SNP ministers have been asleep at the wheel during car-crash of school reform
IN more than 100 pages of a densely argued critique of Scottish education, there’s a standout — and rather worrying — line.
Teachers, we’re told, spoke of the need for ‘traditional practices to remain in place as the most efficient’ way to help their pupils.
So where does that leave the SNP’s trendy Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), introduced a decade ago?
It was intended to be a dramatically new way of equipping children with the skills they need in the 21st century.
But that throwaway reference to teachers gently reminding us about the importance of ‘traditional practices’ is telling — because their voice has been routinely ignored.
The OECD’s lengthy review of the CfE concludes, perhaps a little diplomatically, that it’s still ‘valid’, and indeed ‘bold’, but it also sets out a series of fundamental criticisms.
Blame-shifting ministers pre-empted the findings of a report whose publication they delayed until after the election (it’s all Covid’s fault, naturally) by promising an overhaul of failing quangos.
It’s easy to see why they kept it at the bottom of a drawer for so long.
The boffins of the OECD, having spoken to teachers and kids, conclude that ‘knowledge’ is actually pretty important.
Teachers insisted on going on about it, and the need to impart more of it, to give pupils a fighting chance of passing exams.
The CfE was all about inspiring learners and sweeping away rote learning — and was generally sceptical about old hat like the ‘three Rs’.
There’s a ‘lack of clarity’ in the CfE about the importance of knowledge, and some evidence that what pupils were being taught was ‘too limited to adequately prepare [them] for academic studies’.
Compared to their counterparts in many other countries, Scottish teachers ‘seem to rely much less on textbooks produced by educational publishers’, which ‘raises some questions about efficiency, as developing high-quality instructional materials requires a lot of expertise’.
For all of its stated enthusiasm for ploughing on with the CfE, the OECD review concludes by recommending a fresh look at its aims, to clarify what on Earth it’s trying to achieve.
The curriculum was a legitimate idea, it contends, which was badly failed by botched implementation — and now it’s a behemoth sustained by a never-ending stream of meaningless jargon.
Even the OECD experts confessed they were bamboozled by reams of opaque guidance — so imagine how the teachers must feel.
The ‘constant production and recycling of documentation was often described as “overwhelming”, and the terminology used too technical and open to interpretation’.
Most damningly, no one really kept an eye on how this grand revamp of the syllabus was playing out at the chalkface.
One of the key recommendations is that this should be the job of a single organisation — not a great reflection on the dysfunctional SQA exams agency, and Education Scotland.
Not before time, the SQA, which presided over last year’s exam disaster and appears to be busy failing to prevent another one this year, is for the chop.
The OECD was surprised there hadn’t been regular MoTs of the curriculum — despite the fact that Scotland’s education system is ‘heavily governed relative to its scale and numbers of schools’.
Such a ‘systematic approach can also ensure that curriculum issues and controversies’ can be flagged up — but it’s no great surprise that the ultra-secretive SNP opted against transparency.
But hang on a minute — why should we need a costly quango like Education Scotland — stuffed full of highly-paid strategists hired for their ‘blue-sky thinking’ skills — to figure out what’s going on?
You might recall Nicola Sturgeon, who sat on this report (costing nearly £400,000) for as long as she could, once promised that education was her number one priority.
But in reality she’s been asleep at the wheel — and it’s taken a decade for the SNP to wake up to the calamity unfolding on its watch.
A Frankenstein’s Monster was created by well-meaning educationalists and policy-makers in thrall to their wonderful new vision of state education — even if frankly few of them fully understood what it all meant.
It blundered out of control while the SNP buried its head in the sand, and now ministers are dumping the blame on their admittedly woeful quangos.
A series of weak education ministers stood on the side-lines including the last incumbent of the post, John Swinney, while pupils paid the price of their failure to intervene.
Miss Sturgeon’s crusade to close the attainment gap has achieved progress that varies between the fractional and the negligible.
That’s a fact the OECD confirms when it says ‘attainment [has] decreased among students from both the most deprived and least deprived areas’, for students at National 5 and above.
That’s not bad going — both the rich and the poor lose out, and the gap is still a yawning chasm.
In 2019, a major global study found Scottish pupils lag behind those in Latvia, Slovenia and Estonia in maths — and are outperformed by children in England.
After those statistics were published, Mr Swinney said we were on ‘the right track’ — one that led, in a roundabout way, to his removal from the post.
Perhaps over-optimistically, the OECD said there would be a ‘single source of truth’ on how Scottish education is doing — good luck with that one.
It also looks at the problem of subject rationing — kids getting a restricted range of learning on the basis that education should be based on quality and not quantity.
The SNP has had its fingers in its ears for a long time on this issue — despite MSPs and education experts telling them it made no sense.
According to the OECD, the ‘variation of subject choice between schools may have unforeseen consequences for learner progression’. Who’d have thought…?
The executive summary of this sprawling report allows the SNP to claim that the OECD gurus haven’t written off the curriculum, which is true, but it’s not exactly a glowing tribute either.
Instead it’s a cautionary tale about how not to manage education — devising woolly ideas and then compelling bewildered teachers to get on with it.
The OECD also makes the point that Covid meant teachers’ judgment had to be used when exams were cancelled, and maybe that shows ‘pen and paper’ testing is old-fashioned anyway.
But the last couple of years have shown that exams were actually pretty useful, and prevent the kind of carnage we saw last summer, and might well see again in 2021, and maybe even in 2022.
As ever, it’s long-suffering teachers and pupils who have to pick up the pieces of a ham-fisted attempt to tear up ‘traditional practices’ — with no clear idea of how to replace them.
*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on June 22, 2021.