Improving Our Schools
The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the Scottish Executive consultation on the national priorities for schools education in Scotland. The RSE is Scotland’s premier Learned Society, comprising Fellows elected on thebasis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled with the assistance of a number of Fellows who are involved in school education, lifelong learning, higher education, and industry.
The Society believes that the expectations and aspirations detailed in the new Framework are laudable and worthwhile. One of the great strengths of Scottish education has long been that it results from an inclusive consultation process, of which this is a good example. However, the implementation and the delivery of these aims still remain a difficult and potentially contentious exercise. As elsewhere in the UK, Scottish education has suffered from underfunding, resulting in large numbers of schools with inadequate buildings and facilities, an underpaid, ageing and disenchanted profession and a shortage of young well qualified staff. In addition, with education policies being subject to constant change for most of the last four decades, teachers are understandably resistant. Continuity and controlled evolution, rather than revolution are therefore essential if further improvement is to be achieved. Against this background, what must also never be forgotten is the importance of the quality of the teacher, their skills and personalities. It is hoped that the McCrone report will go some way towards addressing this issue.
The specific issues identified in the consultation document are addressed below:
Values and Principles
The RSE welcomes the emphasis on working in partnership and the development of national guidance rather than a determined process for delivery.
The RSE notes, however, that the document lays a duty upon educators to try to develop all children’s ‘fullest potential’. The phrase is commonly used but it carries dangers as potential is essentially unknowable. We would do well to remember thatany child may surprise us. The headmaster of Einstein’s secondary school is reported to have told his father that the boy would never achieve much. In Einstein’s case this prediction did not deter, but we are not all like him. Teachers are apt to decide, often quite early in a child’s career, how much potential is present and a negative judgement about this can have deeply damaging and long-lasting effects. Children are in the course of developing their own self-images and teachers have a powerful input to the process. Also it is worth noting that to say ‘This child’s potential is low’ can be a way of excusing poor teaching. There would therefore be merits in the educators’ duty being reworded along the following lines: ‘… to ensure that education affords to all children and young persons a high level of skilled help and encouragement in the development of their personality, talents and mental and physical abilities….’. This reworded version of the duty would also fit well with the key input of a positive ethos described in the document.
With regard to the core statement of purpose or ‘vision’, there appear to be a number of potential omissions. What of literature, art, music, spirituality? What of physical skills? What of ensuring that all children have a good basic understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry: its strengths and its limitations? The general effect is of an emphasis on the knowledge economy and on certain personal skills and attitudes that are important but nevertheless quite limited and difficult to define with certainty. Perhaps all these and more are meant to be covered by the term ‘fully rounded’, but what is neglected in words is apt also to be neglected in deeds and if that were to happen the omission would be most serious.
A focus On Achievement: Key Skills and Knowledge
What key skills should be included as national priorities?
The RSE believes literacy and numeracy should be given pre-eminence in the list of priorities and supports the new emphasis on skills in addition to the acquisition of discrete knowledge.
How should their systematic assessment, both in quantitative and qualitative terms, be approached?
The RSE believes that target-setting should be encouraged but it is a relatively new approach for schools and caution is necessary. In addition, new systems of assessment will be necessary for the evaluation of the attainment of skills that are difficult to examine by written examination. In particular, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) skills are not easy to quantify and a distinction should be made between the subject called Computer Studies and the concept of ICT skills. The latter should include the basics of word-processing, databases and spreadsheets, together with some test of pupils' ability to access and communicate information (currently via e-mail, internet etc but soon via video-conferencing, Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) phones etc). The provision of trained teachers in this area will be key and a concerted effort at developing high quality teaching will be essential to achieve the national level of competence desired.
An Inclusive system
There are two important areas that need to be considered in this area. First is for the fact that Scotland is a multicultural society creating cultural needs, not just for the minorities that have enriched our national culture, but for everybody in Scotland.
The second concerns the early teaching of literacy and numeracy and those children who initially fail to make good progress. The importance of getting a good start with literacy and numeracy is so great and the difficulty of ensuring this for all children is so considerable that there is a strong case for a national strategy to ensure that all failing children are identified at the end of P1 and are then given highly skilled intensive help based upon the best available research about the efficacy of different remedial strategies. In the short term the intervention will not be cheap, but in the longer term there should be large economic advantages in addition to the great social gains.
Children with Special Educational Needs
How should the needs of children with special educational needs be best reflected in national priorities and measures of performance?
It should be recognised that it may not be possible to devise national measures of performance to accommodate every child and every need. It must also be appreciated that exceptionally gifted children have special needs as well as children with learning difficulties. There is a tendency to weight the provision on special teaching at the latter end of the spectrum.
Are the inputs identified appropriate areas of national priority? Should others be identified? How might improvement in them best be measured and assessed?
The RSE believes all the areas identified are appropriate national priority areas. With reference to the individual areas:
Priority: Modern buildings with the facilities to promote effective learning.
The renewal of 100 schools is welcome but more needs to be achieved in the development of the National Grid for Learning in Scottish schools.
Priority: Engagement of parents in their children's learning and development.
The expectation of engaging parents through the provision of Personal Learning Plans for every child may be optimistic and realistic expectations and timescales are needed in this area.
Priority: A positive ethos.
What is said in this section is important, but it would be an improvement to add the goal of ‘enjoyment’ to those of ‘achievement and fairness’. It is not enough for schools to be happy places but, when they are not, education cannot be first-rate. A first-rate school serves children well in regard to specific achievements but also in regard to the feelings that they form about the whole communal enterprise and their place in it. These feelings stay with them and affect the rest of their lives. They are certainly to affect later feelings of social commitment and concern.
Priority: Schools to be a safe and pleasant environment for learning.
In addition to teachers being able to carry out their professional duties free from fear of attack from pupils, they should also be able to carry out their professional duties free from fear of attack from parents, which is a significant problem for practising teachers in some areas of the country.
Should the areas discussed be considered as national priorities - are there any others?
Priority: Transition from primary to secondary.
The RSE supports the document's commitment to raising standards but believes there should greater emphasis on the need to improve the nature of education for the brightest students at several important stages. At present, the transition from P7 to S1 and S2 fails to stretch a large percentage of pupils and much unnecessary repetition is involved. If the necessary acceleration were achieved, it would be entirely feasible, particularly for the ablest, to continue the acceleration so that Standard Grade was sat in S3 and greater breadth reintroduced at Higher Still. Recent changes mean that relatively few pupils take more than seven Standard Grades in S4, and it is almost impossible now to offer more than five subjects in S5.
The RSE believes that in addition, more attention should also be given to nursery education.
Priority: Attainment of boys and girls.
The disappointing attainment of boys is a recent phenomenon throughout the Western World and is deserving of more attention.
Gaelic Medium Education
How should the Scottish Executive's commitment to Gaelic medium education be taken account of within the national priorities framework?
With regard to Gaelic medium education, the RSE is in favour of what is being proposed but questions whether Gaelic and English are the only alternatives. Although there is an emotional argument for the inclusion, retention or even expansion of Gaelic medium education, perhaps more resources should also be directed into the teaching of languages other than English.
Measures of Performance
How can national priorities be assessed and measured so that improvement can be demonstrated?
The RSE commends both the caution expressed about the measuring of performance and the suggestion that specific local as well as general national measures should be employed. Formal measurement should be carefully controlled so that the measurement of performance does not harmfully distort teaching.
Planning for Improvement
Benchmarking and Target and Objective Setting
The RSE welcomes the concept of self-evaluation, both by schools and individuals, together with the statement that targets should not be imposed or mandated centrally. However, implementation must be approached with caution and a long introductory period will be required.
In responding to this inquiry the Society would like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of Edinburgh responses which are of relevance to this subject: Science Education in Scottish Schools: Looking to the Future (May 1996); Scottish History in the Curriculum (April 1997) and The School Curriculum and the Culture of Scotland (April 1999).