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.
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.
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.