These past few months as heart-breaking photos of refugees have flooded the media, the inequalities of the world have stared us head on. How fitting then that the fourth Brainstrust event, in conjunction with the Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing, chose to focus on the issues of Social Justice and Equity.
The event featured a superb line-up of educational experts: Danny Murphy, Senior Teaching Fellow at Moray House School of Education, and author of the series Postcards from Scotland, Sue Palmer, former Head Teacher, literacy expert and author of Toxic Childhood, How the Modern World Is Damaging Our Children and What We Can Do About It, Jacqueline Scott, Head Teacher Trinity Primary School, Edinburgh and Derek Brown, Head of Education at Fife Council
Danny Murphy kicked off the debate by highlighting his vision of an equitable Scotland with his revolutionary cry of liberty, equality and fraternity, the popular call of the French Revolution, and the basis for the universal declaration of Human Rights. Murphy’s thoughts could not have better echoed the timely emotions resonating across democratic Europe in light of recent events, which have tellingly proven the inequalities of humanity. Yet Danny was quick to pin point the difference between equity and equality. Defining equity as a value most resonant in justice and fairness, whilst equality akin to that of parity he questioned the hurdles that make within education this balance of liberty, equality and fraternity so hard to achieve. These blocks he highlighted as: national testing, a lack of support for teachers, young people purely as political statistics and the “mess”of the Senior Phase. But just as quickly he offered some simple solutions to the issue of inequity by looking towards other professions. Citing the models used in medicine to counteract the variances of national testing, Danny’s prescription for a fairer educational society was to adopt a model where we test for purpose, diagnose and treat. This was he believed a way healthier approach which could help repair the damage inflicted by the judgements inherent in the current system which sets schools, staff and countries against one another in a war of numbers. A battle ground where the students become mere numbers would only serve to see the victors as the statistician and one in which the individual’s needs are lost in the fight. Murphy’s approach to brokering an equitable society would set fraternity at the heart of the matter; a chance to recognise the individual worth of the young people by ensuring that face to face discussions with staff and students become the nugget of the system. How heartening therefore that his cri de couer was the support of the profession and its teachers by our current day politicians.
Murphy’s discussion also raised the issue of school age – arguing that the didactic nature of the current system, often kept leavers on for no other reason other than age. Speaker Sue Palmer whose current educational research has focussed on the long-term issues created by the current early school age echoed his points about school starting and leaving age. Arguing that declining literacy skills and long term mental health and wellbeing are being affected by the current school starting age, Sue’s passion for change has led to her co-front the campaign with Upstart.scot (http://www.upstart.scot). The organisation’s main aim is to establish a statutory play-based ‘kindergarten stage’ for Scottish children, which mimics well-established developmental principles similar to the systems in Nordic countries. The long-term objective of the body is to level the educational playing field, by providing all children with secure foundations for school-based and lifelong learning. Scotland has one of the earliest school starting ages in the world (age 4/5) compared to other European counterparts like Finland and Switzerland where children begin school later (age 7), yet in terms of mental health and well-being and literacy we fall far behind. And whilst Sue spoke reassuringly about the benefits of CfE, she was quick to say that although refreshingly optimistic on paper, in practice it translated poorly. First level outcomes were, for example being pursued way too early by educators, causing detrimental impacts on learners. But lest the finger of blame be cast at the staff it was she conceded parental and cultural expectations that were pushing our children before they were ready. Bring back play was the undercurrent theme within Sue’s talk: let our young population learn from the sandpit and foster cooperative skills as play tag in the play-park and scoot down the slides.
Head Teacher, Jacqueline Scott’s talk that laid out a clear practitioner’s perspective and echoed the calls for creating equality of opportunities within education. With a passion and purpose Jacqueline spoke of the strategic approach she has taken to promote an equitable model within Trinity Primary School. Quickly correcting the misnomer that the leafy suburb of Trinity has few social problems, she spoke of a school with a rising roll and the shifting student needs. No longer do the students arrive as ‘equals’, the staff have worked tirelessly to re-dress this balance via high quality learning and teaching. Setting high aspirations for both staff and students has had a knock on effect for parents, who have become actively involved in shaping and supporting their children’s learning. Monthly coffee mornings operate to share ideas and offer support and homework clubs run to support the parents as well as the children. Jacqueline has deployed her budget with careful rationale to be able to offer opportunities for all. The whole school visit to the Lion King was only possible because of careful planning and saving but allowed those from suburban Trinity to sit side by side in the theatre with those students from less advantaged backgrounds. Jacqueline’s vision, in conjunction with the support and energy from staff, students and parents has been harnessed in an attempt to enable the young people in northern Edinburgh to find equality at school if not at home.
Derek Brown, the final speaker focussed his talk on the harsh realities exposed in figures from Fife Council’s school leavers and the obvious inequality that this profiles. Indeed whilst statistics might appear to point to greater success in Fife, with an decrease in the number of young people leaving school with no form of employment, 7.5% still leave with no positive destination. Fife’s own Head of Education was quick to point out that this was not a positive stat, but could only be given a bit fat ‘F’ for failure. He advocated that the cycle of disadvantage could only be broken with high quality teaching with clear missions. By beginning with clearer visions of what we hope to address within schools, he believes that a more “democratic, transparent and encouraging educational [philosophy]” would emerge. If we were to continue in the current norm by telling and measuring we would only serve to reinforce a bureaucratic educational system which would do little to develop a young employable workforce. There should be he argued no youth unemployment if we teach a curriculum that is engaging and meaningful. But how do we achieve that? For starters at the root of all this growth would be a teaching profession which did not engage in off the peg teaching, the made to measure kind where one size fits all. His vision of the 21st teacher mirrored the tools that Danny Murphy had discussed – a professional who was mindful to the young person in their care – thus was attentive, caring and alert to their needs. This potent vision of a society where face-to-face engagement would lead to better learning was Derek’s battle cry. But his final arsenal for success was the simple reading book. Like Sue he was keen to stress the importance of literacy – seeing reading as a chance to bridge the cultural gap. He pointed out how reading for pleasure, where children are given time, books and peer support and encouragement might be one of the simplest and easiest ways to benefit our young people. This would be one of the simplest ways to improve vocabulary, verbal reasoning and general knowledge and provide a cache of skills to arm this next generation of young people for a life in, instead of out of work.
As debates go this one fired imagination and inspired passion: the speakers offered clear solutions to building a more equitable society. Instead of rhetoric versus reality, this one was reality through and through.
Laura Mackintosh 14th September 15