BlogSync Topic 1: “The Universal Panacea? The number one shift in UK education I wish to see in my lifetime”

Posted: January 25, 2013 in blogsync

Having started this blog and then (as I thought might happen) completely ignored it for a while, I came across the BlogSync project on Twitter and decided to sign up, hoping that it would spur me on to start actually writing.

So, here we go…

“The Universal Panacea? The number one shift in UK education I wish to see in my lifetime”

Having read the topic title for this month I decided to wait for a few days before starting writing. This wasn’t because I couldn’t think of anything, but rather because far too many ideas popped into my head almost instantly for me to be able to produce a concise and effective piece of writing (the very thing I constantly insist that my pupils do for me).

The first and most obvious point that occurred to me was that there is, of course, no single magical cure to the ills of our education system – the problems are too numerous and complex. Surely, though, it should be possible to find a starting point from which an effective treatment might proceed?

Anyway, having let the question rattle around in my mind for a few days I stumbled across something last week which confirmed exactly what I want to see in education – have a look:

So, the number one shift in UK education I wish to see in my lifetime? An explicit and unconditional acceptance that the professionalism of teachers must be trusted. This sounds obvious enough to make this entire blog post redundant, but if that were the case then the ICTex group wouldn’t have felt the need to explicitly recommend the move in both their initial and final reports on the future of technology in education. Of course, these documents relate specifically to the use of ICT in the classroom (where the professional judgement of teachers is far too often overlooked) but I would argue that the problem runs much, much deeper.

The example which is perhaps causing the most consternation (and, let’s be honest, anger) amongst teachers of English is the upcoming imposition of set Scottish texts for the new National 5 and Higher exams. Since this was first mentioned there has been a steady stream of criticism from across the country: we have been at pains to point out that required texts runs entirely contrary to the principles of Curriculum for Excellence; that English teachers in Scotland already teach Scottish texts (and even if they didn’t, there is a huge difference between good teaching of Scottish texts and forcing pupils to write about it in examinations); that such restrictive proposals will limit innovation; that a significant amount of funding will be required to allow schools to acquire stocks which are broad enough to offer personalisation and choice; that there is a depressing dearth of contemporary texts on the proposed lists; and that, to be perfectly frank, we do not need to be told what is ‘appropriate’ literature for our students.

And the response to all of this? Exactly as you would expect – there is to be a list of set texts for the National 5 and Higher examinations. In a country where the professional judgement of teachers was paramount there would at the very least have been a feeling amongst professionals that our responses were taken seriously.

Of course, this is made all the more frustrating by the fact that Curriculum for Excellence is, in so many ways, a significant step in the right direction, but I can’t help but feel that we are at risk of missing some of the biggest opportunities that it presents.

Then again, it could be worse – I could be teaching in England, where Michael Gove seems hell bent on crushing the idea that teachers can be trusted to drive effective change for the benefit of their pupils. We only need to take a quick look at the outcry over the ill-conceived EBacc, or the move to allow academies to employ teachers with no training or qualificiations, to see that a situation is developing where the opinions of teachers are of no importance whatsoever – ‘innovation’ is driven by ministerial diktat with no regard for solid evidence or the experiences of other systems (presumably in a future role as Health Secretary Mr Gove will start telling doctors how they should be treating cancer).

Why, though, is this my absolute number one wish in education? Put simply, because I firmly believe that all of the other ideas on my wish-list (access to genuinely 21st Century technology for all pupils in all schools, a system which is incessantly insistent that all pupils are pushed to achieve as much as they possibly can, approaches to Learning and Teaching which are innovative and focussed on the needs of individual students) are completely and unavoidably dependent upon the presumption that teachers are the ones best placed to decide on the needs of those in their classes and schools.

Is every teacher perfect? Of course not, and it would be absurd to suggest otherwise; however, the best way to drive up the quality of teaching is to develop a culture of excellence, the first step for which is trust.

I know that we could develop a truly world-leading education system in Scotland (unfortunately recent evidence suggests that achieving this in the rest of the UK might be more of a challenge) but only if we emulate the approach of countries such as Finland, where teaching is a high-status, academically challenging profession and teachers’ expertise are highly valued. We cannot simply replicate the Finnish system in Scotland, but there is one hugely important aspect of their philosophy that would benefit our own system; as the speaker in the video says:

When people ask me how do you know … that your students are learning in a school I always say: ‘Ask teachers, they know.’

  1. […] James McEnaney: The Universal Panacea? The number one shift in UK education I wish to see in my lifetime […]

  2. […] James McEnaney: The Universal Panacea? The number one shift in UK education I wish to see in my lifetime […]

  3. Michael Tidd says:

    One of the few cases in these blogs that comes anything close to a panacea. As you rightly say, with the right freedoms (and I use the word in its traditional non-Govian sense) teachers are actually much more likely to be able to become agents of positive change in education rather than cogs in its sticking wheels!

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