I enjoyed Professor Humes's considered articulation of the current plight of Scottish education. Many Scottish journalists seem unwilling to grapple with the detail of the OECD’s reporting beyond the crudest international comparison of subject attainment by 15-year-olds.
It is worth additionally pointing out that as the Office of Economic Cooperation and Development, the original purpose of OECD’s involvement with school systems was not to create a sort of scholastic version of the European Song Contest but to make a communal European platform for continuous, discursive exchange of best governmental strategies, educational policies and pedagogic practices available to participating nations. In this context the PISA report might even be considered a bit of a sideshow.
If the cart contains the children and their scholastic attainment, the horse most certainly carries the consideration of such issues as how well the inspectorate functions in relation to school improvement, the capacity of national universities to provide high quality and current training of expert teachers, the necessary cultural settings and parental relationships to schools, the cultural and economic relevance of the curriculum, the financial autonomy and governance of schools. All of these are fields in which the OECD has, over the years, developed the unique expertise which has brought some 30- plus non-European countries to their door looking for assistance. Most of them are fields in which Scotland has made little progress in a long, long time.
Professor Humes is refreshing in his challenge to the current SNP’s centralising tendency. However, if an educational system has gone seriously awry there can be no other way of reforming it other than drawing it into the policy centre and maintaining tight controls until standardised improvements have been achieved. For example, this was how Tony Blair’s government successfully managed the initial and necessary impact on literacy levels in England which has allowed (some 15 years later) an impressive reduction in inequality at a time when the country has absorbed enhanced numbers of non-English-speaking children.
In Scotland we have to be honest about the scale of the problem. The initial devolved Labour government made what can only be described as a completely vainglorious attempt to embed information technology into the educational system. The IT system, falsely described as a curriculum, would be the means whereby Scotland’s schools would realise the full potential of 'democratised’ information. All pupils, even quite young children, could 'negotiate’ a personalised curriculum with teachers who would 'facilitate’ their learning. Curriculum content would all but be replaced by the learning process which, by means of some elusive pedagogic alchemy, would transpose all our little cygnets into poised, confident, self-directed swans.
The Curriculum for Excellence has been an expensive fiasco; the government owns up to some £400 million of IT costs but if one adds the cost of several training days per head for some 40,000 teachers and costs of software and licensing, true costs of £1bn do not appear unrealistic.
Possibly the Labour government at the earliest stages of Curriculum for Excellence might be accused of nothing more serious than gusto and enthusiasm to show what the new-style Scottish government might achieve but it is certain that they were even less inclined than the SNP government to heed the voice of experts. The McKinsey reports as well as the OECD's, if the government had cared to consult either, would have allowed them to understand clearly that without an existing base of strong literacy skills and a workforce of up-to-date teachers, they should not proceed. The Scottish government at that time knew perfectly well that in some areas more than 60% of eight-year-old boys were seriously deficient in reading skills.
Professor Humes's article should/must be required reading for the first minister, for John Swinney and for their civil servants.
I enjoyed Rachel Sharp's article about the Joan Eardley exhibition at SGMA, and I'll be going to see it, but I thought I should mention that there's also an exhibition in the Lillie Art Gallery in Milngavie. There are some very beautiful drawings from throughout her career, all showing her characteristic intensity of observation, but the highlight is 'Flood Tide' a huge painting of a storm-driven wave approaching the beach at Catterline. Well worth a trip to Milngavie, I would say.
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