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A PISA My Mind

When John Swinney stood up in the Scottish parliament this week and described the performance of Scottish Education as making for 'uncomfortable reading' and that 'radical reform' was needed, he no doubt did this in the belief he was speaking from an informed position. He went on to pledge to bring 'an unwavering focus on improvement' and promised to carry out further reforms 'no matter how controversial.' His message was loud and clear, our performance is not good enough and he was going to change this. I wonder if he ever thought about the impact of his very public pronouncements had on teachers and school leaders as they were heading into their schools the next day? I suspect not.

So, what 'informed' Mr Swinney's assessment of the Scottish education system? Was it from the hundreds of visits he had made to Scottish schools since his appointment in May of this year? Was it from the conversations he had with thousands of pupils, teachers and school leaders? Was it from the Education Scotland? The General Teaching Council Scotland? The Scottish College for Educational Leadership? Various academic leaders and researchers in Scottish universities, who have been looking at the system? The speakers at the Scottish learning Festival and various other conference he has attended? His own panel of 'international experts' he appointed as advisors? The OECD report published about the Scottish System late in 2015? Parents? No, apparently these statements were made after the publication of the latest PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) 'results' following their inspection and testing of 15 year olds in Reading, Science and Maths in 2015.

Mr Swinney was certainly not informed by any of the groups mentioned above, because if he was he would be well aware of the caution urged by almost all of them in the interpretation and use of PISA data. The problems identified around the whole PISA process are well documented and many who have urged caution in how this data is used and interpreted are well known to Mr Swinney. They include a number of members on the International Panel advising Mr Swinney. Alma Harris, Andy Hargreaves, Pasi Sahlberg and Carol Campbell have all spoken and written of their concerns of how PISA data is used, as well as the how it is collected. Even this week, Andy Hargreaves warned political leaders across education systems against 'knee-jerk' reactions to the latest figures. This was also echoed by Mark Priestley at Stirling university, who on his blog this week asked for Scotland to 'hold its nerve' in regard to the curriculum innovation of Curriculum for Excellence. Mark is no unthinking supporter of CfE and he has pointed out, with Walter Humes, some of the problematic areas in this development for a number of years. The OECD, home of PISA, in its own report also pointed out how Scottish education 'was at a watershed' when it published its report in late 2015. It had seen much to admire and noted how systems across the globe were looking to the Scottish curriculum as something innovative and worth considering in their own context. The 'watershed' was one where it could slip back into old out-dated ways, or it could continue to forge a different path.

What we had this week was a perfect example of 'valuing what we measure, rather than measuring (if we can) what we value.' Its raised more questions about both PISA and our education system. Will a focus on improving our PISA performance help us raise attainment for all? Close equity gaps? Improve the health and well-being of all our learners? Singapore currently sits at the top of these rankings. Go and ask them about health and well-being. Ask them about equity. Ask the about support for pupils with additional needs. Ask them about early learning and play. Ask them about democracy. You might not like the answers. Finland continues to perform well, and continues with its own approach, which is also context specific. They still have high levels of trust in the profession, at all levels. They don't have inspections. They don't have high stakes testing. They don't produce league tables. They embrace play in early years and children do not enter more formal education until they are seven. They don't have top down direction and high accountability agendas.

We are heading in the opposite direction to countries like Finland, and everywhere where this has also happened, has seen attainment go down, equity gaps widen and health and well-being problems multiply. Please Mr Swinney, really listen to the professionals who support your aims and want to help you achieve them. As Alma Harris has said before 'teachers are not the problem, they are the solution.' We worry that you are starting to sound more and more like Michael Gove, and look what happened to him!

Finally, Carol Campbell spoke of the importance of relationships and collaboration at the Scottish Learning Festival. The best school leaders understand this, and how important it is to create a culture that allow these to thrive. I would suggest it is the same for system and political leaders. The statements made this week by Mr Swinney and others do nothing to promote the culture needed for us to succeed. It may make leaders look 'strong' but it is the people in schools who are going to deliver what we all want. Waving big sticks and threatening doesn't really work for donkeys and they certainly don't work with thinking, caring and committed professionals.

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