Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Scottish Education- A Socialist Response to Curriculum for Excellence

On the Eve of the EIS Conference, SFST member, Allan Armstrong analyses the CfE

The combination of the over 40% rejection of the latest EIS/COSLA/SEED pay and conditions deal, with the publication of the decisions of the the McCormac Review, means that socialist teachers are now presented with a real opportunity to advance a far-reaching alternative. Otherwise, if the SEED/COSLA and Moray Place get their way, teachers only face increased demoralisation and depression as greater and greater burdens are placed upon our shoulders, only to meet fewer and fewer of our students’ real educational needs.

Perhaps, the employers’ greatest victory, stemming from the 2001 McCrone Agreement, was the EIS giving up any critical assessment of ongoing governments’ educational counter-reforms. In the late 60’s and 70’s, many classroom teachers were avid participants in educational debate. Publishers, including Penguin, issued regular Education Specials. In these the latest ideas - some decidedly whacky, some divorced from any classroom experience, but many very stimulating - were read and debated by teachers, especially socialist teachers, many of whom entered education after ‘68’.

In secondary education, as recently as the 1990’s, there were vibrant subject organisations, such as the Association of Media Education (Scotland), in which classroom teachers eagerly participated, discussed and debated the latest developments and practice, without any thought of advancing their careers beyond the classroom. These organisations weren’t insular and also sought out the most stimulating external speakers.

However, the SED and SEED completely failed to build on all this classroom teachers’ knowledge and experience, whilst the EIS leadership never took radical educational reform seriously - it was too associated with precisely those who contested them on pay and conditions.
Reforming Scottish education took a different course. ‘Experts’ were drawn from the senior promoted staff in the universities and colleges of education, aided by selected promoted teachers. They were prepared to accept the latest top-down changes in return for their own rapid career enhancement. Initially, there were consultation exercises, like that conducted around Higher Still. However, when classroom teachers challenged these top-down initiatives, they were just ignored. Higher Still was launched to a great fanfare, and crashed spectacularly in the first year of the new examinations in 2000.

Primary teachers offered similar warnings over National Testing. This would result in young school students being trained to pass through the requisite hoops (the national tests), at the cost of gaining the more rounded knowledge that could advance their education. Eventually, even the HMI’s (now employed solely to promote the latest government initiatives, and to cow and police teachers into doing so) cottoned on to what classroom teachers had long being saying. They eventually realised that the National Testing they had been pushing down primary teachers’ throats would have to go.

Therefore. the SEED came up with a new catch-all educational counter-reform to cover schooling from 3-18 - the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). A key feature of CfE has been the total non-involvement of class teachers in its formulation or development. The SEED decided to avoid the challenges from classroom practioners they had faced over their earlier reforms. Furthermore, another key aspect of CfE has been to make the actual nature of the changes as vague as possible. This means the SEED can continually change the goalposts, revealing new changes as they see fit, knowing that classroom teachers have been disarmed in advance, since they have never had any input into the process.

Following earlier precedents, CfE produced its own round of jargon (what was once essential knowledge for would-be careerists is now just as important for those trying to get a permanent contract). However, every classroom teacher realises that the four ‘capacities’ are a burdensome add-on extra, which do not help actual educational practice. Does anybody know one person in school, charged with promoting ‘responsible citiizens’ throughout the curriculum, who took the opportunity of all the brouhaha surrounding the recent royal wedding to promote discussion in school on what being a citizen actually means - as opposed to being a docile subject? For the authorities and school management ‘capacities’ are just another addition to their armoury of control - monitoring and measuring our compliance by ticking boxes and through regular teacher appraisal.

As local education offices and schools develop an ever-extended and privileged hierarchy of managerial posts, these people, far divorced from classroom realities, have to produce longer and longer paper trails to provide evidence to their immediate superiors, that they are in control of things. Since there is continuous downward managerial pressure, every effort is made to ensure, at each subordinate level, that the requirements demanded are met on paper. However, as the paperwork is passed up the managerial hierarchy, it reflects less and less of the reality in the classroom.

Our new managerial stalinists face similar problems to their now departed predecessors in the old USSR. At present, most teachers remain committed enough to the job that they try to deflect all the top-down imposed crap, the better to get on with the real job of teaching. However, if the McCormac Review were to be ‘successfully’ imposed, schools would likely become dysfunctional workplaces, where “they pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work”. And school students confronted with more and more meaningless school work, and fewer and fewer decent job prospects, would be even more disaffected - a recipe for failure.

Most teachers would recognise the need for some administrative jobs to enhance our work in the classroom (e.g. curriculum development, pastoral care, dealing with necessary agencies). However, the reality underlying many of the new promoted posts is that they create work that detracts from the job of teaching. The more elaborate and dictatorial the managerial hierarchies weighing down upon teachers, the less teachers have meaningful control, and the less effective is the education we provide.

So what can teachers do? Developing meaningful education for our students means asserting teacher control over classroom education. Nobody has more interests in providing effective learning than teachers, since we soon know to our cost whenever we are unable to do this. The massively increased managerial pressures resulting from the McCormac Review, coupled to the worsened conditions and the pay freeze, have educational failure and breakdown written all over them. Furthermore, Scottish Labour*, the SNP and the Tories all have plans to protect the more privileged, especially from the middle class, from the consequences of their planned educational, social and economic measures. They want to develop a hierarchy of state funded private schools (which can set their own curriculum, pay and conditions) leaving behind a growing number of sink schools.

And central of all their plans is CfE. Here is the Wikipedia assessment of how teachers currently view CfE:-

“Many within the Scottish teaching profession, including the teacher's union EIS and it's members, believe that the Curriculum for Excellence is too vague, in particular with regards to its 'outcomes and experiences'. There exists a fear that this vague factor will result in teachers not knowing what is expected of them in the classroom. This has been further exacerbated by the confusion over assessment. As the implementation of the CfE continues, then assessment guidelines will be published. This includes assessment on literacy and numeracy from all subjects within Secondary Schools. The time required to complete such expectations risk taking time away from teaching subject content.”

And here is the official EIS response:-

‘EIS general secretary Ronnie Smith said the union, together with most teachers, supported the aims of the Curriculum for Excellence.

But he added they had "a number of concerns about how the process of implementation is progressing"’.


This reflects the fact that the EIS leadership, under McCrone, gave up the right to meaningfully criticise the nature of government educational policy. They can only confine themselves to negotiating the terms of its implementation (and thy have been lousy at doing that too!) This helps to explain why so much of the Scottish Educational Journal is indistinguishable from any SEED or Local Authority material promoting the latest government ‘education’ initiative. Moray Place has just become an additional personnel management service for our bosses.

On those occasions, Moray Place has been forced into taking action, it as been of a token nature, designed to let off steam. At the same time, as Moray Place was organising for teachers to attend the TUC’s display of trade union ‘unity’ against the cuts on March 26th, it was, at the same time, planning to be the first union to break that unity, with its latest sell-out. Putting demands on Moray Place is not sufficient. Socialists must argue the case now for independent action, which can not be recuperated and sold out by union officials. It may take a little time yet before we can make the sort of breakthrough achieved in 1975, with mass independent (unofficial) action, but the ground should be prepared. Scottish Rank & File Teachers were formed in1972, two years before this major breakthrough.

Therefore it is the gap between what teachers already clearly understand (see Wikipedia entry) and what Ronnie Smith and Moray Place oppose, that socialist teachers should address.

As a far from comprehensive starter, I suggest that the socialist teachers could initiate discussion around the following points:-

a) oppose the CfE on educational grounds
b) promote class teacher-controlled educational organisations (like the original AMES) to develop a meaningful curriculum and promote good educational material (pressing for resources and time from the SEED and Local Authorities - probably much cheaper than the current top- down, over-promoted and wasteful system, e.g. never ending costly glossy brochures, which just lie in cupboards, or are taken out before interviews, after their first in-service day airing!)
c) argue for democratising schools, with the scope and nature of necessary non-classroom work under class teacher control. Department (secondary) or Years Group (primary) organisers to be elected by the class teachers concerned (this would cut down unnecessary bureaucracy work to a mimimum) and to be subject to re- election.
d) reform the EIS, so all officials are directly elected, subject to regular re- election, recruited from amongst classroom teachers, and receive the average pay of classroom teachers (the impending replacement of the truly dire Ronnie Smith provides an opportunity to raise this issue).

Yes, this may seem like a ‘return to 1968’, however, I think it is such radical l thinking that is now required in the face of the ongoing economic, social and educational crisis we now face. Tahrir Square in Cairo may have seemed quite far away. However, when young students, workers and unemployed in Spain are joining daily protests in public squares, maybe ‘the spirit of 2011’ will once more take off across the world where ‘the spirit of 68’ left off. I still remember occupying Moray Place in 1974, as part of the movement which turned Scottish education upside down at the time. Bob Dylan may be 70, but perhaps ‘The Times They Are A’Changing’ again!

Allan Armstrong, 30.5.11

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