Remembering, celebrating a great man, a sensitive and brave brother (in-law), Col Willie McCracken

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Memorial service Tyneside, dedication of recovered restored cannon

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Looking ahead- the delight of Anticipation

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Looking ahead- the delight of Anticipation

There is something special this photo of two of my daughters looking out to the Bass Rock on 2 January 2014. It captures for me a sense of anticipation of the future as well perhaps a sense of turning our backs on 2013…a hard year yet with many magical and joyful moments. Life is to be treasured and every moment to be appreciated and savoured, there are so many unique snapshots that can be lost in the melee of everyday life. I wish all fellow tweeters and bloggers a year of conscious joy seeking…

Curriculum for Excellence- the Finnish Way

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Like many educators across Scotland I have been considering the ‘Finnish Way’ of educating our young people. Pasi Sahlberg is in Scotland and many of us will be wending our way to the Scottish Parliament tomorrow, afternoon or evening, to hear Pasi talk about how Finland has transformed its educational systems enabling it to maintain performance- and systems over the last 30 years. It led me to think about how their system fits with our systemic changes in Curriculum for Excellence.

Sahlberg emphasises, repeatedly, that systems can’t be transplanted. Lessons can be learned and that is his purpose in talking worldwide about how a small dark cold country, beleaguered over the centuries by its geographical position, has transformed its fortunes. Sahlberg talks about the issues with national identity caused by Soviet and other domination yet what comes across clearly is the strong sense of identity and nationhood of the Finnish people. We have much to learn about trust, responsibility and a sense of belonging from a nation focused on public good.

That sense of wanting to take what is good about the Finnish system and planting it here almost like a potted plant ready to grow in different soil, different climate and with different plant food reminded me of when I took a photo of Cheryl Cole to my long serving (and long suffering) hairdresser and said I’d like her haircut stating, ‘Jack, I’m thinking ‘chic’ today’. Without a second look, he quipped back, ‘you may be thinking ‘chic’ but your hair isn’t!’. It reminded me that you have to work with what you have and the local conditions…in this instance my unruly hair and, again, as my hairdresser reminds me regularly, the fact that I am ‘blow-dry challenged’. These may seem simple (even puerile) illustrations of a far greater concept but I am left with many questions around how possible it is to achieve the local responsibility and highly trained and regarded teaching profession of Finnish schools.  The soil is different: the culture may have some similarities but the differences are stark; the political structure that ‘nourishes’ the education system is totally different in Finland with more continuity between successive governments. The public perception of, and trust in, the teaching profession in Scotland limits the courage of educators to follow their hearts and minds in many instances.  Jack would say you have to do your absolute best with what you have…

There are many features of the Finnish system that chime with our CfE aims, values and aspirations and that, along with our Donaldson recommendations, probably place us closer to the Finnish way than many countries-at the moment. The truth however is that many other OECD countries are closely studying the Finnish system and already changing their systems with the aim of increasing their performance in PISA and therefore their competitive advantage globally. This is no small game.

On any measure,Finland is achieving in the highest percentiles- the only one that is low by international comparison is their costs matched to achievement profile. Impressive? The message that Pasi Sahlberg is bringing to Scotland is that they have been successful because they have looked and studied other countries for many years. They have not been inward-looking but he reminds us that as a small country of five million people, they need the stimulation and dialogue of a wider education community. However, that has not meant slavishly following trends that swept Europe and beyond in the 80s and 90s; particularly the market economy paradigm and culture of accountability.

Interestingly, in Finnish, there is no word for ‘accountability’ and Sahlberg struggles to explain how they are so successful without accountability partly for this reason. He moves on quickly to describing ‘responsibility’ and he is visibly more comfortable on this ground. It is in listening to Sahlberg talk about the development of a system based on professionalism, trust and responsibility that you realise the extent to which we are caught up and steeped in the rhetoric of a system based on accountability. I found this quite shocking in some ways. Why? Basically because I have always believed in Theory Y, not Theory X. (Theory Y espouses the belief that people have an intrinsic motivation to achieve, work hard, do the best for pupils, their workplace etc. Theory X is about the need to set targets, monitor and measure people’s efforts to make them achieve etc etc). All my experience has shown me that Theory Y prevails in education and in public life. I know this can be a controversial view and we can all point to an exception but that is my experience. Don Ledingham, years ago, spoke about accountability and thinking of accountability in a different way. ‘Accountability as Responsibility’ was Don’s mantra at that time and we had many discussions and debates about that. Therefore I should not have been so disturbed by the questions that came to mind for me when I explored the Finnish system.

How do they know students are achieving? How do they know if a school is giving the students the best learning experiences? How do they know they are meeting learners’ needs? What about the weak teachers? Do they presume students are reaching that notional entity- their potential?..the questions were flowing through my mind. Yet the data shows in every measure the Finnish principles of:

  • Equity
  • Participation
  • Learning
  • Efficiency

are evident across data charts from OECD.

Perhaps most stark for me were the measures that showed the Scandanavian countries, with Finland in the lead, had the lowest variation in student performance across schools. Therefore the Finnish authorities can confidently say to parents, ‘choose any school and your children will get a good education’. This enables them to be confident also about diversity in provision across schools. This interested me as many of us across Scotland are working hard to support secondary schools that have developed their curriculum based on CfE design principles and are offering different models to neighbouring schools and being challenged on this. There is a lack of professional and parental confidence in this- the two being inextricably linked- and this breeds a fear of ‘losing’ pupils to schools deemed to have a ‘better offer’.

We have a lot to learn from Finland when it comes to assessment and tracking of progress. CfE is completely aligned to the Finnish way, where teaching to the test is unthinkable. In fact it is illegal to test before Grade 6 in Finland. We should take courage in Scotland that following BtC5 without a diminution of the principles inherent in this, can lead to increased attainment, more time for teaching and learning and better results overall. Teachers track progress in Finland- they describe the learning. Sampling of attainment is the most that is done in terms of any central tracking and competition between schools is also unthinkable. We have the SSLN as sampling, we have quality assurance and moderation based in school and across schools and we are very close to the practices of the highest performing country internationally. Let’s believe in ourselves in this regard. It just takes trust and responsibility and, of course, cutting the apron strings.

I am looking forward to hearing Pasi Sahlbeg tomorrow and I will do some more thinking and wondering on my blog in relation to what I hear…including the notion of ‘Evaluation is for Learning’ that is now posted on Pedagoo.