Top down educational leadership in Scotland

A big story in Scottish education broke last year as the SNP government decided to change the policy on primary school testing. Details are still emerging but this is likely to lead to a lot of discussion among those involved in education over the coming years. Most recently a series of benchmarks, that match to Curriculum for Excellence Experiences and Outcomes have been published. The feeling amongst some in education is that these benchmarks have been published to prepare the ground for the standardised tests.

The announcements on this issue have not been well received and a former colleague (previously a head teacher) predicted strike action from the teaching unions. There have also been questions raised about how widely the government consulted on the decision. This led to some great investigative journalism which in turn raised serious questions about the true reason (ideology?) for the new policy. Having worked in England under the OFSTED regime, and mandatory SATs testing, I feel I am able to comment on some of the downsides of the proposal. I did not like the idea of subjecting young learners to the pressure of formalised testing conditions. Nor did I see any value in these scores being made widely available. I quickly realised that children (and the adults in their lives) learnt where they had been placed among their peers. The academic sorting starts early in the English education system.

The controversial SATs test exam booklets. Easily recognisable to any primary teacher in England

Alongside this, on a more local level, in Dundee the council has recently invested heavily in a commercial programme of synthetic phonics. This appears to be following the Westminster government lead who began pushing such schemes and systems some years ago. The author and former Children’s laureate, Michael Rosen, is an outspoken critic. He explains why in this short video and the general idea of synthetic phonics is that pupils learn to read by way of highly procedural, even formulaic resources. The delivery agent (probably a teacher) has to follow the scheme exactly, so the producers say, or it won’t work. In fact the guidance is so clear it is not obvious if a teacher is needed to deliver these schemes at all. Critics and cynics argue these schemes are designed primarily to make a profit and they remove the opportunity for teachers to use their judgement making the process of education (and therefore attainment?) far easier to manage (or control?). Furthermore evidence of any long term success is debated. Despite this Dundee Council have spent over £375,000 on this project and of that expenditure more than £195,000 has gone on the purchase of the resources alone (information obtained via another FOI request last year). In many cases this is simply replacing an existing phonics or reading scheme a school was already using. Of course the scheme may work by plugging the gaps which would be left by an otherwise poorly performing teacher who simply does not understand how to teach language and literacy (and maybe teacher educators need to some responsibility here so I hold my hand up). Unfortunately other solutions that may tackle this underlying problem are likely to involve time, hard work and may not be particularly easy for the teachers or school managers involved. Teacher performance management is notoriously challenging (few teachers who become senior managers have experience in this area and it can be a very unpleasant process) and quality teacher professional development takes time and commitment from all involved.

A text book from the Ruth Miskin Read, Write, Inc scheme

Of course these top down interventions in education may be the result of an underlying ideology. Many people have begun to question the ruling SNP government approach to various policy areas, including education. This idea of increased centralisation is being closely examined even by people who support the SNP. Of course to many people this may seem sensible as it allows standardisation and closer scrutiny and control. However, the downside could be a lack of autonomy, ownership and ultimately may result in feelings of disempowerment. So what is driving this agenda? Well it is not easy relinquishing control and some teachers might not want the responsibility. This approach requires trust from both sides. Unfortunately, from my personal experience, two ‘professions’ who find the concept of trust, and letting go of control difficult (if not impossible) are teachers and politicians. And I suspect this debate is only just getting started.


Scholarship and research in teaching

Having previously blogged during a research seminar, and found this of value, I thought I’d try this again so this post is based on notes I made during a seminar discussing the topic of scholarship. The session was being led by Professor Brian Hudson from the University of Sussex and there were a range of people from lecturer to dean level in attendance from a variety of disciplines including teaching, community education and education psychology. The discussion began with a consideration of the nature of scholarship, research and the tensions of balancing this with administrative and mangerial roles. It quickly became apparent that a shared understanding of the term scholarship was an issue. What was less clear was why people had these different views and interpretations. I suggested that even using social media, and reading relevant tweets, could feed in to this process. Although I got the feeling not everyone in attendance agreed but that is no bad thing as debate can facilitate the learning process.

As the session developed the first key point, for me, was that scholarly attributes (Andresen, 2000) start with critical reflectivity and should be seen as a habit of mind. This is followed by engagement in public coversation and scrutiny, as everyday practice, and an underpinning spirit of curiosity – motivation or drive – or an ethic of enquiry. This seemed fairly clear but got me thinking if this is obvious to everyone (academics and students) and more importantly, if not how is this approach encouraged or fostered without being forced or imposed. 


Brian Hudson leading the discussion on scholarship

The discussions moved on to research focussing on maths teaching. Brian made reference to a text by Mason et al. (2010) which highlights the value of mathematicians getting stuck. I was aware of the text and agreed with this view (having overcome maths anxiety myself) but Brian explained that even higher level advanced maths scholars encounter this. Suddenly I made a connection. Through engagement with Twitter I’d been following a physics PhD student from St Andrews University. His regular reference to getting stuck then finally overcoming difficult maths problems made this idea real for me. I even thought I could share this with education students or young learners in school. I also think this also links well to the need for teachers taking personal responsibility, and ownership of their professional development, and the importance of teacher agency. 

There have been some great examples of autonomous professional learning here at the University of Dundee, in the School of Education and Social Work, such as a book club initiated by a staff member and taken forward with input from the students, which was very well attended by at the first session this year. This year PGDE students have also set up their own study groups to support essay writing and a theory discussion group. For staff there are plans for a journal club which could prove to be very helpful. At Strathclyde University the students run a very popular CPD society and they organise events including TeachMeets.


University of Dundeee, Education Book Club

So what did I make of the scholarship session? Well I may argue that the session was a great example of scholarship in action as I and others present critically evaluated our ideas and hopefully have been motivated to go on and inquire more. And for anyone still struggling with the concept of scholarship, I hope they are just temporarily stuck, and like Mason’s mathematicians will embrace this feeling then strive to overcome it. 


Scholarship in action


Andresen, L. W. (2000) A Useable, Trans-disciplinary Conception of Scholarship, Higher Education Research & Development, vol. 19, No. 2, 137-153.

Mason, J., Burton, L. and Stacey, K. (2010) Thinking Mathematically, Harlow: Prentice Hall.

Fungal foray in Edzell

I am always encouraging student teachers to embrace learning so feel that where possible I should try to live this principle myself. However it is easy to forget this at times. When I was young I loved learning about natural history and as a ‘grown up’ I still love poking about in streams and rock pools. Another interest of mine is wild food (partly because it is free!) so when I heard about the Dundee Naturalists‘ fungal foray to Edzell I thought I’d tag along and try to learn something new. I have been on a few of these trips before and when at university my thesis supervisor was a microbiologist with a passion for fungi and I found the subject interesting. Because of this I was able to identify the odd obvious species, such as puff balls, but I was keen to know more. The trip would also be a chance to learn more about how people learn.

Edzell fungal foray
The woodland just outside of Edzell runs along the North Esk river and was a great spot for the foray. The first thing I learnt was the extent to which different species inhabit slightly different habitats depending on the conditions. The hedgehog fungus likes mossy banks, in slight shade, and that is where we found them just above and below the main path. I also discovered that some of the things I thought I knew weren’t quite right, such as the reason why fungal, also known as fairy, rings form the way they do (apparently this is due to mycelium under the ground and not the spore dispersal from above it). This is important in science education as addressing, and correcting, misconceptions is central to the successful application of constructivist principles. Possibly the most important thing I’ll take away from the day (other than the tasty specimens we foraged!) were ideas to use in my own teaching. I am going to introduce the education students to the four examples below and ask them to work out which three are edible and which one is poisonous. This might seem an odd activity but I hope this will demonstrate how people can attempt to construct their understanding, based on prior knowledge, experience and ideas. You could have a go yourself and post your answers below!

fungal foray forage edzell
Overall I had great day and must thank Jim, Stevie, Gordon and the other highly knowledgeable Nats who helped us identify the fungi, especially the edible ones, and for organising the trip. I think I learned quite a bit and best of all my Sunday breakfast the very next morning was pretty tasty. If you want to find out more about foraged foods there are a range of websites and experts who you can follow on social media, enjoy!