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

Scottish Daily Mail - - Comment - By Madeleine Kearns

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

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