I would love to visit St’ Petersburg. I have this image in my head that is crystal clear, colourful and enticing. In my mind with absolute clarity I can see the multi coloured spiral towers of the Church of the Saviour; the grand ballroom of the Winter Palace with its abundance of art, opulent decor and the largest sparkling chandeliers one can imagine illuminating a hundred couples dancing a Waltz; whilst outside people meander the snow covered streets in large fur jackets and Cossack hats.
I have two problems, well one problem and one lack of certainty to be precise. I’m not exactly sure how to get there and I’m not too sure that when I do get there that my vision of St’ Petersburg would be mirrored in reality. To solve my first problem is pretty easy: research. I know I would prefer to travel by land and sea rather than fly to ensure I learn as much as I can on the journey, so I shall need to work on a route map; choose which countries to visit, more specifically, which roads to travel and which towns and cities to stop at. I will need to read many reports and guides to get an understanding of the dangers to be faced on my travels whilst learning of the most interesting and worthwhile places and events to experience. Listening to the advice of others more knowledgeable than I, both before departing and whilst on route, will ensure I arrive safely and fully appreciate all my destination has to offer.
I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend the School Leaders Scotland (SLS) Conference in Cameron House for two days. Whilst the hotel is lovely, it doesn’t quite match my aspirations to visit the Winter Palace, though the scenery across Loch Lomond I am certain is more beautiful than anything Lake Ladoga has to offer. Now, before all my readers get carried away about the cost, I must point out that I believe the hotel costs are less than a stay in a Premier Inn in Glasgow… which is unable to cater for a conference anyway. This cost is achieved through the discount achieved by SLS booking practically the whole hotel. The second advantage to the senior leaders of education who attend is that such a lovely setting no doubt attracts the very best guests to address and discuss the most pertinent of issues with Head Teachers face to face: John Swinney (Depute First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills); Graeme Logan (Chief Inspector, HMIe); Janet Brown (CEO, SQA); Ken Muir (CEO, GTCS); Gillian Hamilton (CEO, SCEL)… amongst many others.
John Swinney told us he was on a journey and like my journey to St’ Petersburg he has a clarity of vision and can picture the end of the road. However, similarly he is not quite sure how to get there, what exactly he will learn on the road and what dangers he is yet to face. However, what I find pleasing about this particular Cabinet Secretary is that from the presentations he has given thus far and from the questions I and others have set him, he has never wavered from his vision, yet is honest enough to say that the route may have to alter as he continues his research and receives wisdom from others along the not so clear path. Of course like all leaders he will face constant criticism as he is compelled to make decisions about one direction over another, thus always disappointing someone. The most obvious example of this dilemma is illustrated within the Governance Consultation. The Cabinet Secretary sees more autonomy for Head Teachers and their communities as his destination. However the route there is fraught with uncertainty because our Local Authorities and Directors of Education have been responsible for ensuring that schools follow government policy, tempered and adapted by local needs for generations and they are unlikely to universally agree on how far the balance of power should shift; just as Head Teachers cannot agree on how much autonomy and support they need to deliver the high standards of education demanded, quite rightly, by our Cabinet Secretary.
Likewise, the success of the balancing act required to ensure that schools can take forward government education policy under the leadership duality of having a Local Authority as an employer, whilst receiving direction from Regional Improvement Collaboratives remains to be seen. Head Teachers made it very clear at this conference that they do not wish to be legally answerable to two different bodies who may be pulling in different directions and who will with certainty and necessity generate two layers of bureaucracy around exactly the same issues. John Swinney addressed these concerns and noted that together, the Government, the Head Teachers, the Collaboratives and the Local Authorities will work it out. I remain confident.
John Swinney’s keynote message was a repeat of what I have heard more than a few times over the last few conferences I have been invited to attend. So too was Graeme Logan’s presentation as he reiterated the need for collaboration. He also continued to stress the importance of closing the poverty related attainment gap and the need to reduce initiatives coming out of schools and local authorities so we can concentrate on fewer aims and be more successful in a more targeted way. He asked us to make sure we had more Pathways for youngsters in the BGE and not to keep providing the same junior curriculum as we have for decades; he noted the need to pay more attention to the problems, needs and strategies arising from adverse childhood experiences; and the importance of leadership in ensuring that everyone knows how to take developments forward as well as knowing what to take forward.
There was much stronger guidance given to the effect that we need to stop seeing S4 and S5/6 as separate entities and that pupils should have clear fluid pathways through the BGE and into a individualised but holistically designed senior phase programme. Similarly, the strength of feeling that all teachers needed to take on a fuller responsibility for health and well being (and not just nurture), rather than leaving it to Guidance and Support colleagues was evident.
He concluded with what all considered to be great advice for both schools and Local Authorities alike: Keep it simple; make it bureaucracy light; make it relevant; collaborate; be innovate; close the poverty related attainment gap; and make a difference!
I could go on for hours describing each of the detailed presentations and the debates that followed. Instead I shall continue to merely provide a few of the most memorable observations made and discussions had that I feel noteworthy for a brief blog.
Stephen Miller, President of School Leaders Scotland, highlighted the problem of negativity across the media and how we need to do more to showcase the many successes we have in every school. We may be down in the PISA league tables but what about the high level of positive destinations we are ensuring across the country? I would urge us all to think how far have we come over the last 10 years. Yes, we have a long way to go with some issues but in many respects we are so much better at providing a more relevant set of educational experiences for our youngsters.
Elizabeth Morrison, Education Scotland’s Strategic Director, led a Workshop on the Attainment Challenge at which I contributed to. One issue raised was that we should only be using Poverty Equity Funding (PEF) on those pupils receiving free school meals and that the HMIe are not impressed with schools who just provide universal support for a whole year group for example, as opposed to targeted groups of disadvantaged children. My point was that if we only used PEF for those in poverty, it would soon become clear to this group that they were being singled out for special treatment and would disengage with whatever support was put in place for fear of being stigmatised. It is up to Head Teachers to spend this PEF funding, and if they choose to provide additional support and strategies to others out-with the target group to ensure those most in need take up the support, then that should be permitted. I was pleased Liz agreed, provided we could still evidence an impact on those most in need.
Instead of giving a description of the very informative workshop on the National Qualification for Headship provided by Lesley Whelan, Director of Programmes for SCEL, I would note how thrilled I was to spend a couple of hours with Lesley and her colleague Anne Munro discussing the excellent leadership programmes provided by SCEL for all levels of education. This is particularly important to Oban High School as we have a clear vision for developing leadership at all levels and have ensured that we have teachers on the Teacher Leadership Programme; Deputes on the Into Headship Programme; and I myself am a participant of the Excellence in Headship programme. Lesley and I share the view that all staff can be very effective leaders of learning provided they are given support and guidance and the opportunity to lead and I am looking forward to working with SCEL over the coming months to achieve this aim for my staff. Of course the biggest challenge is overcoming the lack of confidence to lead developments in many and the lack of desire in a few.
Neil Croll, the Head of Widening Participation at Glasgow University led a workshop outlining how the university alters it’s entrance requirements for those who participate in their REACH programme but more importantly for those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds – mainly those from areas which fall within SIMD 4 or below. (SIMD stands for Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation for those who wish to Google it). Whilst very supportive of this programme because I am a firm believer that we need to address the issue that youngsters coming from poorer backgrounds often do not get the same life chances as the majority of our children do and they need support, I am opposed to using SIMD as the only guide and determining factor in providing such support. SIMD indicators in rural areas simply do not work. For example, in Oban those in most financial need (as indicated through claiming Free School Meals) come from SIMD 6, not SIMD 2 as accepted as a norm across Scotland. I was encouraged by Neil’s acceptance of this rural issue and his confirmation that those at Glasgow University also bear in mind other individual evidence of need when addressing reduced qualifications.
All teachers have huge concern about the constant changes within the National Qualifications. Some subjects are more problematic than others, mainly Science, where the Scientists setting the courses and assessments can’t agree with each other, leading to changes appearing in the Subject Specification papers every single year. The constant debate on whether they can or cannot teach bi-level (two stages in the same class) really has to be resolved. However, the principal issue on everyone’s thoughts centre around the removal of compulsory units at National 5 and the impact that will have on the Nat 5 exams. Basically, to assess the requirements of the course without having evidence from unit assessments will now mean adding further questions to the Nat 5 exam, increasing the number of questions and extending the timing of the exam beyond what is expected at the Higher level. Does this then mean the Higher has to become more lengthy and demanding to the extent that the Higher paper will be more lengthy than a University exam paper? This issue is yet to be resolved.
So too the issues over whether or not the Nat 4 should have an exam and around why schools are over-presenting at Nat 5, leading to thousands pupils failing the Nat 5 exams. These issues are inter-twined and equally unresolved. From the outset we need to stop equating Nat 4 with the old General and Nat 5 with the old Credit exams under Standard Grade. Nat 5s were designed to be more demanding than the Credit as we all complained that the jump between a Credit and a Higher was far too great a leap. Nat 4 on the other hand was not designed to replace General.
What has happened in reality is that Nat 4 has replaced the old Foundation level that almost all pupils passed to recognise their efforts and success in completing a course at a basic competency level. Once this has been achieved then schools have no option to do anything other than present pupils at Nat 5, knowing that the Nat 5 courses are far more demanding than most pupils who have just sat Nat 4 will find achievable. It is for this reason that most schools are letting many pupils do the Nat 5 over two years, aiming to do the units in year 1 and the exam in year 2; though still letting them sit the Nat 5 exam they expect them to fail in year 1 for experience.
The discussion held In Ronnie Summers (SQA’s Head of Qualifications Development) workshop was that the SQA / Scottish Government felt that schools were over presenting, whilst the profession think we have no option. Ronnie was keen to hear of alternatives, for example, should we have Nat 4+ exams? Just as Ronnie was prepared to listen to my ideas for improvement so too was Janet Brown whom I had a long conversation with around the difficulties of the tight timescales for change set by the Government and about how best to engage everyone. I was very impressed by Janet’s desire to engage with me in discussing how best we support children. Far too often I speak to members of educational organisations and all they wish to discuss are percentages and improvement targets – the numbers. Janet on the other hand talked about individuals’ pathways and how we could best support them. She was aware of the breadth of opportunity that we offer in OHS and keen that we push forward with using more opportunities contained within the full suite of SQA opportunities on offer.
Ken Muir also shares similar views to myself about the need to look after individuals. In his case as the CEO of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, he is interested in how we support individual teachers to ensure that individual pupils get the best out of our professionals. His workshop on the changes to the “Fitness to Teach” policy was essential for all school leaders. The changes due to come into force in 2018 following the current consultation will likely ensure that all teachers are supported by schools and the GTCS to fulfil the GTCS Suite of Standards at whatever level they are at and their are clear expectations and guidelines on how to proceed if teachers are not at the required level. Jennifer MacDonald, the SQA’s Director of Regulations and Legal, gave all those present five scenarios, case studies of concern for us to consider and judge. This was a good reminder of the issues that can confront our staff and how we should be addressing them.
Now, I could continue to go on at length as between Nine in the morning to Midnight each day I discussed a variety of issues with dozens of educationalists and I listened to many more engaging speakers I have not teased out here, for example the extremely talented and enthralling Judith Gillespie, former Deputy Chief Constable; and clearly I can’t expand further on an already too long reflection of the conference.
However I am pleased to note at the tail end of this blog that I have learned a great deal about where we are nationally with government policy and where the key organisations wish us to proceed to over the next 12 months. I also learned much from my peers about how they are taking forward issues that I feel we need support in: tracking and monitoring in the junior school (BGE); how to merge S4, S5 and S6; how to use the SEEMIS system more effectively (All councils keep their records on this electronic programme to share with Government); examples of best practice in health and well being, especially nurture programmes; how to transform Core PE into certification for all; and how to further develop our OHS leadership for all initiatives to include more specific training for PTs and more sharing of good practice with international partners. I have to thank Gillian Hamilton, CEO of the Scottish College for Educational Leadership, in particular for her support.
Of course such conferences are about sharing and I was pleased to have been of assistance to my peers who sought me out to learn of our nationally recognised academic and vocational post 16 programme; our pastoral care and support initiatives; the leadership and nurture work we achieve in partnership with Outward Bound; our specialist schools of Traditional Music, Dance and Rugby; how we use Didbook to take forward the Skills agenda; how we are developing Growth Mindset and mentoring programmes; our parental engagement strategy, particularly the use of social media; and our own leadership development successes.
It’s good to share! ( and dance)
(I have included pictures of a number of people mentioned for two reasons. Firstly, I like having an image of someone in my head when I’m reading about them and I’m aware I mentioned lots of people that not everyone will be able to picture. Secondly, it’s less boring to read a blog with pictures.)
@Teamscel @sls @obanhighschool @johnswinney @GLoganEd @GTCSKen @CEOScel @FredaFallon