Saturday, 15 December 2007

Performance and class size.

At this time of year teachers in secondary schools across Scotland are pushing pupils to get the most work out of them before the festive season intervenes. They know that teaching will be increasingly overtaken by assessment after the holiday, when the new year ages rapidly and pupils rush towards revision and prelim exams.
It is interesting that the news papers hark the school holidays with three types of story about education. I have read articles on these three topics over the last week:
1. School League Tables and performance of local authority schools, relative to fee paying schools
2. Arguments for and against setting limits on class size.
3. The Quality and Equity of Scotland's school system (and scrap Standard Grade).

These stories have appeared in various magazines and newspapers but it is useful to look at what they have in the common. The first two topics are old favourites but the third is new: shockingly there is more difference between pupils in a successful school than there is between the best and worst schools in Scotland. There is also more than a hint of overlap with the English agenda and the government vision for improving the learning experiences of young people. The big idea these articles have in common is well known: that education is a positional good and that schools are steeped in a culture of individual performance. We, as parents or teachers, are often confused becuase we want both a fair system for all and the best for our own children. Newspapers make money from our fear of personal failure or more often our indignation that private schools are able to do so much better than our local schools, no matter what.
Some questions come to mind. Why should we be surprised that people, or professional institutions act in such a competitive way? Why should we be surprised that private fee paying schools look for a positional advantage in society, through small class sizes or coaching learners for exam success? Should we simply follow their lead and encourage schools to have a system of schooling based on competition and individual exam success (even if this means distorting the model with larger classes than those found in private schools)? Many parents and teachers do not see any need to move away from these old models of schooling: I am not one of them not least because they are divisive.
In my mind there are very good reasons for a national review and for scrutinizing the inertia in our school system by reflecting critically on our existing values base.
"The cultural renewal of Scotland’s people cannot occur through schools alone—in part because there are strong social pressures to use schools as instruments of positional advantage in a highly competitive world. Lifelong learning through further and higher education will become increasingly important as older age-groups seek to adjust to changing environments and demands on them. But the disposition to lifelong learning is itself closely linked with the extent and quality of an individual’s experience of school. So the openness, responsiveness and effectiveness of Scotland’s schools remain vital.” Reviews of National Policies for Education - Quality and Equity of Schooling in Scotland,3343,en_2649_37455_39744402_1_1_1_37455,00.html
Better education in this century is about developing learners with an enhanced capacity to engage with learning or problem solving, for life. This means deconstructing old teaching spaces, old teaching approaches, top down management and the hidden curriculum. The idea that, what pupils learn through competition or examination skill is frankly, no longer sufficient for the world of work. The idea that most of our schools should compete on terms set by an exclusive system of education as found in the fee paying sector is not attractive to me. We should, however, support all schools in their aim to have smaller classes, because this means, quite simply, that good teachers have more time to help learners and facilitate better learning. Better teachers do better with smaller classes. What is more we can see this logic is the accepted logic: as more and more subjects in Scottish secondary schools are capped at class sizes of twenty pupils; in music, art, science, languages and others. However it is unfortunate that this logic runs short of certain subjects and those pupils who are left behind in those subjects. This may eventually become a union or work load issue because large classes nearly always mean more work and more preparation for teachers but less interaction and less feedback for pupils.

The existing structures and inertia that we see in secondary schools are supported by subject discipline divisions and their own hierarchy in a school. In the same way that doctors have more professional status and privilege in society, science holds more status and resources in schools. The subject divisions have been politicised and democracy is coming to the curriculum. This type of deconstruction and essential change is evident in the new curriculum and the new approaches to teaching and learning it demands. We now have Curriculum for Excellence and Assessment is for Learning both of which require new ways of working in schools and new definitions of knowledge. They also demand more collegiality amongst teachers and more collaboration between pupils with the aim of providing synergy for lifelong learning. This is a great project and it rests critically on two things: values and technology. This will allow us to work smarter and communicate better with each other. This will also help address the obvious demand for improved personal choice: in the classroom by personalising learning and in the profession by giving more autonomy over the curriculum to teachers.

It is my belief that it is important to redefine the terminology we use in discussing how we can change schools: for example we need to move on from less than useful arguments about class size and exam performance. The challenge is to find the right language to describe our problems. This is happening and increasingly that language is more technical as we describe the how and the what. Teachers must increasingly make reference to the theory of learning in a context which includes computers. Teachers are challenged to find the time and space to model life long learning behaviour, to discuss useful knowledge with young people and to engage with them in an authentic and purposeful way. We are all challenged to find better ways to measure achievement and to describe success in our schools.

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