Comment: Get learning environment right, then attainment will improve

Head Teacher Rod Grant shares his view on the Scottish curriculum.
Head Teacher Rod Grant shares his view on the Scottish curriculum.
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So, Scotland has fallen down international education rankings for core school subjects, according to a major world study (PISA).

The survey of 15-year-olds found Scotland’s performance in reading, maths and science had declined. This was to be expected as last year’s Scottish equivalent SSLN showed a drop in attainment in both literacy and numeracy outcomes.

On top of this, we have one of the developed world’s highest ‘attainment gaps’ whereby our children’s educational outcomes are hugely dependent on their socio-economic background. And then we need to accept that health in our pupil population is being compromised too.

The recent WHO report into the Health Behaviour in School-Aged children determined that fifteen-year-old girls in Scotland face more pressure from schoolwork and report poorer health, than all other nations, bar one.

During the last ten years we have had changes to the curriculum, new examinations, new and more wide-ranging assessments, a lengthy period of under-resourcing, teachers leaving the profession in high numbers, a new programme of reaccreditation of teachers every five years, a full and intensive inspection cycle of schools, quality improvement officers, a myriad of initiatives and now a statement from the Education Secretary on the need for ‘reform’.

As an educator, the near-constant cycle of reform is intensely dispiriting and demotivating. And yet what do you do when all of the data points to a system that is heading for potential melt-down?

The problem is that HMIe, Education Scotland, Local Authority Education chiefs and Government Ministers are focusing on attainment almost solely. Of course, human nature will mean that Head Teachers will do everything they can to ensure that their attainment figures improve or, at the very worst, remain stable.

In practice, this will cause schools (particularly high-performing ones) to create circumstances which ensure pupils that may fail an exam are not allowed to sit the exam. We see this already – the stakes are so high that the less academic pupils are being side-lined or presented for examinations at a lower level than they could potentially achieve. Why? Because schools are being solely judged and scrutinised on their attainment figures.

Heaven help the Head whose school’s attainment figures drop…

However, if a child learns because he has been told to by a higher authority; if a child does not develop their own work ethic; if a child attends a school where she feels frightened or insecure or unsupported: then each of these children will achieve less than their potential.

In other words, the sole focus in Scottish schools should be on the development of a positive culture in a safe environment where learning is engaging and enjoyable.

If you get the learning environment right, attainment will improve. If you focus on attainment, attainment will stagnate at best.

Pressure does not work. Never has and never will, and at the moment we have a system of education that creates a pressure-pot environment and that is educationally ignorant.

Rod Grant, headmaster Clifton Hall School