Brian Monteith: As long as the Blob rules, schools will keep failing

Just how bad is Scottish education? Or maybe it's not, maybe the criticism of our schools is just isolated rumblings of a few disillusioned teachers?

Wednesday, 20th September 2017, 7:00 am
Surveys in literacy and numeracy reveal a decline in standards in our schools. Picture: John Devlin

The writing of an open letter to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon by a biology teacher from Dunfermline High School telling of wholesale ­disillusion in the profession has gained a great deal of interest in the last few days – aided by the fact that the teacher involved has supported the SNP and independence.

The claims made by Mark Wilson do ring true, however, given that ­surveys of literacy and numeracy reveal a decline in standards and comparative international rankings show other countries such as Vietnam and Estonia doing better than Scotland.

The problem for parents is that it is hard to tell what really is going on – and without any concrete evidence, it is even harder to do anything about it.

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Education is notorious for being shrouded in jargon and management speak that immediately creates an impervious barrier between teachers and parents.

The description ‘Curriculum of Excellence’ will be meaningless to many parents and increasingly appears to be dismissed as anything but excellent by teachers themselves.

It was meant to change the approach of teaching, allowing more flexibility and encouraging greater interest in learning rather than simply teaching pupils how to pass exams – and it has its supporters – but what is emerging is a tale of confusion and gaps in knowledge that can leave students ignorant of a variety of subjects.

For most parents I imagine the constantly changing names given to qualifications has also created a wider gulf – it has certainly left me behind. I come from an era when you sat your O Grades and Highers but that all changed when Standard Grades were introduced and then Higher Still came in and we had Intermediates and so on.

If an exam does not have the same name or relevance to a parent’s experience then where does that leave them in giving helpful advice and support?

I left school in 1976 and I am a now a grandad – so that’s a couple of generations distant from my own experience – but I can also say that as a parent through my own kids’ schooling in the nineties and noughties, it took a lot of effort to keep up with what was changing in schools then – and that was before the Curriculum of Excellence now.

The same difficulty of interpreting standards goes for employers – how do they evaluate the ability of recruits other than by setting their own tests as part of the interview process? And do the regular comments from lecturers in universities and colleges that the standard of writing by students has fallen give further credence to the sense of the country having lost its way in education?

The growing turmoil around ­Curriculum for Excellence reminds me of the failings voiced around the time when Higher Still was ­introduced. It eventually bedded in but it took ­teachers in some subjects a good few years to get it to work.

All we have then is anecdotal rather than empirical evidence, but as it mounts the sense that something is wrong becomes irresistible.

It is easy to blame the SNP government, which has been in power for the last ten years, but that would be missing the point and would be as irrelevant as blaming the Tories for preparing Higher Still or Labour for introducing it.

The real difficulty is that education is directed by, as Michael Gove identified, an Education Blob, where vested interests in teaching unions, academia, and government agencies have conspired to dictate what ­happens – and politicians, for fear of looking ignorant, have accepted the blob’s demands.

Until that Education Blob is made a servant of headteachers and schools, rather than their master, the decline will continue.