Should we welcome Scotland’s National Improvement Framework (part two)?

January 2016 sees the publication of the revised National Improvement Framework (NIF) document (http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2016/01/8314). The redrafted document has emerged from extensive discussions between the Scottish Government /Education Scotland and a range of stakeholders, including a survey monkey questionnaire and a series of stakeholder events. As such it is good to see some of the criticisms of the previous draft being addressed. In particular, I welcome the removal of the rather contrived reflective ‘I’ statements, and the inclusion of a table on page 22, which goes some way towards saying how data will be used at each level of the education system. Despite this, the document remains, in my view, problematic for a number of reasons. As explained in my previous post on this issue (https://mrpriestley.wordpress.com/2015/11/08/should-we-welcome-scotlands-national-improvement-framework/), there is no intrinsic problem with data per se, or in the act of collecting system data. Nor would I disagree with the rather aspirational aims of the Framework: to enable our children have the best start in life; to tackle the significant inequalities in Scottish society; and to improve the life chances for children, young people and families at risk. These are worthy aims for any society. The issue lies rather in the question of whether what is being proposed here will be effective in addressing the aims of the framework. Added to this is a further question around the potential of an assessment-driven framework to undermine the goals and practices of Curriculum for Excellence – and this has to be a real worry in the light of the experience of the Queensland New Basics curriculum, which has to all intents and purposes been destroyed by the introduction of the NAPLAN high-stakes assessment system (e.g. see: Lingard & McGregor, 2013; Thompson & Harbaugh, 2013). So where does the NIF stand on these issues? I have three fundamental concerns about what is being proposed in the latest draft.

First, the Framework continues to make some quite bold and unsupported statements about the successful implementation of CfE despite contradictory evidence from research and from the OECD review. Thus, for example, the Framework states that “Curriculum for Excellence is now embedded in Scottish schools” and makes the claim that there has been a “deeper shift in understanding amongst Scottish educators of how children learn”. Such claims justify continued inaction in the face of the recommendations of the OECD report for better implementation; if we are getting right, then what is the incentive to change? They are also difficult to justify in the light of a lack of substantive research evidence relating to the curriculum. I note here that the most significant large scale research project on CfE suggested a more partial implementation of CfE, particularly in secondary schools (see Priestley & Minty, 2013). The more recent OECD review appears to concur with this standpoint, as illustrated by the following extended extract:

The main study of implementation of CfE is a 2011 investigation, using an online survey and in-depth interviews in one of the 32 local authorities (by Mark Priestley and colleagues). Their data suggest “a widespread engagement by teachers with CfE in respect of pedagogy, assessment and provision [curricular models]” and CfE’s ideas are welcomed by the profession. However, there are “highly variable rates of progress, both between and within schools”. Primary schools had made more progress with whole-school, topic-based and project-based interdisciplinary approaches than secondary schools where the curriculum remained too often conventionally subject-based. A range of new practices was being embraced by teachers, and their adoption was being enhanced by a move towards collaborative and collegial working”, but the researchers were not convinced that teachers were engaging deeply with CfE’s underpinning ideas in their work together. (p.120)

The OECD reviewers add that “in general, system-level respondents were in agreement with Priestley’s and Minty’s research finding (2013) that implementation progress in secondary schools was less impressive – a problem” (p.121). I note here that the NIF draws frequently on the OECD review to justify its strategy – but does not refer to this more negative evidence in relation to CfE.

A second issue relates to the purpose of the NIF, as a strategic approach to raising attainment and closing the gap. I mentioned at the beginning of this post that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the collection of data, and welcomed the inclusion in this version of a table which states how data will be used at each level. However, one is left with an overall sense of what is lacking here. I remain unconvinced that this document has a coherent strategy for translating the collection of system data into action to address these issues. The Framework appears to take the somewhat naïve assumption that the collection of data is some sort of magic bullet that will solve the attainment and equity problems in Scotland at a stroke. For example it states,

We are clear that the new Framework is for the benefit of Scotland’s children. It will provide a level of robust, consistent and transparent data across Scotland that we have never had before. (p.5)

To be fair, it is a high level document, and the detail will need to be worked out at each successive layer. And moreover, there is recognition that such an approach comes with problems, with the authors of NIF stating:

We do not underestimate the challenge that presents. It requires very careful balancing of the need for appropriate data and evaluation at every level in the education system, whilst maintaining the principle that informaton [sic] is used effectively to drive improvement in the learning experiences of individual children and young people. (p.5)

However, there is no detail in the Framework about what these problems might be or how they might be mitigated. The Framework does not consider (or even acknowledge) the problem of performativity, let alone what might be done to prevent it. Performativity is a well-documented and heavily researched phenomenon with enormous potential to shape the everyday lives of teachers in schools, colleges and universities. It is a pressure to perform in particular ways, most notably in terms defined and measured by external actors. All teachers in Scotland are already familiar with pressures to perform to the test in the face of a need to please the local authority or the inspector. Under pressure to ensure that pupils achieve the kind of grades that give their school the desired position in league tables, the needs of the school thus potentially trump the educational needs of children and young people. As Michael Apple has argued, school systems have been subject in recent years to a “subtle shift in emphasis … from student needs to student performance, and from what the school does for the student to what the student does for the school” (Apple 2001, p.413). It is easy to see how the introduction of NIF assessment systems might potentially increase performativity in the Scottish system, potentially derailing CfE and narrowing the curriculum. It is worth repeating here Knoke and Kuklinski’s (1982, cited by Emirbayer & Goodwin, 1994, p.1418) suggestion that “the structure of relations among actors and the location of individual actors in the network have important behavioural, perceptual, and attitudinal consequences both for the individual and the system as a whole”. The NIF does not consider this sort of issue.

A third concern is an almost total absence of reference to the role of the research community. A key recommendation of the OECD report is a greater involvement of the research community in Scotland in the development of policy and practice. This is a continual theme through the review, for example:

As regards research, we propose as one of our recommendations that the research community can make a clear contribution in helping to innovate schools as learning environments, especially in secondary schools in deprived areas. (p.19)

It is notable that the NIF makes no mention of research, and does not even acknowledge university Schools of Education as partners (listed as national government, local authorities, schools, parents, children and young people, partners, teachers and other staff employed in education [p.4]). There is no mention of establishing a research agenda to monitor and evaluate this important initiative, apart from some general references to evaluation. This is not out of step with previous policy, as there has been a tendency to disregard the role of researchers in recent years. But is disappointing that the NIF continues this trend despite the recommendations of the OECD (and notwithstanding its selective use elsewhere of evidence from the OECD review). Researchers can play a key role in informing policy and developing practice in schools. They bring a different perspective on educational issues to practitioners and policymakers. They bring a knowledge and understanding of research across the field of education and often an expertise in methodologies for innovation. They can act as critical colleagues to support collaborative professional enquiry. And they can compile literature reviews to inform the development of practice and conduct original research as the development unfolds. As articulated by the OECD:

A strong research and evaluation system requires researchers, those with specialist analytical capacities, policy-makers and practitioners to work together. We believe that strong relationships with the evaluation and research communities and/or with independent and non-government agencies working at some arm’s length from political decision-making would benefit Scotland’s education system. The need for objectivity and credibility derived from independent sources was also stressed in the 2013 OECD review of evaluation and assessment. (p23).

The NIF says a lot about partnership. Let’s up the game and do it properly.

References

  • Apple, M.W. (2001). Comparing neo-liberal projects and inequality in education. Comparative Education, 37, 409-423.
  • Emirbayer, M. & Goodwin, J. (1994). Network analysis, culture and the problem of agency. The American Journal of Sociology, 99, 1411-1454.
  • Lingard, B. & McGregor, G. (2013) High-Stakes Assessment and New Curricula: A Queensland Case of Competing Tensions in Curriculum Development1. In: M. Priestley and G. Biesta (eds.) Reinventing the curriculum: new trends in curriculum policy and practice. London: Bloomsbury Academic, pp. 207-228.
  • OECD (2015). Improving Schools in Scotland: An OECD Perspective. OECD.
  • Priestley, M. & Minty, S. (2013). Curriculum for Excellence: ‘a brilliant idea, but..’. Scottish Educational Review, 45, 39-52.
  • Thompson, G. & Harbaugh, A.G. (2013) A preliminary analysis of teacher perceptions of the effects of NAPLAN on pedagogy and curriculum. The Australian Educational Researcher, 40 (3), pp. 299-314.
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Tribute to Joe Bower

In a departure from the usual style of my blog, I want to pay tribute to a man whom I hardly knew personally, but whose influential work has inspired me since first meeting him in 2014. Joe Bower, a Canadian middle school teacher and blogger, died suddenly on 3 January 2016 – from a massive heart attack. Joe was only 37 and left behind a young family, so his untimely death is tragic in so many senses.

In December 2014, I spent a few days with Joe at a conference in Barcelona. Apart from being a tremendously entertaining companion, Joe impressed all at the conference with his energy, enthusiasm and understanding of the complex terrain of schooling. As a blogger and user of Twitter with tens of thousands of followers, Joe exemplified all the best potential of social media to spread ideas, inspire people and even start revolutions. Joe was a tireless advocate of a learner-centred approach to schooling, and a keen disciple of Alfie Kohn. His blog and Twitter account are still online; if you want to know more about Joe, his work and his legacy, please visit them while there are still available (see http://www.joebower.org/ and https://twitter.com/joe_bower).

I finish this brief post with a plea. Joe filled a massive niche in education as a teacher blogger and an activist for a better system. He was a powerful advocate for the classroom teacher, and the for children and young people who attend our schools; theoretically informed, research aware, and yet with feet planted firmly on the ground of classroom practice. He was a wonderful example of the sort of activist professional that we desperately need. There are more aspiring Joe Bowers out there – let’s see them following his example.