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Metaphorical Cathedrals

“Longpath” for Learning part 1

This article was partly inspired by reading the following article on Wired Magazine by Ari Wallach:

Photo from Wikimedia at

This is what education should be focusing on now. In a recent Inside Learning episode/show, I realised that political oscillations and playing idealogical football with education would not provide the long term thinking we need to take us forward. At present, education in Scotland is run by a combination of 32 local authorities, with central government setting the main direction and monitoring the work of these authorities through financial controls and of course inspections. Interestingly, we have had a change of government in Scotland and it has held reasonably true to the “Curriculum for Excellence” implemented by the previous administration, so in some ways, we have long-term thinking happening at present. Contrast this with the English situation in which Michael Gove’s department has radically changed the approach to governance and now examinations. The next UK election is reasonably close, and if the conservative/liberal alliance is not returned then who knows what way the next administration will go. In episode 89 we discussed this with columnist and activist Fiona Miller who is clearly close to Labour policy makers but got no clear conclusion about Labour’s way forward. Pity the English schools who are constantly wary of the next big political storm while still at the centre of the current one. In Scotland we are enjoying more stability than that at present, but if Independence fails to happen, and the current SNP government wanes, we could be looking at a Scottish storm-of-change in due course. My point, it won’t serve us for a long term future, we need predictable leadership of education that is relatively independent of government fluctuation.

Various governments have enjoyed the politicisation of education and have made capital from moral-high-ground-adoption about slipping standards and society’s ills. However, most serious commentators are now accepting that the system is becoming so complex that simple solutions don’t seem to work and that education has not made the clear improvements in the couple of decades since the 1976 “Ruskin” speech that politicians might have hoped for. Indeed there is a danger that politicians may be beginning to see strong policy initiatives as poisoned chalices that simply lead to disappointment being pinned on the responsible politicians. More school autonomy from the Curriculum for Excellence is lauded, but schools are confused and lack confidence. Reduced class size pledges from the SNP administration have backfired as they can’t be afforded and haven’t made much impact anyway. A decade of strong inspection hasn’t raised standards significantly and has cost huge sums of money while possibly damaging school creativity. In short, this is a complex business with few easy answers and a track record of initiatives that cost a lot in time and effort and successively seem to confuse schools more.

It could be argued that part of the problem is that we haven’t actually got a well formed vision for education. Graham Leicester of the International Futures Forum has said that despite a huge focus on international comparison using PISA and other tools, no-one can point to any one system that has got it right; we really don’t know! If you want innovation within a system to lead to sharing of great ideas leading to desirable system change, then we need a direction to work toward. We don’t need a plan or a map, because we don’t know the details of where we are going, but we need a “North” and a compass so that we can explore the complex territory and still head in the right direction. For me that “North” will be a set of simple and consistent statements backed by simple and consistent values that we can align-to as we try to develop education to better answer the complex needs of the modern world.

Is a political party with a 5-year mandate the right way to develop this? Are our 32 Authorities with their ever-changing political leadership the right local stewards of the complex changes? While leadership at local and national levels is trying honestly and working hard, I believe that they are unable to provide the educational leadership that is required. I believe there is a loose precedent in Blair/Brown’s decoupling of the control of monetary policy when they handed inflationary targeting to the Bank of England. Successive governments have been able to leave the optimisation of monetary controls to control inflation to a relatively independent body, and the result has been relatively stable inflation  over a couple of decades despite the awful international financial situation. With hindsight, any current government is probably happy that they are less likely to be confronted with runaway inflation and there seems to be no political appetite to grab those levers again with the attendant danger of backfire then blame. The Bank of England does this relatively well because they can take a long view regardless of coming elections or prevailing political winds.

The financial analogy is limited, but I believe the time may be right to set up a National Education Council, decoupled from politics and with direct control of policy and practice. This body should combine academics, educators and representatives of business, industry and the arts. Perhaps similar to the kind of representation that the General Teaching Council Scotland has at present. The reason that the Bank of England decoupling has worked, is that a simple target for inflation could be set, (broadly 2%), in education our next challenge is to set targets, in a similar way for a National Education Council to work towards over the long term. Those targets cannot be the SQA exam results, as they tend to be at present, because that is not providing us the change incentives that we need at present; we mustn’t repeat the old targets and expect different results.

We can’t honestly say that short term political leadership has provided the great-leap-forward that our system needs. Perhaps the time has come, to quote Ari Wallach, when we should stop with the short-term planning and begin to “build metaphorical cathedrals”. Not using short term goals, but with an eye on our “longpath”.

What might these agreed targets be for a National Education Council? I will look at this thorny problem in a follow-on article shortly.

(Views in this article are personal and may not reflect my employer’s views)

Episode 108: “Beware of the Blob”

Tonight Matthew and Steve discuss the poor state of educational debate in the UK and how teachers are not best served by snapshot inspections and the terrors of audit regimes conducted by senior leadership teams under pressure to ‘perform’.  Whilst we acknowledge that accountability and striving for the best we can be are essential, how can evidence be gathered, disseminated and then coached in a developmental manner when there are single modes of data collection and a lack of trust in the profession to self-improve?  A tone that is antithetical to learning from each other is set politically through such outpourings as Secretary of State Michael Gove’s extraordinary article in the Daily Mail. Why is he reduced to caricaturing and name-calling opponents of his reforms rather than engaging with the arguments and any evidence that critics might present?  A 100 academics who were signatories to a letter in the Independent newspaper warning about the potential dangers of English curriculum reforms, were variously labelled as the “Enemies of Promise”, “Marxists” and characterised as the Blob.  Contemporary educational debate does not seem to draw upon any thing we have learnt about what makes good learning.  Apparently David Laws made a more conciliatory speech about teachers – can he teach his boss something about public debate?

Gove Daily Mail article

100 Academics

David Laws



Ep 107: The Glennie Blacklist

Dear friend of the ‘cast Anne Glennie joins Matthew to chew over this weeks news including the “by diverse means” report, more confirmation of summer-born babies bias, some tech nervousness in NEET youngsters and some lower than expected reading levels in Secondary learners!



The title will be a blow for the generally popular and loveable David Cameron who apparently suffered slipped-halo-syndrome during our 100th episode recording; you’ll have to listen for this shocking revelation. (He is in the good company of Michael Rosen and our own Jay Helbert:-))

Secondary learners shunning difficult books.

Summer-born babies inequalities surface again.

The new “By Diverse Means” report news item.

Poor IT skills hurt youth job chances.

Thanks very much to Anne for tonight’s “two hander” dramatised version of the ‘cast. If you want more of Anne, then the blog might be a good place to start.





Episode 106: Where the magic happens

Tonight Steve is in conversation with Sarah Burgess and Manjit Shellis, Directors of Learning for the UFA.  The University of the First Age is a national charity that was set up by Tim Brighouse in 1996, and from its roots in Birmingham it has gone on to work with over 750,000 young people and 6,000 adults in 50 regions, to create inspiring learning for all.  A large part of the UFA’s work is enabling young people to enrich their learning experiences through developing their leadership capabilities.  Peer tutoring and leadership of learning are key elements and these are discussed on the programme tonight.  The UFA have recently been involved in the National Citizen Service.



Also Sarah’s blog link:

Sarah can be contacted on and Manjit on _ they do brilliant training, get them in!

Also check out: Whole Education :

Episode 105: The Alchemy of Assessment

Tonight, we are delighted to be joined by Joe Wilson, Head of New Ventures at the Scottish Qualifications Authority.  A title our muckraker general, Matthew, described as windswept.

Joe talks to us about issues around assessment and the Curriculum for Excellence. The flexibility evident in some of the colleges and various forms of on-line assessments can pre-configure some transformational changes in learning.  One of the delights of this conversation was discovering the Thurstone Pairwise Comparison, sounds like a real ale, but underlies a serious challenge to how we traditionally consider marking. Thurstone’s Pairwise Comparison, more info at:

In the news:

Summer-born struggle: Why August children suffer at school, by Caroline McClatchey

Governors story:


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