Focussing on headlines combined with incompetence is a recipe for failure

Focussing on headlines combined with incompetence is a recipe for failure

by Carole Ford
article from Friday 4, September, 2020

THE RECENT SQA results debacle and the off/on return to school during the current pandemic have shone a searing light on the systemic and recurring problems in Scottish education.  As pupils and teachers are tossed from one crisis to another, with anxious parents watching from the side lines, the question has to be asked, how did it come to this? 

Why are standards in schools steadily falling, why could the SQA not devise a fair moderation algorithm and why are schools re-opening without the stringent safety measures in place, such as in China or Singapore, which might allow them to stay open?

In every case the root cause is twofold.  The Scottish government is focused solely on headlines which will support the SNP cause, rather than on policy decisions which will effectively promote educational outcomes for young people – and there is a total lack of implementational competence at ministerial level.  

The classic example of this is the recent decision, taken at the height of the lockdown, to purchase 25000 laptops for disadvantaged young people.  This decision received maximum publicity and was touted as the action of a government which cares about education and social justice.  Since then the laptops have rested quietly in a warehouse somewhere, with absolutely no plan or effort to actually distribute them to children.   The cynic might think they never intended to distribute them; the realist knows that they can’t think of a way to do it.  Simply put, what would happen in the poorest households who don’t spend money on internet connections and try to minimise the use of electricity?  Headline followed by incompetence.  

The falling standards in schools are the direct result of poor decision making by the Scottish government, compounded, it has to be said, by the compliance culture of local authorities and the educational establishment.  For example, in theory, Curriculum for Excellence places greater emphasis on literacy.  Teachers enthusiastically bought into this principle, knowing as they do that poor literacy skills hamper young people at every stage of their lives.  The implementation policies were eagerly awaited.

What did they get?  A primary curriculum which downplays the use of written materials in favour of something called ‘active learning’.  There are many definitions of this term but the simplest interpretation is to keep children moving around a lot, from activity to activity, and avoid sitting still, just reading or writing, if at all possible.  Not so strange that Scotland’s international ranking in reading has dropped from the top to the third quartile of the OECD league table.  Almost worse, Scotland is now outperformed by England – not just in reading but in maths and science too.

Meanwhile in secondary schools, overnight and with no training, all teachers became teachers of literacy, numeracy, and health and wellbeing.  Physics teachers were obliged to build literacy into their physics lessons, French teachers were struggling to inject numeracy into vocabulary or grammar lessons, and Maths teachers spent more time on bar charts than strictly necessary because they could more readily use health statistics as a context.  Much harder when teaching trigonometry or vectors.  The net effect?  A lot of rather poor teaching of literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing, and a loss of teaching time in teachers’ areas of genuine expertise.

If we apply this catastrophic combination of headline followed by incompetence, the exam results shemozzle becomes inevitable.  At all costs, quite literally as it turned out, John Swinney wanted to avoid a headline about artificially inflated results.  The SQA was therefore instructed to devise an algorithm which would keep the 2020 results broadly in line with previous years, with only a small margin of improvement.  The SQA had two choices.  It could have argued for a fairer, more individualised system of moderation, or it could comply.  It chose the latter.

Despite John Swinney categorically denying in April that pupil results would be moderated by the individual school results from previous years, that is precisely what he had already instructed the SQA to do.  It could have ameliorated the impact slightly if it had used global results to moderate globally, rather than school by school, which would have avoided the most damning consequence of downgrading more disadvantaged pupils by a greater margin than the more advantaged.

Now we have the worst possible outcome.  Everyone knows that this year’s results are not a true reflection of how pupils would have performed in the examinations, teachers who stretched the rules in their pupils’ favour have won the day, and pupils who genuinely deserved their grades may well be squeezed out of opportunities by the less deserving.  Aim for the headline, follow it up with incompetence.

Which brings us to the current situation in our schools.  Within a 24 hour period, John Swinney switched from a blended learning return to school to a blanket full time return.  Whatever one’s views on the better approach, there was certainly no dramatic change in the scientific evidence to prompt his sudden change of mind.  What there was, was a series of negative headlines.

Unfortunately for teachers, there were no headlines about the huge amount of work which had already been undertaken in schools to prepare for blended learning.  Overnight, they were thrown into a fulltime return with no guidance on how to achieve this safely.  The guidance which eventually arrived is verbose, caveated and leaves much of the decision making to individual authorities and schools.  It is tempting to suggest that responsibility is being firmly pushed away from central government.  If there is one thing we have learned in this pandemic, it is that safety messaging must be clear and simple.  Complicated rules, with exceptions and loopholes, lead to misinterpretation and inappropriate behaviours.

So, here we go again.  Incompetence following the headline.  

Scotland appears to be blind to the myriad educational failings of the current Scottish government.  An army may march on its stomach; a country marches on the quality of its education system.  The skills shortages and low productivity in Scotland are directly attributable to falling educational standards.  Who knew that our formerly world beating education system would consider ‘average’ a standard to aspire to?

Carole Ford is former headteacher of Kilmarnock Academy, former president of School Leaders Scotland and the co-author of several maths textbooks including the one most often used for Higher maths.

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