A new start with the OECD report?

June 23, 2021
Category: Blog,Modern Studies

I look forward to the review of Scotland’s education bodies in the light of the OECD report. Neil McLennan (Herald Voices, 22/6/21) makes the excellent point that ‘teachers should be at the heart of decisions’ and I wholeheartedly concur. The only problem is that teachers and young people were widely consulted in the SQA development process which created the current National Qualifications. There was no uniform view. 

From 2009-2012 I worked as an SQA consultant in social subjects, working to create the new National Qualifications which sought to embody the principles of CFE. At one very well attended twilight meeting with teachers in East Lothian, my colleague and I presented SQA’s thoughts to date, which were of fewer ‘high stakes exams’ and greater teacher and learner choice. We were given a round of applause and we left in high spirits. We went to a similar meeting in Dundee the next day and were lucky to leave the room in one piece as teachers demanded ‘no more change’!  

Against a backdrop of funding cuts to councils and schools, the voices of conservatism won the day. When the new ‘CFE’ qualifications were put in place in 2014 they were not that different from the old. The two term dash at Higher remained. Pupils were taught to the exam which, in the drive for ‘consistency’, saw the creation of often incomprehensible tick box, one size fits all marking instructions across social subjects. Existing, creative course work in subjects such as Classical Studies and RMPS were dumbed down to the extended essay model of History which was then rolled out to the other social subjects. The ‘Assignment’ which was subsequently created is loathed by many teachers and learners but it was the result of many teachers (rightly) concerned that they would not be supported in any meaningful way to manage change. They preferred the devil they knew instead of the brave new world.  

The vast bulk of Scottish teachers, from my experience, are resilient and open minded professionals. They deal with challenges and pressures many others would baulk at. I’m pleased the OECD report endorses CFE because its aims and values are sound. The problem is it doesn’t matter how good a curriculum is, if the people delivering it are disempowered and demotivated it can’t succeed. Teachers do need to be at the heart of the new reforms, which I hope will end ‘high stakes’ exams and embrace the many positive aspects of digital technology available to us.

Timidity has been the hallmark of the SNP’s approach to education. It has allowed a joyless, school league table exam obsessed senior phase to be created. It has tinkered with tackling educational inequalities. It has treaded water. In the discussions about how to take CFE forward, it is not enough to have teachers’ voices, teachers need to know they will be given the time and resources to discuss, plan and teach an enjoyable and meaningful curriculum. If we really want a world class education service we need to fund it.