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Challenging Scottish education

By 19 May 2012No Comments

John MacBeath, Cambridge’s Emeritus Professor of Education Leadership and formerly Director of Strathclyde University’s Quality in Education Centre, has written a challenging piece on Scottish school effectiveness. 
In ‘Challenging the Orthodoxy’, his chapter in School Effectiveness and Improvement*, Professor MacBeath warns against idealising  Scottish education.
He also reminds us that Scotland’s education is different from England’s -97% of children attending an entirely comprehensive system, no governors but advisory Parent Councils, no Ofsted, no National Curriculum – although Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) takes us towards one, the local authorities directly employing all state teachers, and a political culture essentially hostile to the Conservative Party and many of its educational ideals.  He might have added a highly unionised teaching profession and a long-established General Teaching Council.
There has never been the willingness here to reduce school experience to ‘quantitative measures’ and make consequent invidious comparisons.  None the less, differences between schools exist and are as apparent as elsewhere.  Prof MacBeath points out that private tutoring plays a significant role in raising middle-class attainment.
The corollary, especially at adolescence, is the negative impact of ‘the peer effect’.  The weaker the social and intellectual capacity in the family, the stronger is the influence of peers.  “In disadvantaged neighbourhoods lack of navigational know how by parents can have disastrous consequences for their children.”
Prof MacBeath suggests that highly structured study support becomes crucial for the most able but poorest of our young people.  They also however required serious support to ‘find the hero inside themselves’, to believe in their own capacity and to learn the skills to unlock that potential.
Praising the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery’s dedicated learning space, The Centre for the New Enlightenment, Prof MacBeath lauds its commitment to supporting young people become the architects of their own success, to jettison the too typically defeatist belief that they were victims of circumstance.
Prof MacBeath asks big questions.  What purposes do schools serve today?  What purposes are served by comparing schools’ effectiveness?  After four decades of quantitative (and frequently meaningless) analysis of effectiveness, he suggests, we have reached ‘saturation point’.  We require a challenge to that orthodoxy but also to the orthodoxy of teaching as we have always taught.
Modern Scotland is a web of paradoxes: radical but conservative; egalitarian but authoritarian.  What Prof MacBeath has unearthed is that most attempts at analysing effectiveness in Scotland have followed a discredited, conservative model.  In a country where vast inequalities, despite the best intentions of schools and teachers, are reinforced by education, a radical review is required.
The CfE provides an opportunity: engaging, interactive learning; a curriculum geared to relevance and the wider world; listening to young people’s views.  That opportunity however is being squandered.  A major reform is being pushed despite dramatic flaws in its central core.  The architects of Curriculum for Excellence gave insufficient thought to the reconciliation of skills and knowledge as well as to Prof MacBeath’s big question about purpose.  They did not identify how teachers, if freed from the tyranny of the inspectorate and the league tables, might build better teaching by mutual cooperation.
Nor have our politicians seriously questioned the connection between inequality and poor educational outputs.  Despite the near absence of Tories in our parliament, no Scottish government has made any serious efforts to tackle poverty, certainly no successful efforts.
Prof MacBeath has posed serious challenges both to those who control, and to those who teach in, Scotland’s schools.  Can either cohort rise to the challenge?
*              Chapman, Armstrong et al (Eds), School Effectiveness and Improvement: Research, Policy and Practice. Routledge (RPP, £28.99)

The above article was first published in SecEd on 17 May 2012 (page 8):


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