For better, For Worse - Reflecting on changes in education
This article was first published in Times Education Supplement Scotland January 2019
If a week is a long time in politics, then 40 years in education is several lifetimes. I have seen many changes in this time – so here are my thoughts on some of the most significant differences and the impact they have had.
When I started teaching in 1978, there was a morning interval, an afternoon interval and at least an hour-long lunch break. I never really understood the logic of the drive in the 1980s for a shorter day, removing afternoon break and cutting lunchtime to 50 or even 40 minutes. I know it will be defended by colleagues citing a lack of resources for supervision and potential for high jinks, but the system lost out with this shortening of the day.
Lunchtime, in particular, was beneficial to many young people and staff. It was time for extensive extracurricular activities, programmes of supported study and so on. These things still happen in schools, but they are either crammed into the shorter time or are add-ons outside school hours, requiring transport and additional costs. I worry about which pupils might have been disadvantaged by this move: the poorest, those who depend on school transport and – especially – those in rural and semi-rural areas.
The loss of the staffroom can also be traced to this shortening of the day. Is there a correlation between this development and the increase in stress and poorer health and wellbeing among our teachers? Staffrooms are a very important feature of a school: a safe place to let off steam, to build community and find support. I mourn their loss – and often fought losing battles to have them included in many new-builds in my local authority.
Another concern is the expanding list of demands made on our education system, our schools and our teachers. My whole career has seen political interference and a growing demand that schools fix all society’s ills and issues.
This article would be far too long if I had to list all the things schools are now expected to deal with in addition to teaching, learning and attainment, but it would include: closing the poverty-related attainment gap, hate crime and healthy eating.
These are important issues to be addressed – but not the sole responsibility of schools. Is it any wonder that the crammed day and these increased expectations lead to reports of a majority of teachers claiming to have mental health issues? One recent report listed 217 things that non-educationalists think that “schools should teach”!
Unfortunately, the efforts of schools were not always matched elsewhere. As a headteacher, for example, I was frustrated that rules that prevented pupils from having chips or chocolate between 9am and 3.30pm were not supported by measures to ensure this positive message permeated into lives: no pricing policies, no planning restrictions. And try finding or buying – at a decent price for those on low or fixed income – fresh fruit and vegetables in the main housing areas across our towns and cities. I am disappointed that in the 21st century we have not developed a social strategy to approach such issues and look at how they impact on children’s development. If only we took a leaf out of our Scandinavian cousins’ book on this.
The positive focus on pedagogy
Of course, I have also witnessed improvements in the education system in my 40 years. Not the least of these is the focus on pedagogy – the art of teaching and learning. These days, it is rare to find teachers taking out the textbook and rigidly working their way through it – or, worse, getting pupils simply to copy out and summarise each chapter. This is how I was taught, and what I experienced in schools in earlier days of my career.
Since the seminal 2011 Donaldson report on teacher education in Scotland, however, initial teacher training with a focus on genuine collaboration with schools – together with the guaranteed one-year probationary post – has had a positive impact on the quality of teaching and learning. I might go further and claim that with Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence, where its spirit and principles are embraced, teachers are free to be creative and innovative and to experiment with methodologies – as a result, I have witnessed outstanding practice in classrooms in the past decade.
The last area I want to explore is the most important: the focus on the professionalism of the teacher and on career-long professional learning.
I am proud to be part of a system that has an independent general teaching council and one that has developed – in collaboration with the profession – a suite of professional standards from provisional registration through to leadership and management. The fact that these are underpinned by values and are based on self-evaluation makes them even more remarkable.
This type of focus on career-long professional learning will stand the profession in good stead for decades to come. The shift away from CPD as something done to you, to the idea that professional learning comes in many guises is to be welcomed but also nurtured and developed. I was proud to be part of the team to scope out and set up the Scottish College for Educational Leadership. I watched it in its infancy taking first steps, to now standing up and not only embracing the notion of leadership at all levels but actually putting in place opportunities for teachers to develop at all levels.
The way in which teachers have embraced professional learning pays testimony to their dedication to making a difference for every child.