions which do not lead to improvement.

Can we step away from the assertions and a little closer to the learning?  

David Cameron is a Scottish educationist and campaigner; former teacher, school SLT member and director of children's services

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