Graham Leicester: Education more than numbers game

Science and technology will claim the principal prizes in the modern world. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Science and technology will claim the principal prizes in the modern world. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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Well-meaning investigations fail to take into account the human side of teaching and learning, writes Graham Leicester

You wait several years for a weighty report on Scottish education then two come along together. First the Goodison Group and Scotland’s Futures Forum’s report offering scenarios for a ‘learning society’ in 2025 and now the Commission on School Reform’s ‘Improving Scottish Education’.

For all their diverse inputs, both documents coalesce around two very familiar themes. Our schools are good but not great. And, in spite of our best efforts, educational outcomes for the already disadvantaged still lag a long way behind their better off peers.

These are both wicked problems. They defy easy solution. But you would not know it from these reports.

Both evade the deep question of what constitutes ‘greatness’ in today’s world of education by settling for the notion of a ‘world leading’ system. But what if the ever more refined model of comparative PISA rankings and exceptional written qualifications is leading the world in the wrong direction? What if we actually need something radically different to address the challenges of the century ahead?

Likewise, what can possibly give us confidence that ‘closing the gap’ between the disadvantaged and other performers simply requires more money, closer targeting, more research, more joined up government and so on, when all those approaches have already been tried, to some extent, somewhere in the world - and indeed in Scotland (as Commission member and former Education Minister Peter Peacock acknowledged on these pages yesterday) - and failed?

These reports are intelligent, well-informed contributions to the discussion and contain nuggets of wisdom for those seeking insight rather than easy answers. But neither openly acknowledges the tensions, paradoxes and contradictions that characterise the wicked problems they address.

The central thrust of the Commission report, for example, is to advocate greater autonomy for schools to encourage more diversity in the system. Amen to that. But, reflecting our cultural unease about where we should really be heading, what the Commission gives with one hand it takes away with the other. ‘Diverse means’ the report says. But to ‘the same end’. ‘Transformation’ it says. But through the medium of ‘evidence-based policy’. ‘Loosen up on monitoring’ it says. But also focus ‘greater attention on the effectiveness of policy’ and subject Education Scotland in particular to ‘careful monitoring and regular review’. And whilst the report rightly calls for culture change, it nowhere sets out the specific habits of cultural leadership that will bring it about.

One would expect the Goodison Group’s scenarios to be bolder. Scenarios are supposed to free the mind and the imagination to play with multiple futures. There is certainly plenty of material to chew on. Yet the report fails for me to engage with the true breadth of doubt and uncertainty that informs today’s operating environment for education.

The ‘drivers of change’ informing the scenario narratives run to but a single page. The scenarios themselves are then framed simply by levels of social cohesion (the ‘gap’ again) and how far Scotland chooses to go with the grain of globalisation and market forces.

What neither report openly contemplates is that the paths to ‘success’ that served us throughout the last century may not serve as well in the future.

I spoke on a panel at the launch of the Commission’s report. I suggested at one point that we need to focus on intrinsic motivation to learn since the ‘extrinsic motivations’ the report identifies - qualifications, entry to further and higher education and access to the world of work – have today lost their lustre.

In my experience, talking to young people, the currency of qualifications in today’s world is devalued: the report itself suggests, for example, that businesses are looking first for ‘experience, clear achievements and vision’ over an MBA.

It is a moot point whether it is any longer worth the investment of time and money involved in going to university: the number of graduates now exceeds the number of jobs requiring graduate skill levels, and in any event cheaper online degree factories are widely available.

As for the world of work, this hardly shows up as motivating when it is seen as dominated by under-employment, odd jobs to make ends meet, or career positions in organisations that either destroy your soul or the planet or both.

I was roundly condemned by the audience as a prophet of doom, pitifully out of touch with ‘the real world’. This is a world in which, apparently, economic growth will revive to resolve all ills, ‘world class’ education will still be about competitiveness in the knowledge economy, the principal prizes will continue to go to the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) rather than the humanities and the arts, and a helpful by-product will be that climate change will be solved in the process. One of my fellow panellists wrote me off as ‘a hopeless case’.

It was a deeply dispiriting evening.

Let me declare my own position. I have been involved in school reform in Scotland for many years. Since 2010 my organisation, International Futures Forum (IFF), has been working closely with Education Scotland (and previously with HM Inspectorate of Schools) to provide schools with the wherewithal to consider their own future in a changing world and realise their own aspirations - under the permissive framework of Curriculum for Excellence.

I believe in Scotland a large number of schools is leap-frogging the linear approaches to ‘reform’ advocated by the big number-crunching consultancies. There are alternatives to the McKinsey template of dogged, steady improvement or the ‘accumulation of marginal gains’ that has got the British cycling team around a wooden oval faster than anyone else. Education is not a mechanical, but a human system. And human systems are capable of transformation.

IFF has not offered a view on the content of learning in any of this work. It has been about releasing the energy and aspiration of the schools themselves - the staff, the parents, the students.

But I do have a view on content too. A few months ago I published a book with my colleague Maureen O’Hara called Dancing at the Edge: competence, culture and organisation in the 21st century. It takes as its inspiration the four pillars of learning first identified by Jacques Delors’ UNESCO Commission on Education for the 21st Century: learning to be, learning to know, learning to do and learning to live together.

Our thesis is that in today’s world the habitual ways of being, knowing, doing and living together that we learn in school are inadequate at best. The consequences are showing up in many forms, not least in a global epidemic of stress, distress, anxiety and mental illness. Living in the shadow of an overarching story about resource depletion, climate change, species extinction, inequality, deep recession and so on doesn’t help. We appear to be, in the title of Robert Kegan’s book of the early 1990s, In Over Our Heads.

I want young people to be prepared for this world – for their own sake and for the sake of others. I believe I have seen enough to understand both the limitations of the present education system to prepare them for it, and the potential in a whole range of practices in schools and other diverse supportive settings to set them on the path to the 21st century competencies required.

So I am full of hope - and hugely encouraged by the educators and communities I have worked with in Scotland, at all levels in the system, who are showing the courage to take on this challenge.

The brake on the system is no longer conservatism. It is denial.

• Graham Leicester is Director of International Futures Forum