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An excellent seminar on assessment with Dr Bethan Marshall and Dr Simon Gibbons of King’s College London, co-hosted with The School of Education at The University of Strathclyde and held in The Technology and Innovation Centre.
A report will follow soon from one of SATE’s local authority coordinators. In the meantime, here is an extract from my introduction:
‘There’s never been a more appropriate time for Scottish teachers of English to join a strong subject association. I’m in the middle of interviewing next year’s applicants for PGDE, and I think every year since 2001, I’ve told them that this is a time of great change in Scottish education; this year, that is true more than ever, and as I approach perhaps not the sunset of my career, but definitely the twilight, I don’t think I have ever been less optimistic about the future.
There are good things on the horizon, to be sure. If PRD is as supportive as it is said to be, teachers will have a real structure in which to plan their own professional development. As English teachers, membership of NATE offers access to the latest research and classroom practice, as well as resources, and is tailor made for the PRD process. Social media, Teach Meets and Pedagoo mean that teachers are coming together to cater for their own development needs, plugging the gaps in CPD that denuded budgets and the loss of curriculum advisers have allowed to develop, and NATE offers an umbrella under which we can all shelter and share. These, then, are exciting times for teachers who are doing it for themselves, and the one huge improvement I’ve seen over my fifteen years in teacher education is how the professional knowledge and skills of teachers has grown, almost exponentially. When I left Jordanhill College, I knew on average it would take about 8 years to be promoted; I now see my students achieving promoted status with two or three years, and I have no doubt that they are absolutely ready for it.
But there are dark forces gathering in Scottish education that seek to change it irrevocably. Because of our proudly independent system, we tend to feel that we are cushioned against the worst excesses of the wider world, excesses that have been chillingly demonstrated by the Westminster Government’s ideological obsession with taking all schools out of local authority control, to be managed centrally by government and locally by a patchwork of individual school boards, interest groups and private enterprises. The disingenuous rhetoric in which those ideas are framed– ‘choice’, ‘parental voice’, ‘flexibility’ – masks what is fundamentally an economic driver behind reform.
In New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina destroyed all but 15 of its 168 publicly funded and controlled schools; in the aftermath of the disaster, the whole school system was privatised, every child went to a school publicly funded but managed for profit by private corporations. The vast majority of teachers were fired, most being replaced by deunionised Teach for America apprentice teachers teaching a denuded curriculum concentrated on a brutal testing regime that is cheap to teach but casts the most vulnerable into poverty and failure. For private enterprise, Katrina was not a tragedy; it was an opportunity.
It was also a crisis created by unprecedented natural events; but man can easily create crises, through underfunding and deregulation, crises in which a system is systematically and deliberately broken and then deemed to be irreparable by anything other than management from a supposedly more efficient private sector. It is this man-made disaster that is driving the move towards the privatisation – wrapped up in the educationally aspirational term ‘academisation’ – that George Osborne is building a large portion of the Budget around.
There is a much resistance to such moves in Scotland, where we are proud of our state funded, local authority managed comprehensive states system. It has served us well, for all its faults. But those forces which would dismantle that system are undoubtedly gathering, forces which range from groups of parents (usually middle class) rightly anxious about local school closures to influential think tanks to former highly paid public education executives who have slickly managed the transition to become champions of (and I quote) ‘increased economic prosperity and more effective public services based on the principles of limited government, diversity and personal responsibility.’ And in a world run by TTIP in which private corporations have the legal right to siphon off profitable parts of public services uninhibited by the democratic will of the people, education services and even individual schools may well find themselves being circled by some very ravenous wolves.
There is less resistance, however, to apprenticeship models of teacher training. Tom Hunter’s ‘exploration’ of Scottish education recently highlighted a successful academy in London, employing ‘Teach First’ teachers, described as ‘the very best graduates’, as if anyone not on such a scheme is somehow the underqualified dross of the teaching profession. The Scottish Government’s warm response – a sort of ‘if it works, we’ll do it’ common sense – suggests that they may well look at different models of teacher training. Let’s be clear, though. Apprenticeship models of teacher training work on exactly the same principles as your electricity supply. Power is brought to our homes from the same power stations, along the same cables, through the same substations; it is only when the envelope with the bill arrives that a multitude of companies clamour and compete for the right to charge us for that same electricity. Training providers – whether individual schools, local authorities or – most likely – private corporations – will still place student teachers in the same schools with the same mentors, still access the same university courses and tutors, will still employ the same accreditation bodies as ever. But with a product to now sell, with a contract to protect, with profits to enhance – what is the chance that the need to be ‘outstanding’ will (and I use the word advisedly but appropriately) trump the need to adhere to rigorous quality standards?
This is all going to happen, as sure as the sun rises and sets. After the Japanese earthquake, news outlets had panels of experts that included earthquake scientists, nuclear power station engineers and financial consultants, as if economic activity is as immutable and inevitable as tectonic plate shifts and radioactive meltdown. And, in the world we live in, it is. Neoliberalism will have its way.
But people can – should – speak out; otherwise, we will lose all that we value without a whimper. Whether it is on these global issues that threaten to swallow education as we know it, or whether it is on the – not unrelated – issues of the closure of school libraries, or the development of a vocational curriculum, or the place of Scottish culture and texts in our classrooms, or the reintroduction of national testing, English teachers can and should have a voice. For decades, that voice has been NATE, and we have two of its most influential members here tonight. I won’t say much about them, since most of you quoted Bethan Marshall in your last assignments on assessment and therefore know her work well. And when Conservative Home (The Home of Conservatives), a body deliciously unacquainted with the concept of tautology, describes Simon Gibbons as a ‘classic Leftist elitist’ who ‘uses impeccable standard English’, you know he’s worth listening to. That same august body said of NATE, ‘it’s time is up.’ That was four years ago. It would be nice to watch it grow in Scotland.’
(Raymond Soltysek lectures in Teacher Education at The University of Strathclyde and is Regional Coordinator for The Scottish Association for the Teaching of English. Views expressed here are his own, not those of his employer or SATE)