Across a long, seasoned career in Scottish education, The General Teaching Council for Scotland’s chief executive, Ken Muir, has seen more than most. He has been actively involved as a teacher, Principal Teacher, Education Adviser, HMI and Strategic Director in numerous national developments. Looking back and reflecting on 2020, a year unlike any other for education and indeed society, Muir believes that to thrive in a new post-Covid world which will have compassion, equality and sustainability at its heart, the sector must be prepared to learn the lessons of the past and change the status quo for the better.
As a former teacher of geography, I know it is verging on sacrilegious to suggest that important lessons can be learned from the study of history. However, as a result of our Covid-19 experiences, I have to concede that I am more convinced now that there may be some truth in the statement after all.
Reflecting on the year just past, Covid has had a dramatic impact on society and how we live our lives. It has had a devastating effect on those who have lost loved ones and their jobs. However, as we begin the new year, there is undoubtedly hope on the horizon for a post-Covid world coming closer; a world that is potentially more compassionate; more equal and more sustainable.
Articles by education commentators have been full of crystal ball gazing as to how Scottish education might change for the better as a result of learning lessons from the pandemic: greater [sensible] use of technology; more blended learning; greater focus on health and wellbeing of staff as well as learners; less focus on “teaching to the test”; and the reduced use of high stakes testing and examinations.
Although there is much variation in the suggestions on what we might learn from Covid and what our future education system might look like, most commentators agree that our experience of the pandemic is providing us with an unprecedented but timely opportunity to re-examine the status quo and re-imagine what our future Scottish education system might look like.
No one doubts there are lessons to be learned. The question is more one of how willing and ready is the Scottish education system, or any other UK education system for that matter, to embrace any form of radical change and learn from those lessons.
Lessons from the past
Looking back over my career in Scottish education, I have seen and been actively involved as a teacher, Principal Teacher, Education Adviser, HMI and Strategic Director in national developments such as TVEI [Technical and Vocational Education Initiative]; the introduction of Standard Grade; the 5-14 Curriculum; Assessment is for learning; New Community Schools; Higher Still; Curriculum for Excellence; Developing the Young Workforce; and many other programmes designed to bring about change and improvement in outcomes for learners and better align Scottish education to the future needs of society.
While all these developments have undoubtedly had some success, often because of much hard work and dedication from those in the teaching profession make them work, it is worth reflecting on the reality that putting these developments in place was rarely without its problems.
When Standard Grade examinations were first introduced in 1986, major concerns were expressed at the use of overly elaborate Extended Grade Related Criteria [EGRC] and a major revision had to take place the following year because of their complexity.
When the 5-14 Curriculum was introduced in the early 1990’s, the introduction of national testing in reading, writing and mathematics was roundly criticised as focusing too much on accountability and measurement, rather than teachers’ professional judgement and assessment as part of learning.
Recognising that assessment and testing arrangements were not working well for learners, teachers or policymakers led to a review in 1999 which spawned the Assessment is for Learning initiative in 2002. How much of a legacy has that excellent development really left?
The complexity of the 1999 reform of the examination system, “Higher Still”, with its modularisation of courses into units, unit assessment and external course examination, contributed to the Diet 2000 examination debacle which heralded further changes to the programme the following year. Clearly, the lessons from Standard Grade had not been learned.
As a result of much disquiet on the direction of travel, Scottish education embarked in 2002 on a “National Debate on Education”. The responses to the debate highlighted many areas for improvement. A key theme arising from the debate was the need to “de-clutter” the curriculum and introduce greater flexibility within schools. In particular, responses indicated the need to:
• increase choice for learners and reduce overcrowding in the 5-14 curriculum;
• create a more flexible curriculum based around a well-balanced core;
• simplify and reduce the amount of assessment and time spent on exams;
• create learning and teaching programmes that better meet the needs of all learners;
• increase access to vocational qualifications and strengthen school/college links; and make better connections between the stages in the curriculum from 3 to 18.
What emerged from this was Curriculum for Excellence. It’s fair to say that there remain to this day mixed views on the success that has had. It also begs the questions as to how much we have taken account of the lessons learned from 5-14 and Higher Still and how far we have addressed the challenges set out in the findings from the National Debate.
The key lesson in this historical journey through the last 40 years of Scottish education is that we really don’t have a great track record in learning from the lessons of history and making the right decisions for our educational future. This is all the more bizarre as “learning” is meant to be our business.
A new leaf?
As many commentators have stressed, the Covid pandemic is a disruptive event that offers the Scottish and other education systems the very real opportunity to radically re-imagine what we want from education in the future. As educationists, it would be a truly monumental mistake if we came through Covid with nothing more for all our painful suffering over the past year than slightly greater awareness of how to use different IT platforms and an extreme distaste for wearing face masks.
Society is already learning the hard lessons from Covid and making changes; but will our education system? Our track record of learning the lessons from history and planning for a long-term, sustainable future suggest that this will be our next big challenge; and almost certainly a much bigger one than addressing those presented by Covid.
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