Why I quit teaching this pitiful curriculum
Shakespeare reduced to emojis. Graphic novels replacing traditional texts. Classes devoted to trendy movies at the expense of history. And a syllabus wedded to baffling jargon that is failing pupils – and driving teachers from the profession they love
IHAD no dramatic moment of revelation about Scotland’s new curriculum. Rather, I had a series of depressing experiences which led me to the unshakeable conviction that, to borrow a trite idiom, the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.
What led me into teaching was the belief – normally too banal to mention, but true nonetheless – that a good education can be life-changing.
I’d taught in Uganda, the summer before I qualified, where 56 per cent of children aged six to 17 live in abject poverty. Rationed chalk, a leaky tin roof and Victorian-style benches: it was education at its most vibrant and invigorating. I went home to Scotland, challenged and inspired.
Most Scots who are even slightly interested in education will have noticed that our system has been steadily marching backwards for the past ten years.
From the outside, it seems baffling. Why, given that Scottish spending per pupil is among the highest in the world, are things going so wrong?
From the inside, it’s far easier to understand. You can explain it in three words: Curriculum for Excellence.
I’d heard stories about it before I started training as a teacher. By the time I qualified – in the spring of last year – how I wished I’d listened to them. In 2010, the system was introduced with four aims: to create ‘confident individuals’, ‘successful learners’, ‘responsible citizens’ and ‘effective contributors’. Perhaps the meaning of these phrases was clear to those who came up with them. But as I found out, many teachers cannot recall – let alone explain – them.
Picture a grey Glasgow sky and underneath, a cosy school staff room. ‘What are they called again? Successful contributors? Effective learners?’ one teacher with 30 years’ experience asks. ‘No, no. It is the learners who are successful; the contributors are effective!’ a student teacher replies helpfully.
In 1988, the Conservative Government launched the National Curriculum in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Criticisms were widespread, and included the memorable line from educationalist A.V. Kelly who said that the new curriculum had ‘sprung, perfect and fully formed, from the head’ of Kenneth Baker (education minister at the time), ‘like the goddess Athene from the head of Zeus’.
Scotland still had her own model at this point. As the rest of the kingdom endured crisis after crisis, she looked on in dismay.
Then came devolution. In 1999, the new MSPs had been given power over the school system and they decided to use it. In 2000 the Labour-Liberal Democrat administration commissioned the inquiry, A Teaching Profession for the 21st Century.
ANEW curriculum, they thought, was needed to prepare students for the challenges of globalisation. Under the SNP, the shake-up began. An onslaught of undecipherable pseudo-pedagogies emerged as the idea of teaching was turned on its head. Instead of straightforward maths lessons we had ‘interdisciplinary learning’. Maybe the idea was simply that subjects are naturally linked. But something was clearly lost in translation as bar charts were shoehorned into lessons about Shakespeare.
Perhaps, too, ‘active learning’ was an attempt to tackle goldfish-esque attention spans induced by our age of technology. But in the classroom, for teachers to perform active learning, the ‘learners’ have to be constantly entertained.
As for the morphing of teachers into ‘facilitators’ or ‘co-learners’, generous interpretations are, I’m afraid, exhausted. The demand came for ‘collaborative learning’ – i.e. group work, where nothing gets done.
As Graham Donaldson, the former Senior Chief Inspector of Schools, said in 2012, the reform still needed ‘a deep understanding of the “why” of CfE as much as the “what” or the “how”.’ So far, Curriculum for Excellence’s legacy has been one of confusion – not clarity.
During teacher training, after a three-hour seminar on how to write ‘learning intentions’ and ‘success criteria’ – I’m still not sure what these are – I asked the professor: ‘Are you basically saying there is no clear way to do this? But that we must do it anyway?’ She sighed and said: ‘Basically, yes.’
There are some who maintain CfE is working well as it is. While I don’t know any of these people personally, I did meet one once inside the United Nations. Her name was Nicola Sturgeon.
She was friendly but, as US politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, while everyone is entitled to their own opinions ‘they are not entitled to their own facts’.
With a recent independent study showing that 40 per cent of Scottish teachers are now threatening to leave the profession, it might be
worth considering some of the actual facts.
Firstly, standards are in sharp decline. In 2012, the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy found that 64 per cent of 13 to 14-year-olds were doing ‘very well’ or ‘well’. In 2014, this was at 55 per cent. In 2017, it was down to 49 per cent. Secondly, teacher satisfaction is shockingly low. In 2013, the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), Scotland’s main teaching union, released a survey indicating approximately 90 per cent of teachers and lecturers felt the level of workload increase was ‘high’ (38.6 per cent) or ‘very high’ (44.6 per cent). More than half of all teachers and lecturers (54.8 per cent) were ‘barely confident’ (43.4 per cent) or ‘not confident at all’ (11.4 per cent) of their department’s state of readiness to deliver the new National Qualifications from 2013-2014.
The majority (55.3 per cent) of teachers and lecturers rated materials published by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) to support preparations for the new qualifications as ‘not very helpful’.
On the international stage, the picture is even bleaker. Scotland’s results in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey of March 2015, for numeracy, literacy and science, were at all-time low. Perhaps all this explains why, by May 2017, the Scottish Government was abandoning its own standards.
During a televised BBC interview, Andrew Neil asked the First Minister why she had decided to get rid of the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy, which had exposed the severity of the problem.
She ignored his question and replied: ‘For each school we will publish the information on the percentage of pupils that are meeting the required levels of the Curriculum for Excellence.’
Exams were judged by classwork, which of course created plenty of scope for foul play – and not only by pupils. One experienced teacher told me of ‘the pass factory’ in her school, a place where pupils go for unlimited attempts on core assessments. Gaming the system is particularly noticeable in middle-class areas, where children pay for private tutors in order to be coached through exams. In some cases, tutors actually write the coursework for them.
The assessment-driven model also reduced teaching to coaching, removing any purpose to education beyond attainment.
I was to give an English lesson on The Hunger Games (the film version). To prepare the students for their assessments, I had to select five scenes for evidence, watch them with the class again and again, then ‘scaffold’ them into an essay structure.
JUST when I felt boredom had reached out of this world and into the next, I then had the joy of reading 22 identical essays. Of course, this is to say nothing of how mind-numbing this must have been for the students.
In English, graphic novels crept their way into classrooms. Literature and media studies were fused. Presumably to cater for this, Penguin published an emoji series of Shakespeare’s plays. This is new, certainly, but is it progress? Glaring ignorance of world geography or history is not just permissible, but expected.
In history, for example, it’s normal for pupils to study the Second World War year after year, and merely be assessed at different levels on the same areas again and again. The number of pupils studying French or German has halved. All of this was supposed to empower teachers and give them more say. But the SNP failed to do its homework, and it didn’t turn out like that. And so despite teachers’ sceptical willingness, the project has come to be seen as a sick joke. In the staff room, the Curriculum for Excellence is known as the ‘curriculum for excrement’.
By the end of my first placement in Glasgow, in an inner-city district where unemployment is 140 per cent higher than Scotland’s average, I had deeply held doubts about CfE. Yet I was buoyed by the head of department’s belief in my teaching.
SHE wrote: ‘Madeleine has the potential to be an excellent teacher and an asset to any English department. The school would love to have her back as a fully qualified teacher in the future.’
I couldn’t help feel this was a department that was pursuing excellence despite the added strain of the curriculum. But for trainee teachers, who lack experience and freedom, that’s difficult to take on.
My final teaching exam led me to cater my lesson to the 20 pupils in front of me, of whom 18 had ‘additional support’ needs (autism, dyslexia and so on). Trying to fulfil the curriculum’s bizarre demands on top of these challenges made my lesson a circus. In the end, I qualified. But I walked away from teacher training with a smoking habit and a resolution never to return.
I later found out that a quarter of newly qualified teachers in Scotland do not complete their first year, which is a tragedy. All of my fellow trainees entered wanting to help pupils, as we had been helped. But it’s hard, once you find out that you’ll be taking part in the dumbingdown of a nation’s schools and the betrayal of its children.
I know quite a few of the dropouts now. There’s the Frenchman with a degree in philosophy from the Sorbonne who stormed out of our school placement after a disagreement about the quality of his teaching. A secondary teacher who, due to unmanageable stress, now tutors young offenders rather than return to the classroom. A once enthusiastic primary teacher who said to me: ‘I’d rather do anything – anything – than go back.’
At the last count, there were almost 700 vacant Scottish teaching posts. That’s tens of thousands of pupils who are missing teachers.
There was a poster in the staff room of one school where I taught. It read: ‘Being a teacher is easy. It’s like riding a bike. Except the bike is on fire. You’re on fire. Everything is on fire. And you’re in hell.’
Sometimes, on breaks between classes, I would sit and stare at it. I did not see the funny side for the teachers, or the pupils, who are the principal victims of a system that is so visibly failing.
Making his point: Prince Charles Facing questions: Nicola Sturgeon visits St Conval’s Primary, Glasgow