Accomplishments Education for All Educational development Learning Teaching skills

Learning Together – A Radical Approach to Inspections

Chris McIlroy

A big question faced by the recent review of aspects of Scottish education was ‘What kind of education inspection do we need?’ Commentators argue the inspection process should be ‘robust’, ‘independent’, ‘transparent’ and ‘evidence-based’. Its purposes should be to ‘focus on improvement for learners and good practice in teaching’, ‘ensure accountability’, ‘report on standards’ and ‘engage stakeholders’. This is too great a burden for an inspection to carry and some features of these aspirations often can conflict with others. It is intended that the collaborative approach to school inspections advocated in this paper eliminates any undue stress or overwhelming pressures which can be associated with these occasions. Rather, the aim is to focus on how best to enhance the future wellbeing, growth and culture of our schools. It is time for a fresh look at what makes a good inspection and to concentrate on what matters.

‘Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.’ (Benjamin Franklin, 1706 – 1790)

Evaluating, communicating and promoting improvement: are our schools working well?

It is important to children, families, communities and councils that they know that their schools are operating effectively. In modern Scotland, with well qualified teachers who take part in a range of professional learning, we should be able to get to the heart of an educational establishment’s health without an inspection becoming too burdensome or comprehensive. An important indicator that a school is in good health is its track record in improvement. Which aspects are improving and how has that been achieved? Which are in a steady state? Which are stubbornly resisting improvement efforts and why? Moreover, the slow pace of educational improvement is a major issue for Scottish education highlighted in national and international comparisons. Future inspection models should therefore focus much more on evaluating improvement as a gauge of a school’s health and less time on ‘reading the metre’ to describe quality indicators and attainment standards – a major focus in recent years. By building a shared account with teachers of a school’s improvement work, inspectors and teachers will contribute to accountability and respect the professionalism of schools.

Good inspections lead to improvements in the quality of learning and in learners’ achievements. If an inspection does not improve these, it has not been worthwhile. Inspections are expensive in time and emotional energy so they must show their value. Let us be honest, despite the emphasis in recent changes to inspection, not every inspection leads to significant improvements, and promoting improvement still lacks prominence as the core activity of inspection. The best gift an inspection can give is to leave a school with the confidence to improve, feeling inspired and with a clear pathway of ideas to benefit learning and teaching. Inspections that focus on improvement have recurring discussions about the school’s success in making advances and in identifying ways of adjusting procedures where authentic progress is hard to make.

(Aristotle, 384 -322 BC)

Harnessing the powerhouse of professional learning

The powerhouse for improvement in schools is often professional learning. Where teachers reflect on learners’ responses and seek their views, engage in focused observations of their colleagues, try out and evaluate ideas to enrich practice, participate in dialogue and debate, significant improvements occur. How do I know? Since retiring, I have been working with over 300 classroom teachers in Glasgow along with two able leaders in applying these ideas on the ‘Improving Our Classrooms’ course with great results. The implications for inspection are clear – inspections should have a much stronger professional learning emphasis in which teachers and inspectors together discuss features of practice and justify and illustrate their judgements with evidence from the classrooms.

‘The ratio of We’s to I’s is the best indicator of the development of a team.’ (Lewis B. Ergen)

Inspections also are well placed to evaluate generic issues in learning and teaching, curriculum, meeting different needs and assessment which are key to improvements in learners’ understanding and achievement. They are best addressed strategically, keeping to the high ground to avoid drowning in detail. Investigating together issues – such as the pace of learning, challenge and support, feedback on progress in different classes or subjects – is a good test of a school’s teamwork applied in the classroom. The quality of development of skills for learning, work and life in the twenty-first century, including personal and social competences, creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking, reasoning and understanding is a penetrating indicator of curriculum relevance and worth.

Inspecting together: good professional relationships

Inspections which lead to improvements are often associated with collaborative professional relationships. Close links and rapport matter because inspections involve learning together and tackling hard questions about improvement which include openness, honesty and mutual respect. Where teachers play a full and active part in inspections, they are more likely to understand and ‘own’ ideas for improvement and are keen to make them work: in other words, effective relationships are necessary to facilitate learning together. The combination of good relationships, partnership working and a focus on improvement is modelled in a successful inspection.

Teachers’ experience and knowledge of their school should play a major part in directing improvement. The idea of bringing together those involved in teaching and learning with inspectors who have wider experience of learning and improvement in schools is sound. Yet the way that power is assigned in inspections may make it difficult to achieve professional partnerships. There may be tension, even fear, and an assumption that inspectors are there to demand justification from teachers or that they ‘know the answers’ and their wider experience enables them rather than teachers to make judgements about ‘how good’ things are. Where inspectors recognise the equal but different value of contributions from teachers and themselves to evaluation and improvement, genuine partnerships for advancement can develop.

Supporting educational priorities

Schools and inspections are designed for a purpose: to improve education, communities and society. The needs of society and the context of important national issues in education should influence the response of schools and the shape of inspections. Inspections should conclude, therefore, by evaluating and recording how the school, its community and society are benefiting from its work and how the inspection will add value to its improvement work.

We know that most pupils do well out of Scottish education but the system fails some pupils and the gaps in educational success between more and less affluent families are an enduring social issue which has defied resolution for over 50 years. The recent pandemic has also highlighted the impact of mental and physical health and emotional wellbeing on significant numbers of children and young people. Key issues for discussion towards the end of inspection will therefore include ‘inclusion’ and closing the poverty-related attainment gap. There is a strong case for a later evaluation of the success of the inspection to focus on these issues and for that evaluation to involve two independent evaluators, one from another education authority and a neighbouring headteacher who has been trained in evaluating impact.

Concluding remarks

An inspection model, based on evaluating and professional learning in a collaborative and pragmatic manner, has much to offer with regard to ensuring high levels of improvement within educational provision for children and young people regardless of their ages or stages. It operates through positive, trusting and inclusive principles towards fostering engagement and raising standards among two of society’s most treasured assets – skilled teachers and motivated learners.

‘Progress is not inevitable. It is up to us to create it.’ (Anon)

Footnote: Chris McIlroy was a teacher and headteacher in primary schools in Glasgow and later a Chief Inspector in Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education. He also has been a Visiting Professor at the University of Strathclyde and a consultant with many education authorities across Scotland. Among his previous published articles are two relating specifically to inspections:

McIlroy, C. (2013) ‘The Scottish approach to school improvement: achievements and limitations’, in T. G. K. Bryce, W. M. Humes, D. Gillies and A. Kennedy (eds), Scottish Education, Fourth Edition: Referendum. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

McIlroy, C. (2017) ‘The National Improvement Framework and the Return of National Testing’ in T. G. K. Bryce, W. M. Humes, D. Gillies and A. Kennedy (eds), Scottish Education, Fifth Edition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Accomplishments Education for All Educational development Inclusive education

Education Really Matters: Social Deprivation and Education

Frank O’Hagan

How far have we progressed?

There is a painting in The Louvre in Paris entitled ‘The Clubfoot’ (also known as ‘The Club-footed Boy’) by Jose de Ribera who is renowned for his depictions of the human condition. It is a portrait of a vulnerable youth and conveys stark observations on both hardship and physical disability. There are differing interpretations concerning this magnificent and moving painting. These range from the view that it expresses dignity and defiance under duress to the opinion that it is a bitter comment on the degeneration of dutifulness and care. For my part, I think that both of these positions are credible and can be reconciled. Neediness gives rise to people displaying distinct features of perseverance and personal worth but also of melancholy and desolation.

Although De Ribera’s painting dates from over 300 years ago, to a large extent it reflects issues and conundrums relating to prevailing attitudes on destitution and misfortune among the underprivileged. It might be felt that we have advanced far as a society and that such adversities are now under control. While it is true that there have been many changes for the better, it would be foolish not to acknowledge that numerous challenges remain. Is it right to feel annoyed at the present state of educational provision for children who are deprived? How can we respond to and build on the capabilities and resilience of juveniles with significant needs?

Addressing poverty and marginalisation

A common misunderstanding is to equate communal affliction simply with financial deficiencies. Deprivation has many guises. It is a complex and intractable phenomenon which also covers affairs dealing with health and welfare, parenting, housing, infrastructure, urban and rural dysfunction, inadequate schooling and unemployment. Ironically, policymakers are generally aware of what should be undertaken to rectify recognised concerns. Mere tokenism occurring in officialdom ought to be treated as unacceptable.

All learners, regardless of age, require to: be well nourished; live in reasonably healthy and safe environments; be able to obtain essential services without major inconveniences; and be actively engaged in educational or training programmes which are aimed at enriching individual circumstances. Breakdowns pertaining to any these factors can result in distress coupled with a sense of hopelessness and, on occasions, of annoyance and anger. Education is a critical route in the direction of amending matters. The burden of responsibility also reaches across a wider spectrum of local and national administrative services.

Recent research and media outlets frequently refer to ‘hard to reach’ families and suggestions are offered on ways in which helpful dialogue can be initiated on their behalf. Though the term ‘hard to reach’ is usually well intended, it can sound rather patronising or even act as a label. If professionals are to use it, then the converse must be conceded: that they themselves also can be difficult to contact as far as needy people living in stressful situations are concerned. It is a two-way problem. One does not have to look too far to find a deep-seated lack of trust regarding specialist practices within disadvantaged groups. Care has to be taken to avoid inadvertently creating or reinforcing a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Empathic responsiveness is imperative in ensuring that interventions are not perceived as holier-than-thou interferences.

Actions speak louder than words

It is too easy for the ‘haves’ to reproach the ‘have-nots’ as being lazy and short-sighted. The tendency of some is to assume that the fault exclusively lies with those who are suffering from impoverishment. For those in a privileged position, it is plain sailing to worry less as to the present and to be able to concentrate on long-term planning, for example, in saving for fees to cover the cost of their children’s future education. In contrast, when tackling the ubiquity of poverty, zealous educationalists aim to fix attention on social solidarity and the transformation of ill-fated, lived experiences. They take relevant account of contextual factors and never ignore the tribulations created by environmental tensions. They are fully aware of why their students are distracted by the makeshift and changeable conditions which they have to endure.

So, how can a rich and plentiful – but divided – society accurately take cognisance of and operationally counteract the impact of penury on educational opportunities and achievements? To initiate steps forward, there has to be a sincere political judgement of the hurdles being encountered. Approaches to overcoming barriers in pragmatic and realistic ways require to be both gimmick-free and, as far as possible, evidence-based. Some leaders in education have been going on about ‘closing the gap’ for a considerable time now, sometimes merely with the purpose of aiming ridicule at their opponents. Rather than empty words, no matter how heartfelt they are meant to sound, we need positive and efficient action.

Beware of the myths which surround the new paternalism of ‘up-levelling’. For a start, legislators cannot accomplish any substantial progress without the backing of low-income families, communities, schools and voluntary agencies. Available channels towards obtaining the most suitable kinds of resources and assistance are very limited in times of austerity resulting in a lack of sustainable livelihoods and cut-backs to public services. What is more, there is no single pathway which can overcome all the complications posed by societal ordeals. Without taking proper evaluation of, and responding positively to, the variations across the characteristics of young persons and their circumstances, schedules for improvements will falter.  

Key strategies for development and implementation

The cost of carrying out policies and projects is always an important factor. Additionally, their operation must focus on how to establish and maintain a high standard. Otherwise, devolved finances can be wasted on a valid idea which has been poorly executed. Nonetheless, various options are promising with the following eight proposals being offered for deliberation. Space only permits a very general outline of their content and functions.

1. Early identification and support. When experiencing restrictiveness due to existing in a state of paucity, it is little wonder that parents and guardians have much to deal with – for starters, managing to pay for food, rent and energy bills. As a result, infants can unwittingly receive insufficient attention or even suffer from neglect. All phases of human development are important and, given appropriate intervention, the previous negative effects of privation can be overcome. Inclusion, engagement and enjoyment are pertinent driving forces on the road to success. A nation’s focus must always be on the right of every individual to have the best possible start in life.

The ‘flexible’ mind is sustained by life-affirming opportunities to grow, develop and flourish. In particular, the pre-school years have been highlighted as a key period to help those from underprivileged backgrounds. It is a stage when both free play and organised activities can evoke interest and provide motivation to acquire autonomy, emotional suppleness, creativity and competences. It is also a time when fathers and mothers (a caution: the role of ‘fathering’ must not be side-lined) regularly need updates and are willing to discover more on positive nurturing skills. For many of their children, encouragement in ‘learning how to learn’ will be decidedly gainful while in pre-school provision and beyond.

2. Promoting resilience within family units and communities. The impact of want and malnutrition varies among youths and the influences of parental upbringing are complex. Collaborating with and empowering all residing in impoverished districts are essential. The bolstering of beneficial features – shelter, safeguarding, and compassionate care – can do much to strengthen youngsters in surmounting daily obstacles. Involvement in well-suited programmes should aim at breaking intergenerational cycles in respect of marginalisation, low expectations and academic failure.

Partnerships will be welcomed in connection with the overall enhancement of domestic life and in suggesting out-of-school pursuits, for example, adults and adolescents together profiting from advice on financial management covering topics on budgeting, welfare payments and the avoidance of debt. Unlocking concealed talents and indicating routes out of the entrapment of destitution must remain unwavering aims among all civic commitments.

3. Extending additional educational support. Schools under pressure warrant the means to ensure that they are not receptacles for passive acceptance of failures or shortcomings caused by administrative systems. If anything, it is fitting that they are sustained in a position of having even higher than normal expectations on behalf of their pupils. In the media, there are often tactless references to ‘failing schools’ and, over and over again, these appear to be serving poorer catchment areas. Educational establishments which have to meet with the demands posed by harsh economic conditions merit extra funds and should not be evaluated by the same academic criteria as others situated in more well-to-do locations. They have a claim on planned compensation as regards the allocation of teaching specialists to aid anyone encountering substantial difficulties and designated assistants to promote inclusive practices. The expansion of trained staff for literacy, mathematics and personal, social and health education in primary schools – and also in selected subjects in the secondary sector – should always be kept under review. Above all, it is valuable for the power of education be let loose to counteract misfortune by enabling learners to identify their troubles and, in time, to overcome them through gaining the knowledge and skills necessary to augment their wellbeing. The young have dreams and aspirations which deserve to be recognised and fully endorsed.

4. Developing communal integration and participation. There is a strong case for establishing more efficient and coherent services across health, education, social work departments and voluntary groups. Interventions aimed at alleviating disadvantage are obliged to be dynamic and multi-faceted in providing solutions across an extensive range of predicaments. Unfortunately, collaboration among agencies to develop and enrich distressed zones can be fragmented and time-limited. If information and directives are not competently distributed and understood in neighbourhoods, many may fail to know how best to become meaningfully involved. Perseverance, openness and transparency are indispensable ingredients for the implementation of constructive methods when engaging households in the process of improving the quality of everyday lives.

5. Effective use of public assets. The affluent and well-informed do make first-rate use of accessible municipal assets to supplement their children’s overall educational erudition. However, it would be expedient if there were more openings for everyone living in rundown localities to have better contact with these amenities and to benefit from them in genuinely purposeful ways. In general, insufficient use is made of the nation’s stock of regional resources to advance their chances for stimulating out-of-school learning. Museums, art galleries, libraries having computer-based facilities to counter ‘digital poverty’, historic monuments, science centres, sports programmes, apprenticeship courses, coaching schemes and the like can all be put to good use in reinforcing the drive and enthusiasm to succeed.

6. Utilising the expertise of altruistic volunteers. Another initiative aimed at narrowing the gaps in enterprise and scholarship is the deployment of unpaid helpers, including retired professionals, as mentors or advisers to interact constructively with young people. Thoughtful scrutiny is necessary to recruit from a wide variety of current or previous occupations and to select those who have the proficiencies which can inspire and transform lives. There are many conceivable inputs which committed citizens could contribute: tutoring to upgrade accomplishments in literacy, numeracy and technology; revising lessons during evening sessions; offering guidance on job interviews, employability skills and careers; preparing students for formal examinations in specific subjects; assisting with applications for tertiary education and the world of work; and so forth.

7. Increasing admissions to tertiary forms of education and training. The inhabitants of economically deprived surroundings require greater admittance into tertiary forms of education across colleges, universities, formal vocational courses, and industrial placements. For instance, it is well documented that places in universities for school leavers from the poorest districts remain stubbornly low despite much hullabaloo about this scandalous issue. More radical measures for estimating aptitude and academic ability are urgently needed. These could include better use of holistic assessment processes organised by universities and the commercial sector to gauge hidden flair and talents.  Instead of allowing a slide towards any lowering of standards – a topic which has been raised by some businesses – valid, alternative procedures for determining authentic potential in identifiable areas of instruction and study should be instigated. Of particular disquiet is the danger of teenagers not embarking on the most appropriate courses for entry into future, gainful livelihoods.  

8. Evaluation and accountability in the application of policies. As implied earlier, policy decisions and initiatives ought to have built into them a formal outline of data and predictions concerning the ‘socio-economic duty’ of the official bodies which hold the purse strings. These should include clearly stated targets and measures of what will be achieved with reference to the promotion of collective equality and the enhancement of occupational prospects. As plans are put into operation, they will entail impartial appraisal to ascertain how effectual they are in relation to what they set out to complete. Transparency and the addressing of unpalatable facts are fundamental in bringing forward essential improvements. Everybody has the right to be kept up-to-date on whether undertakings have matched expectations or fallen short of declared objectives.

Concluding remarks – or will we be fooled again? Further action research to identify the most proficient means of delivering and supplementing evidence-based methods would be advantageous. It is crucial to determine what combinations operate best and in what circumstances. It could be argued that all, or almost all, of the eight discussed strategies have been around for some time in one form or another with various levels of realisation. What have been missing are comprehensive, integrated and enduring forms of engagement which effectively eliminate the prerequisites of deprivation in different settings. We owe it to today’s pupils to ensure that promised solutions are fully executed and that they are not misled as were the generations which have gone before them.

How would the youth in Jose de Ribera’s portrait feel about the progress which has been made since his days as a street urchin? While, in general, being pleased with societal and educational developments, he may wonder why they have not been more successful. He may think that as long as there are dog-eat-dog economies – whether capitalist or communist – the poor and dispossessed will always be present. Nevertheless, I am sure that he would call for educational programmes and reforms which place a stronger emphasis on everyone’s worth, efficacy and dignity. He also might wish to highlight the prospective benefits in terms of wellbeing, happiness and economic advancement within a more unified and contented world.

Footnote: Other relevant articles in this series cover: quality in the curriculum; inspirational teachers; the promotion of authentic learning; potential, attainments and achievements; and diversity, equity and inclusion. For some links, please see below at “Related”.

 (Dr Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)

Accomplishments Education for All Educational development Learning Teaching skills

Education Really Matters: Raising Potential, Attainments and Achievements

Frank O’Hagan

Crisis? What crisis?

Criticism has been made that the term ‘attainment’ often is used and interpreted in too narrow a fashion. This view suggests that it is construed as applying primarily to measurements arising from formal assessments in traditional curriculum areas as language and literature, mathematics, social subjects and the sciences. There is no suggestion that these subjects are unimportant; simply that, if and when they are over-emphasised at the expense of other key constituents in education, evaluations made on the competence of many learners may be misjudged or undervalued. For these reasons, all-embracing phrases such as ‘potential, attainments and achievements’ have come to be regarded as more appropriate by many educationalists. 

Some media outlets seem to take to an open delight in distributing news about falling standards and highlight what they perceive to be a general decline in the overall accomplishments of young people. Given the manner in which various assertions are made, they may well reflect a lowering in the quality of research and reporting among sections of newspapers and social networks. To justify the claim of deterioration in any subject, it has to be convincingly established that the current position is being compared with an equivalent benchmark using relevant criteria. Instead of conjecture and speculation, unambiguous and valid verification has to be presented to the public. Too frequently, damning comparisons fail to convince. However, despite their usage and analysis regularly being highly misleading, there is a positive aspect to data on results being so eagerly awaited and cited in the press and internet. It is that appraisals of students’ abilities and talents are clearly matters of repeated concern and worthy of further investigation.

There numerous reasons as to why contrasting measures of the past with those of the present are extremely hard to substantiate. They cover:

  • using flawed or differing sampling techniques;
  • the adjusting and modifying of methods of assessment over a period of time;
  • altering and amending the contents which are taught in a particular subject making it nigh impossible to compare like with like; and
  • the evolving demands from commercial businesses concerning modern skills-based training as witnessed in science, computing, technology and engineering.

Contemporary industrial societies expect leavers from schools, colleges and universities to possess a range of knowledge and expertise which is dissimilar to that of previous generations. Of course, these observations do not assert that current achievements are as elevated as they could or should be; only that references to discrete cohorts can so easily be unreliable or invalid. There is a crisis but it is a continuing challenge which is twofold in nature, namely that: (1) the urgent requirement for more inclusive and effective improvements in educational provision is forever with us; and (2) standards have never been deemed by politicians or the public to be at sufficiently high levels.

Fake news, league tables and misuses of statistics

Areas of disquiet are publications and ensuing disagreements which arise with regard to ‘league tables’, based on published results for educational establishments. At times, these procedures can amount to heralding a series of nationwide humiliations! Once again, there are many occasions when scrutiny and analyses ought to be undertaken in a more cautious, honest and professional fashion. On closer inspection, judgements sometimes have to be treated with suspicion or simply not be given credibility. Educational statistics are an illusion if they do not take full account of social and environmental factors influencing school populations.

Inappropriate conclusions can be drawn when, for example, differences and contrasts are made of results from comprehensive schools with other institutes which rigorously select their pupils. The use of statistics to highlight the so-called benefits and merits of selective and private schools or, for that matter, ‘elitist’ state schools can be downright dishonest. Such schools are generally associated with high academic results. Nonetheless, a breakdown of the data can demonstrate that in fact a so-called higher achieving school should be doing much better when other features, for instance deprivation rates, are taken into the reckoning. Moreover, some schools serving impoverished neighbourhoods are succeeding remarkably well, given the tasks which they are expected to undertake and the resources available to them.

Another case in point relates to conditions concerning the organisation of national examinations. It has been well known for many years that local authorities and schools vary in the percentages of their pupils who have special arrangements in place when they sit tests. Schools serving more affluent localities and private schools are in a favourable position to make use of assessments to identify pupils experiencing dyslexic conditions or other additional support needs. Consequently, the pupils may well have extra time allotted to them in exams and/or scribes to help with writing. How then can these schools be evaluated fairly against those in more deprived areas where pupils with similar difficulties have been less likely to have had comparable support and assistance? Some divergences are so extreme that the comparisons make little sense due to the advantages gained by the more privileged pupils.

 ‘Closing the gap’

In recent years a great deal of political debate has been concerned with what is commonly referred to as ‘closing the gap’. Issues on this important matter are generally considered and conveyed in terms of academic subjects rather than the much wider range of capabilities and personal qualities required in daily living and employment. A recurring mistake by policy-makers and the media has been to deliver their announcements as if there is only a singular gap. In the real world, within different social groupings in urban and rural communities, there are multiple inequalities in prospects for intellectual growth, academic qualifications and training options. A restricted focus on the outcomes of formal appraisals presents both a handicap and a disservice to learners. Moreover, it curtails a central aim of education, namely, to develop and establish a truly unbiassed, flourishing and mature society.

An institutionalised, rigged system exists and must be unravelled and reconstructed. If the powers that be are serious about closing gulfs and expanding opportunities, they can start by ending child poverty which is continually at scandalous levels. How can impoverished families focus on future advancement in the here and now of a ‘postal lottery’ when they are struggling to survive?

Addressing various disparities, while raising standards, will give rise to a host of predicaments which demand a sequence of appropriate, evidence-based interventions. After careful deliberation on the circumstances and specific drawbacks existing within schools and their locations has been undertaken, suitable resources need to be supplied and well-targeted strategies implemented. If weaknesses are to be fully remedied, attention has to be given to the needs of all learners which implies that ‘within-school’ fissures also have to disappear. After all, neglect of even a small number of learners creates an unwelcome gap. Efficient and connected approaches, along with the on-going belief and commitment of staff and students that ‘together we can do it’ are crucial in advancing towards increased success rates. Levels of quality across the curriculum can be raised but, like many other desirable purposes, collective endeavour and willpower are essential.

Reasons to be cheerful?

Educators from nursery to university have a sense of duty and resolve to promote long-lasting satisfaction and happiness within learning processes. A continuous prominence on the love of learning and on fulfilment through personal progress provides a firm foundation on which norms and outcomes can be upgraded. When students experience sensations of immersion and total involvement in learning, sometimes referred to as ‘flow’ by advocates, they are enabled to map out pathways for steady improvement and to constantly add to the sum total of what they have already accomplished. Nonetheless, at times, there may be too much stress on positivity. Hopes, alas, are not synonymous with dreams; optimism and high expectations need to be balanced alongside pragmatism and moderation. Pupils usually are aware that it is best for them to be well prepared for arduous times and unexpected circumstances. They realise that it is advisable to give some consideration to possible outcomes which might not be as good as previously had been anticipated and that, if this turns out to be the case, to remain composed and geared up to forge ahead.   

The impetus for advancement in knowledge and applied skills can be found in some key ingredients which are already present in current practices. These include students: feeling confident and well supported; being sufficiently involved and challenged, but not overwhelmed, in their studies; and having a genuine belief in the usefulness of selected curricular activities. Involving them in regular, sensitive and insightful checking of their endeavours and contributions is one proven means of fostering success. Passing on greater responsibility to self-evaluate and monitor progress is an integral component of a thriving learning environment. Effective ways of doing so take account of: (1) constantly enabling students to participate in making  decisions on their individualised targets; (2) ensuring that they are well acquainted with the goals which, with sufficient effort, they can realistically achieve; (3) establishing confidential feedback mechanisms, including the use of up-to-date technologies, which are easily accessible to them, their parents and guardians; and (4) encouraging them to draft and analyse a model curriculum vitae and then to decide on what curricular route they need to follow towards fulfilling their well-grounded aspirations.

Towards an agenda for improvement

Most would agree that governments should strive to adopt and implement improvement policies which endorse a desire to learn, the expansion of skills, creative thinking, and open and flexible mindsets from infancy to old age. The promotion of an abiding and authentic culture bestows real benefits regarding human capital, prosperity, health and wellbeing. 

Prerequisites change considerably as learners grow older and move along distinct steps from nursery through primary and secondary schooling to vocational programmes, college or university and beyond. Moreover, prospects associated with further tutoring and professional enrichment for workers and adult students have to figure in any far-reaching innovations. The quality of recording evidence of progress is important all the way through these inter-linked phases and is critical in the embellishment of existing capabilities and proficiencies.

During the infant, primary and early secondary years, children generally experience broad play and/or learning programmes and often work on integrated topics which cover a variety of subjects; there is a tendency to concentrate on developing their knowledge and understanding across curricular areas. Towards the end of secondary education, they can begin to focus on and specialise in specific subjects of interest. For those who wish to undertake commercial or industrial training, while the value of some traditional skills and trades has diminished, new avenues have become accessible. At college and university, openings to follow distinctive routes abound. Through all these stages, objectives will be reached if learners are given worthwhile opportunities to take advantage of the serendipitous breaks and options which come their way. At the same time, society needs to acknowledge the folly of excessive usage of computational schemes when assessing individuals. There is an urgent necessity for better methodologies to be initiated through applying a greater significance to more eclectic and value-based approaches.

The ‘measurement agenda’, when it dominates the comments and observations of evaluators, limits perspectives and fails to place a spotlight on the numerous hidden but valuable abilities and attributes of many young people. Alternative recording routines for transitional phases need to be introduced to provide more accurate and holistic profiles. As indicated earlier, an over-emphasis on quantitative analysis risks accentuating unnecessary competitive attitudes and dubious, judgemental conclusions. They also have a propensity to nudge some examination boards towards resembling number-crunching accountancy firms using dodgy data and superficial algorithms. Additionally, education authorities must continue to beware of suspect inter-school comparisons and their deleterious effects, particularly if based on unfair suppositions. Crucially, teaching staff deserve to have a more direct say and responsibility in relation to the content of courses of study and on the types of qualifications and post-school destinations which are most meaningful to their students.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is attainment.png

The following quotation which often is attributed (though probably incorrectly) to Albert Einstein seems apposite when discussing quantitative and qualitative assessment procedures. ‘Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.’

Learning communities together with their students must remain at the centre of all deliberations. Educators are fully aware that, in addition to reflecting on how well their educational establishments are functioning, it is imperative never to ignore the abilities, aptitudes and development of every student. Each one has the capability to move forward and it is the accumulation of individual endowments which generate overall performance. (In fact, simply encouraging pupils from more deprived environments to turn up for examinations has been found to boost the degree to which a secondary school has progressed!)

A clear benefit of targeted support and guidance for learners from diverse social backgrounds is that, as participants, they can profit through becoming more engaged, responsive and forthcoming. Attempts to upgrade benchmarks must include all concerned, including young persons who appear disenchanted and/or rebellious. They may feel that there is little possibility of them fitting in with any kind of ‘culture of excellence’ – whatever that might mean to them. Fairness and inclusiveness demand that a thorough account is taken of the feats of those experiencing difficulties relating to physical or mental health. Acceptance of, and commitment to embrace, those who are profoundly neglected or in need of assistance will greatly enrich society as a whole. Everyone matters!  

Concluding remarks

Undoubtedly, the prospects for learners, regardless of social background, can be enhanced in many ways. A key factor is to ensure that there are first-rate chances for both young and old to have authentic ownership of and control over their futures. We only have to note the remarkable transformation which has occurred due to greater female emancipation and the subsequent entitlement to studies from which girls and women were previously barred.

The following points are worthy of further enquiry when the topic of potential, attainments and achievements are discussed:

  • accomplishments and successes are about much more than results in tests; there should always be appropriate consideration given to other relevant factors such as aptitudes, interpersonal skills, giftedness, practical know-how and participation in sporting and cultural activities
  • thoughtful analysis and scrutiny must be assigned to the use and reporting of statistics, especially when the outcomes seem to be sensationalist or melodramatic; in particular, caution is necessary when contrasting current learners with those of previous generations or when one educational establishment is compared with another
  • there are many reasons to be optimistic as to how advances can be taken forward so long as inspiring programmes of study and suitable resources are made available to enable all learners to follow their aspirations and augment their talents
  • the recognition and celebration of potential, attainments and achievements, when coupled with efficient independent governance by a national agency, are extremely significant and advantageous not only for individuals but also for families, local communities and a state’s cultural and economic growth.
Everyone can be a winner!

(Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)

Education for All Educational development Learning Teaching skills

Education Really Matters: Assessment

Frank O’Hagan

A complex and controversial topic

One of the many contentious areas in education relates to the purpose and nature of how evaluations are made, and reports are written, about the abilities and talents of children and older students. The main issues which appear in the media and are of concern to teachers and parents may seem initially to be relatively simple. However, further inspection shows them to be both elaborate and multifaceted. For a start, the focal point of an appraisal might be related to everyday knowledge, practical skills, analytical capability, dexterity, originality, inventiveness, problem-solving, creativity or a mixture of these features.  Furthermore, assessment practices cover a wide variety of age and social groups and can take many forms – written examinations with open or multiple-choice questions; one-to-one interviews and participation in group discussions; hands-on and experimental tasks; project work; research dissertations; and so forth. In all of these procedures, judgments can be made along a broad spectrum ranging from the use of narrow, strict criteria to very vague and subjective guidance. Predictably, the opinions and conclusions made by students, guardians, schools, universities and employers with regard to the significance and value of the information contained in assessment reports are frequently open to large discrepancies.

Educationalists have to consider the reason for an assessment as well as its modus operandi. For example, initial or base-line assessment is used to establish the abilities of pupils prior to starting a programme of work whereas summative assessment is intended to measure competences at the end of a course. Conversely, formative assessment has an important role to perform in monitoring advancement and to highlight improvements which are being implemented while coursework is still on-going. Two other approaches, worthy of note as they can be particularly helpful to students, are: (1) self-referenced assessment which enables them to measure advances against their previous standards during the interval from a designated starting point and (2) goal-based assessment to record the achievement of targets which previously had been set for, and understood by, individuals or groups.

Some cautionary notes

In practice, there is no single ideal means of gauging learners’ exact knowledge and understanding in common curricular areas, for instance, in language and literature, mathematics, scientific studies, the arts and technology. Similarly, this is true for notable human characteristics and qualities such as personality, general intelligence and employability. Even though nurseries, schools and further and higher educational institutions may place great significance on the outcomes of appraisals, caution is applicable in relation to their management at all ages and stages. A case in point would be excessive use of quantitative and psychometric tests which are often administered inappropriately. Probably some serve the interests of their publishers and professional test users much better than pupils or parents who can be confused or misled by what these methods pertain to demonstrate. An on-going problem with standardised measurements arising from personality profiles or details about intelligence is that they can reinforce the spurious notion that personal attributes and ability are fixed entities.

Other factors – such as the context in which examinations take place, the emotional stress levels of those being appraised, and the criteria for grades to be decided by assessors – regularly feature in civic deliberations. Moreover, there is the possibility of inherent bias being concealed within administrative processes as regards gender, social class or ethnicity. Undeniably, time and again, there is a strong case to be made for having very clearly-stated ‘health warnings’ issued along with formal assessment reports. Substantial caveats also apply to cumulative data collections which are analysed to make comparisons of results among schools as well as those gathered for the circulation of national statistics.  

Validity, reliability and usefulness

Despite there being recognisable difficulties and limitations, it seems to be generally agreed that to compute in a reasonably objective manner how students – or, for that matter, schools, education authorities and nations – are performing is a desirable goal. In spite of the urgency, it is unsurprising that this aim, with its various stumbling blocks and obstacles to overcome, continues to be mired in uncertainties and disagreements. Students from all backgrounds are the blameless victims of these predicaments. They deserve clarification and elucidation as assessment and its subsequent effects are matters of extreme importance to them. If satisfactory solutions are to be found, it is absolutely necessary for educationalists to be confident that approved procedures possess validity, reliability and usefulness. These three concepts are intricate and only a brief outline of them is provided in what follows.  

Validity relates to a calculation of any kind actually measuring what it claims to measure. Questions about how well everyday assessments really do judge targeted features need to be raised more often than is currently happening. Frequently, they are well wide of the mark in terms of accuracy, or in worse-case scenarios, they measure something else. In such circumstances, there is a pressing requirement to re-evaluate whatever approach is being undertaken. Currently, many assessments are largely, if not entirely, paper-based which raises questions regarding validity in relation to practical and life skills beyond educational establishments. Fixed, restricted conventions should be challenged if they are viewed as falling far short of determining competences appropriately. Public debate, including through the use of social media, should be encouraged to examine issues about how best to develop well-founded and justifiable arrangements for appraisals.   

In general, reliability is largely concerned with the extent to which an analysis provides consistent results in what it is measuring. One form of reliability, referred to as stability, is when there are consistent scores if repeated at different junctures. Features to be taken into consideration include the methods, frequency and organisation of assessments. An evaluation can be consistent but invalid through giving a constant result when repeated but, in reality, not measuring what is intended. Indeed, some tests are consistently invalid! At times, snags relating to validity and reliability may appear to be present simultaneously. For instance, coursework for national examinations with input largely completed by parents and tutors, or purchased over the internet as occasionally happens, would most likely not be of the same specification if it had been completed without any assistance. Likewise, tests undergone after a holiday period can indicate poorer academic performances than would have been the case if they had taken place at the end of term prior to vacation. In particular, it would be of no surprise to class teachers if they found this feature to be more marked for pupils from deprived backgrounds who did not have the same level of academic support as others while away from school.

What is often overlooked when debates rumble on about assessment is consideration of the usefulness of current practices. To meet the ‘utility’ criterion, assessors need to be able to show conclusively that the processes are genuinely worthwhile in terms of duration, costs and realistic gains. If they are a disservice to pupils’ and teachers’ efforts, too bureaucratic or of little value to stakeholders, why have them? All undertakings ought to guarantee trustworthy purposes which are clearly understood by recipients, including those who use the results when they are making decisions about students’ futures. Assessors – whether in educational establishments or industry – are in very influential positions. They have the power to arrive at conclusions which will impact on the life-long consequences of individuals. With such dominance comes great responsibility.

Prioritising the advantages of those teaching and taught   

From the perspective of learners, there are occasions when little or no thought seems to have been given to the suitability of common assessment practices. As indicated previously, the question which needs to be addressed is ‘What are the benefits for both those being taught and their teachers?’ For instance, sometimes arrangements and frequency in gauging practical skills should be more akin to driving tests for motor vehicles. Students could be assessed when they rate themselves ready and, if they do not reach appropriate prerequisites, have further opportunities to re-sit their examinations.

Additionally, pupils experiencing difficulties may achieve targets within their individualised educational programmes but have had unsatisfactory learning experiences while working towards them. As a result, they may be much less motivated to participate in forthcoming work or to proceed to the next stages. In this situation, what appears in a report to have been a success may actually have been detrimental to their further development.

For a comprehensive review of progress, a blend of mixed tactics may be necessary to obtain greater accuracy than, as often happens, results being devised after a nondescript, written and timed examination. Merely bestowing a number or a rating on levels of attainment can be very limited as to denoting further intellectual growth or applied expertise. Personalised profiles covering important features of potential, attainments and achievements can convey much more relevant and detailed information.

The introduction of new procedures should be designed with the key principle of enabling scholars to understand how to move forward in a positive fashion. Categorisation arising from judgments and decisions can so easily be the forerunner of an unintended form of stigmatisation. As previously indicated, a recurrent hazard – widely acknowledged – is that assigning grades brings with it the possibility of dispiriting students who either perceive themselves as failures or are labelled as such by others. Too much emphasis on testing, especially when students are ill-prepared, can lead to unnecessary pressure and anxiety. When supplementary forms of monitoring are planned, their efficiency ought to be substantiated beforehand rather than be introduced as a fad or political gesture. If, as is sometimes claimed by politicians, regular national tests of young pupils are helpful in ensuring that standards are being raised, then this assertion should be supported by well-documented research.  

Prevailing pressures on tutors can coerce them towards giving too much attention to quantitative methods of reporting at the expense of qualitative approaches. Discerning teachers realise that formative and dynamic assessment techniques are very advantageous in many ways to students of all ages. When evaluating achievements, there is much to be gained from objectively observing learners’ awareness and responsiveness, investigating their contributions, and listening to their explanations of what they feel they are accomplishing. Such courses of action can identify: superior learning strategies; productive work habits; successful incentives; the most effective forms of instruction; and the levels of intervention and support to fulfil potential abilities and giftedness.

One aspect in which traditional techniques fail significantly relates to the appraisal of complex competencies which are relevant – at times essential – with regard to inter-personal relationships and professional proficiency. For example, in both formal and informal assessment across age groups, know-how concerning decision-making, problem-solving, self-evaluation and cooperative work with others are often neglected. Nonetheless, such aspects of performance are highly valued by students themselves, educationalists and employers. Current practices require to be upgraded to address this significant weakness.


Ascertaining features about learners’ abilities, dexterity and personal traits can be highly functional and profitable in the enhancement of their educational experiences and progress. However, careful scrutiny and reflection are necessary in the formulation of guidelines. In turn, these always should be implemented in an appropriate, well-designed and purposeful manner.

High quality assessment has the following characteristics: (1) it has proven validity, reliability and usefulness; (2) its administration is undertaken by skilled and committed personnel who have received suitable training; (3) it provides substantial information, feedback and guidance which will augment the quality of learning and teaching; (4) its execution and outcomes are of benefit to all relevant stakeholders, particularly the students involved; (5) it has an apposite health warning, especially when it forms the basis of vital decisions about a student’s future.

Unfortunately, there are those with responsibilities for assessment within education who are fully aware of the failures and shortcomings of current practices but negligently continue to promote the status quo. While acknowledging the obstacles and challenges which they face, their report card perhaps should begin mischievously with that familiar, if unwanted, adage ‘Not good enough! Must do much better!’ – followed, of course, by positive and constructive suggestions on how matters could be considerably improved!  

(Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)

Education for All Educational development Learning Teaching skills

Education Really Matters: Leadership in Education

Frank O’Hagan

Why is leadership in learning communities so important?

Despite conflicting views on the characteristics of effective leadership, it is a topic which cannot be ignored. Much depends on the personal, philosophical and ethical qualities of those who are charged with providing authentic advice and guidance. Deliberations also should focus on the framework in which they operate and undertake their responsibilities, with associated procedures and outcomes requiring to be kept under constant review. Given the countless on-going developments in practices, it is pertinent to take a systematic look at what stewardship in all aspects should entail.

Depending on the context, terms used in job descriptions such as leader, manager, chief education officer or director can be interpreted in differing ways. Regardless of positions or power, those concerned might be judged by their subordinates and others to be ‘enthusiastic’ or ‘pessimistic’, ‘helpful’ or ‘dispiriting’, ‘brilliant’ or even ‘downright evil’! There are numerous examples of inspiring leaders delivering improvements which result in happy, energetic environments. It is always gratifying to listen to cheerful narratives of this kind. Unfortunately, the deleterious ramifications arising from management which has malfunctioned are evident in many contemporary educational bodies. Very high standards may be expected but, like business and politics, education is strewn with administrators who have been catastrophic failures, bankrupt of constructive ideas.

The features underlying good execution of responsibilities require positive responses to certain key questions. Do managerial structures promote equity, inclusiveness, respect and confidence among all participants? Have leadership roles been shared or are they tightly controlled by a small faction? Is there a genuine awareness of and attention to the needs, views and aspirations of students, staff, parents, guardians and the local area? Has collective trust been established and enhanced? Is there a willingness to acknowledge mistakes, learn from them and make the necessary adjustments and advances?

When things might go astray

Progressive regulations enable working conditions and the pursuit of knowledge to be pleasurable and fruitful; the converse often results in stress, personal harm and the undermining of the growth of a vibrant culture. On occasions, inadequate governance of affairs can be characterised by a toxic mix of attributes with executives performing poorly while simultaneously manifesting a high estimation of their own abilities. Regrettably, but without doubt, some in positions of authority are incompetent though too inept to realise that this is the case.

There are various ways in which policymaking styles can produce umbrage among a workforce. For example, autocratic headteachers can be gruff and abrasive with insufficient patience to consider sensible or useful suggestions from within their organisations. Indeed, instances of ‘macho-management’ can provide notable illustrations of how to lose good staff! In contrast, there is what might be described as the laissez-faire administrator who takes a distant, hands-off approach leaving others to take on responsibility and, of course, the blame when events go askew. Charisma can certainly be an advantage but the charismatic leader may lack a value-based stance and can be regarded by staff as a charlatan if the initial alluring appeal falls short in delivering worthwhile outcomes. Yet another exemplar – the ‘invisible boss’ – relates to heads who confine themselves to their own offices or who are frequently away from their workplaces. It is particularly ironic for abandoned colleagues if, in their view, the reason for repeated absences is to attend self-development sessions in the quest for further promotion! Small wonder if such a lack of engagement leads to failures in acquiring a true grasp of the real hassles or the devious and subtle subplots at play under their radar. Neglect of duty breeds resentment.

Much more than interviews required before permanent appointments

It may appear surprising that many education officers and heads of educational establishments, despite having been viewed in previous posts as talented high flyers, fail to achieve success in new situations. It could that they conveyed a very good impression at interview (‘talking the talk’) but had not been adept at making headway in ‘real-life’ circumstances (‘unable to walk the walk’). If decisions are based mostly on performance during interviews, there is the possibility that those who have been appointed may have unintentionally misled their employers with false promises. After taking up their posts, they are not up to scratch in accomplishing commitments. Alternatively, they may have found themselves unexpectedly in an organisation with downcast and disheartened senior support staff. A debilitating culture prevailed and they did not possess the requisite drive and management skills to establish effective working relationships. Every derailment has its own story to tell.

There needs to be a reliable arrangement which guarantees robust and evidence-based reasons behind key appointments. These could be based on: careful scrutiny of personal and social qualities, such as in teamwork; proven achievements in previous positions of responsibility; and professional attributes relating to creativity, problem-solving, innovative practices and evaluation procedures. The decisive factor for confirming that the correct personnel have been selected begins with the appointees fully embracing their responsibilities and embarking on an improvement trajectory. They need to establish clearly that their priorities, judgements and implementation methods result in demonstrable progress for all concerned. On occasions, there will be justifiable reasons for tenures to be of a temporary nature until it is definite that selections are appropriate. At the same time, in order to be fair to them and with their wellbeing in mind, there also should be routes to allow them to return to previous posts in which they were proficient and comfortable.

Facing up to challenges

It is misleading to perceive learning communities as homogenous entities or to evaluate their ethos simply through public statements made by their promoted staff. The administration and structures, particularly in the larger settings, are generally complex. Additionally, guidelines, customs and traditions can be preset and inflexible. Recognising the intricacy and actuality of any establishment’s multifaceted nature provides a frank and straightforward basis on which to construct advancement and growth. There may well be individuals, groups or departments which are resistant or antagonistic towards change and prefer to remain within the limitations of their comfort zones. Such circumstances need to be addressed openly and agreements reached on how best to take processes forward in a strategic and purposeful fashion.

When an organisation begins to function poorly there is often a constellation of adverse factors leading predictably to the breakdown of everyday routines. A specific responsibility of leadership during periods of adjustment is to focus on the overall welfare of students and staff. Nevertheless, some senior managers have yet to realise that stress and tensions frequently arise from institutional factors, such as poor communication or inadequate guidance. Instead, in their mindsets, stress is regularly associated with personal defects related to designated tasks with the culpability lying squarely with the individual. However, even very proficient teachers can be subject to anxiety through no fault of their own. Skilled and sympathetic supervisory styles identify and address the true causes of unnecessary strains and pressures. These entail taking steps to prevent employee burnout, promote wellbeing and ensure that support is given when it is needed. Accomplished practitioners, at all levels, spend time and engage with others in finding solutions. They also are competent at reframing the sources of stress into a series of reasonable challenges which are acceptable to those encountering difficulties.

Towards a collegiate approach

The traits of those in power comprise a spectrum from hubris to humility. Overall, there is a strong case for maintaining that modesty prevails over arrogance in terms of desirability and long-term effectiveness. The qualities of self-effacement, honesty and compassion in leadership, though undervalued in practice, are often those which are remembered most fondly about our former bosses. It is unfortunate that some leaders who take up their new posts are full of the own self-worth and, on appointment, are needlessly too critical of the organisation over which they now wish to impose their control. They take pleasure in scoring easy points at the expense of previous administrations. Initially, their edicts may be greeted with guarded enthusiasm due to assurances of better times ahead. However, their over-confidence and disregard for the views of staff can be increasingly upsetting and gradually their influence wanes. Too much domination and insufficient partnership make an ill-starred combination.

Beware of the headteacher or principal who goes on about ‘my school’ or ‘my college’ rather ‘our school’ or ‘our college’. There may be not only be a profusion of ‘’my’ and ‘I’ in conversations but a lack of connectedness with others. Public pronouncements begin to resemble fake news with the sole aim of impressing their targeted audiences. To the onlooker, such forms of egocentric or hierarchical leadership can convey a sense of vanity and self-importance but might also indicate deeper problems. Sadly, behind masks of poise, assertion and egotism, there can lie feelings of insecurity and melancholy. In matters of leadership there is much room for a whole-hearted emphasis on collective and collaborative involvement in decision-making, with ‘we’ replacing ‘I’ on most occasions!

Education needs leadership at every level to provide responsible and efficient choices along with a value-based vision regarding confronting setbacks and bringing improvements into operation. Acting with honesty, fairness and integrity and relating with learners and colleagues in a principled manner form the foundation for thriving and harmonious working partnerships. A crucial quality during a time of transition is the promotion of a genuine sense of attachment and belonging throughout the entire learning environment. This upbeat outlook directly influences attendance, behaviour and achievement among students and for staff it enhances commitment to agreed aims, targets and policies. It acknowledges that, within and across groupings, shared leadership can be learned and nourished.

How educational communities and campuses benefit

There is a general acknowledgement that managers in education should be monitored and their decisions open to scrutiny and evaluation by independent observers. However, it is important to ensure that this viewpoint does not place exclusive attention on the expertise and impact of one person or of only promoted staff. The nature of modern systems demands the recognition that, if a campus is to become and remain successful, it will require a collective effort. What is needed is an unpretentious and integrated support network which entails staff accepting their professional responsibilities as executives concerning their own remits. Well-coordinated teamwork rather than autocratic control offers an alternative way of promoting both solidarity and accomplishments. Enlightened contemporary practices highlight the value of an all-encompassing collegiate modus which views stakeholders – including children, adolescents, parents and guardians – as having diverse leadership roles. This perspective enables everyone to contribute to generating and attaining truly flourishing and inclusive objectives.

Confident organisers do not blur the realities of their responsibilities or cause confusion through conveying ambiguous notions of how they wish to go forward. They are not afraid to communicate clearly and to ‘give away’ or ‘grow’ leadership skills. Not only do they share their ideas with others but also and, perhaps even more importantly, they create a climate in which alternative views and suggestions can be aired and debated. These traits are among the most distinguishing attributes of high-quality administration. Allowing – indeed encouraging – pupils, guardians and staff to contribute can present headships with challenges. However, listening to the ideas and suggestions of others should enhance ownership within designated sectors. It also can augment opportunities for creative thinking, problem-solving and evidence-based advances. The sincere cultivation of managerial roles and acceptance with regard to joint implementation of related responsibilities nurture and strengthen mutual interests within a cohesive group. In turn, enthusiasm and resilience are promoted among all involved and energise them in overcoming barriers to progress.

Concluding comments

Good management is characterised by the use of thoughtful courses of action which are:

  • candid and easily understood – as opposed to bureaucratic and confusing
  • achievable – distinct from multi-layered and overwhelming
  • open and accessible – not restricted or unavailable
  • empowering for everyone – in contrast to giving rise to feeling unimportant or afraid of being regarded as a failure.

This stance yields ideas which display respect for diversity and promote inclusiveness. Without exception, members of the learning community are encouraged to perceive themselves as agents of positive change. Well-judged initiatives guarantee that there is a pragmatic improvement plan which originates from an objective analysis of existing strengths and weaknesses and results in clarity of aims, appropriate short- and long-term targets, and forward-looking strategies for promoting motivation, scholarship and health. What is sometimes labelled in current jargon as a ‘vision statement’ should clearly summarise the aspirations of all, including parents and guardians.

Authentic trailblazers seek to uphold exemplary values and to share them with integrity and warmth. In doing so, they heartily sustain and reinforce high standards. Additionally, by presenting opportunities for the further development of expertise in leadership, they contribute to the collective capital wealth and wellbeing. Promoted staff have key roles to undertake within this process by ensuring that all stakeholders are valued and feel confident that they can carry out their obligations and assignments successfully.

In summary, purposeful leadership ensures the enhancement of professional satisfaction among everybody with accountability for delivering a meaningful curriculum. Simultaneously, it focuses on a united, communal approach towards establishing features related to personal worth. These include agency, self-belief, relevant attainments and achievements, life skills and emotional resilience among students of all abilities. Within a dynamic and cooperative ethos, staff have autonomy and conviction while undertaking their duties; students embrace and enjoy their studies and acquire pertinent competences. Ultimately, the essential qualities of a motivated and inspiring milieu must be that affirmative aspirations and activities are to be found at all levels of engagement within a secure, pleasant and civilised learning culture.  

(Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)

The efficient usage of new technologies opens up worthwhile challenges for imaginative leaders to extend educational opportunities for learners of all abilities.
Education for All Educational development General Learning Teaching skills

Education Really Matters: Promoting Authentic Learning

Frank O’Hagan

Learning is for living and for life.

Building a culture of love for learning

When I was a young teacher, I remember a colleague reporting on his child’s first day at school. Let us refer to her as Scholastica for reasons which will become apparent. He and his wife, also a school teacher, had taken care to prepare Scholastica thoroughly for her formal entry into primary education, trying to make certain that she would respond enthusiastically and confidently to her early experiences. The infant class teacher also had made detailed plans to ensure that her precious beginners settled well into their new environment. Initially she gave them the freedom to chat, play and generally explore the classroom and its contents. However, before this first stage of the teacher’s planning was over, Scholastica stood in the middle of the room, hands on hips, and declared that these goings-on were all fine and good but wanted to know when the real learning would begin! 

This anecdote raises questions about the nature and value of ‘real learning’ – or of what might be described more appropriately as ‘authentic learning’. The concept can be interpreted and understood in differing ways depending on students’ perspectives. It is characterised by cognitive activities which are developmental, internalised, useful and practical. Furthermore, it has continuity in the sense that it supports and nurtures the acquisition of added knowledge and a deeper understanding of a topic. It is multi-faceted and certainly is not restricted by a single, formulaic procedure or method. Other features would include learners recognising their talents, advancing their comprehension, giftedness and wisdom, and accepting personal responsibility for making progress.

Of course, purposeful learning is by no means confined to what takes place in educational establishments. It is without boundaries. Active minds of both the young and old find enjoyment in seeking out and finding stimulating learning opportunities within their daily schedules. Learners of all ages can experience intellectual satisfaction through a wide variety of ordinary practices and pastimes. These range across reading, group discussions and watching television documentaries to partaking in computer-based and online learning, research and vocational training. Parents, guardians and teachers need to provide time, in terms of both quantity and quality, to listening to learners’ voices, interacting constructively with them and encouraging a love of learning. A hale and hearty society builds a culture in which all wish to extend their knowledge, skills and expertise.

Engagement and ownership

All enthusiastic scholars have the capacity to ‘learn how to learn’ more efficiently. Educationalists have to take a firm stand against the pursuit of superficial knowledge and be able to demonstrate to students that lessons, tutorials and study have both vital purposes and positive objectives. The impact of neurological factors on learning – for example, in relation to brain development, anxiety, stress and sleep deprivation – is rightly receiving close attention from researchers. Undoubtedly, there is a strong case against viewing learning as simply about cognitive and intellectual processes without also considering personal, emotional and social factors.

At all times, attention is required to ensure that students are neither overly bored nor anxious about their tasks. If they are placed unwillingly into academic or training programmes or fail to recognise the rationale behind what is being asked of them, their eagerness and motivation to move forward can easily fade. Well-expressed enthusiasm on the part of teachers can stimulate students and make lessons more enjoyable. On occasions, they may need time to allow for the incubation of fresh ideas prior to proceeding to the next stages of their syllabus. Related to taking ‘breaks’ is the importance of reflection on problems and hypotheses in the consolidation of new information and its practical applications. 

In worthwhile academic work, students are active contributors within the overall process and fully engaged in reaching both unexpected or planned outcomes. It cannot be the case of a sibling, teacher or lecturer merely dispensing facts and data. There needs to be genuine intellectual involvement on the part of recipients. Key features are ownership of and commitment to supportive learning pursuits which in turn lead to a better grasp of concepts and the development of more complex competences. Participation can include a multiplicity of cerebral and concrete tasks embracing lateral thinking, investigative assignments and verbal presentations. ‘Digital empowerment’ (or what might be referred to as CRISMATICS, namely proficiency in the use of Computers, Robots, and Artificial Intelligence) opens opportunities for independent learning in areas of special interest. In particular, technological innovations relating to online, hybrid and blended learning have introduced significant prospects for efficacious and self-directed learning. (Please see the reference towards the end of this post.)

Curiosity, creativity, problem-solving

The evolution of an enquiring mind and outlook is another feature which is associated with successful learning. Encouraging research, evaluating findings and examining their own ideas and those of their peers are of consequence. Through such strategies students are enabled to widen their interests in new possibilities, are confident enough to discuss and analyse their efforts, and are willing to explore alternative ways of resolving puzzling issues. Albert Einstein (famous for his ‘thought experiments’) is said to have felt that familiar everyday creative actions were the foundation for highly significant innovative thinking. Although imaginative undertakings and group projects in classrooms are hardly expected to lead to the status of international breakthroughs(!), they undoubtedly are able to act as a catalyst for building up learners’ curiosity and sense of wonder. They can provide motivation to master exploratory techniques and problem-solving methodologies and to delve further into a specific theme or curricular area. However, endorsement in itself may not be sufficient. Skilful questioning by teachers can ascertain what students truly know, prompt them to correct inaccuracies and deepen their levels of understanding.

In contrast, to be avoided at all costs is the occurrence of what the mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, famously called ‘inert knowledge’ and ‘inert ideas’. These terms refer to aspects of information which are acquired by learners without a true grasp of their usefulness. They may only serve an inconsequential purpose and can be of a very momentary nature. Cramming reluctantly at the last minute for an examination, only to forget everything shortly after it is over, could be viewed as fitting  into the description of ‘inert knowledge’. To keep knowledge alive, Whitehead felt that it needed to enable learners to undertake effective problem-solving in real-life conditions. Indeed, through an understanding of the faults and failings of inculcating ‘inert ideas’, teachers can appreciate more clearly the genuine value of developing effective tactics to promote indisputable and valid advancement. When engagement in learning is a delightful and satisfying enterprise, the process can build up a dynamic momentum which leads to fresh aspirations and endless possibilities.

The joys of investigation, discovery and verification

A method which can be found to result in augmenting learning is commonly referred to as ‘discovery learning’. This approach focuses mainly on the process of enhancing pupils’ achievements and understanding through providing them with opportunities to explore and find out facts and results by themselves or in groups. In its purest form, advocates adopted a highly non-interventionist mode and, in some instances, this kind of methodology is still to be found. Criticisms of very open-ended pedagogic styles were that they turned out to be too time-consuming within an already crowded curriculum and that learners’ so-called discoveries were frequently inaccurate or frivolous. Certainly such risks exist. Of course, it should not be assumed that children and young people are able to investigate or detect everything; advances in human ingenuity generally build on what others already have ascertained.

Nonetheless, worth consideration as an alternative to a simplistic over-emphasis on unadorned discovery tactics is what might be termed ‘guided discovery’. For example, if required, learners would be given judicious hints, nudges or assistance along learning pathways. Since they may not be able to make progress without suitable backing, lucid instructions on how to move ahead from their prior knowledge will generate success. As a result of the incremental building of self-confidence, they benefit from asking Socratic questions about what they are learning and seek solutions to any inconsistencies or flaws. In time, due to increases in their abilities and autonomy, they can make more rapid steps forward through their own self-regulating endeavours in fact-finding, testing and presentation.

Learning across the curriculum

The need for effective learning and teaching extends across all subjects. We can find many pertinent instances of integrated strategies within any curricular area. The following brief example relating to aspects of personal, social and health education in supplementing some helpful features of life skills and general wellbeing is offered for scrutiny.

Thoughtful tutorials can enable pupils to develop a critical awareness of the messages with which they are targeted through advertising in the media or from reports on political and public affairs. Should they believe what advertisers, politicians, celebrities or, for that matter, some ‘scientists’ are proclaiming? Let’s face it – there is a great deal of spurious and untested information coming their way on a daily basis. Through examining the views and the points being conveyed, they can be asked to explore the intentions of the authors and pundits. If they feel that there are defects in what is being stated, they can proceed to re-examine opinions and identify how much might be exaggerations, inaccuracies, conjectures or misleading assumptions. Cultivating such thinking skills is particularly important if it becomes obvious that there has been a covert aim to encourage them to engage in careless financial practices or to entice them towards dubious or unwanted distractions. Such deliberations illustrate that there are many variables at play in fostering meaningful learning. They also signal the usefulness not only of well-founded knowledge and understanding of specific curricular subjects but also the merits of life and employability skills.

 More ‘real-life’ research requires to be undertaken directly within normal school and learning environments rather than in more remote experimental settings. A greater emphasis on evidence-based findings which identify best conditions, including the application of new technological study programmes, for individual and group learning is necessary. Appropriate explorations would include ascertaining the most productive ways of organising scientific studies for adolescents and how to enable young pupils to overcome cognitive and emotional aspects of anxiety linked with the learning of language or mathematics. Some research findings might lead to dramatic progress in curricular areas as could be the accumulative impact of a variety of small but germane improvements. All trainee and qualified teachers should be supported in further advancing their proficiency as practitioner-researchers to enable them to boost and enrich their cherished ‘learning communities’.

Concluding comments

Learning experiences generally require a set of prerequisites which enable them to be successful and effective. These can comprise personal attributes, the structure of programmes of study, the quality of support provided, and family and environmental influences. When optimum conditions reign, valuable outcomes such as self-knowledge, a thirst for relevant information and understanding, objectivity, open-mindedness and creative flexibility are likely to blossom. It is not surprising that total immersion in learning is sometimes described as ‘flow’ or ‘group flow’. Characteristics of this kind will ensure that learners can adapt swiftly and appropriately to evolving and differing innovations, discoveries and occupations. Promoting constructive learning styles across all sectors of society is an immense challenge which every nation should welcome and champion. Significant cultural shifts towards meeting this commendable aspiration should be agreed by all as a highly desirable priority.

Key features of authentic learning for children, adolescents and adults, regardless of their ages, abilities or social backgrounds, include:

  • feeling valued and respected within well-planned and stimulating tutorial sessions and other inspiring settings
  • being able to listen, pay attention and take account of the ideas, suggestions and advice of trusted friends and teachers
  • developing versatility in comprehending instructions and tasks and in responding appropriately and imaginatively in different situations
  • having the self-belief and confidence to contribute in both individualised and group activities in order to achieve worthwhile attainments and achievements
  • participating enthusiastically in creative and lateral thinking, experimentation, problem-solving work, independent computer-based activities and online seminars
  • personalising approaches towards scholarship and erudition while accepting that at times learning can be challenging and needs to be perceived as an essential life-long process  
  • embracing a culture which is value-based and encourages the acquisition of useful knowledge, in-depth understanding and an array of transferrable skills for everyday living in a changing world.

Reference: For an article on making the most of online, hybrid and blended learning, please use the following link:

Footnote: I wonder what became of Scholastica who clearly was an able and wholehearted learner. I do hope that she found success and satisfaction in pleasant and agreeable undertakings throughout her school career and beyond. Perhaps she became a headteacher or university professor and played a major role in promoting authentic learning for all her students. Assuredly, that is what headteachers and professors do. Don’t they? 

The human mind benefits from lifelong learning opportunities to advance and flourish.

(Dr Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)

Education for All Educational development General Teaching skills

Education Really Matters: In Praise of Inspirational Teachers

Frank O’Hagan

Great expectations

It is no surprise that we regularly come across judgements about teachers at the school gate or in the media. Members of the public frequently express an opinion about the overall state of teaching and education, perhaps highly influenced by their own experiences while at school, college or university. Describing any teacher as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is often unfair and too simplistic. Such evaluations can easily overlook the complexity of both teaching and learning in everyday practices.

In general, government, education authorities and parents appear to accept, at least tacitly, that teaching is a demanding vocation. Nonetheless, high standards are expected from all stakeholders. A consummate challenge for teachers to-day is to perform effectively and consistently regardless of social factors or quantity of resources. If, as is often said, teaching is both an art and a science, how do we decide on what are the qualities to be most valued? There are formal criteria for assessing teachers but here the aim is to explore the issue of how teaching styles can be perceived within a more wide-ranging civic perspective.

From a discerning public position, effective teachers are those who create stimulating learning contexts for their lessons, taking due account of their students’ ages and abilities. They provide well-judged opportunities to extend learners’ knowledge, understanding and skills while monitoring and assessing achievements at individual and group levels. They use their expertise and experience to plan how best to motivate pupils, making sure to integrate ideas securely within the syllabus being followed. In order to maintain continuous progress, they adopt a flexible and open-ended approach so that they are able to adjust programmes of study with regard to content, pace, outcomes and context. By no means should these capabilities be regarded as trivial or easy. They are challenging and require intelligent, astute and sensitive decision-making and implementation.

Challenges and potential pitfalls

The demands on teaching professionals are constantly changing and on occasions it is difficult for them to keep abreast of developments. If this is the case, think of the confusion which can befall students, parents and employers. As specialists, dedicated teachers are not afraid of innovation. However, they are aware of the need to look out for unnecessary fads or gimmicks which are publicised commercially but are of little value to children and young people. From time to time, they will be willing to undertake potential risks in using new teaching materials and methods, evaluating their worth in the process. They also will allow or encourage their students to adopt a similar stance as in extending their personal skills through independent, computer-based learning, for example if appropriate, in the effective use of massive open online courses (MOOCs). This open-minded, philosophical outlook will be evident in their attitudes and practices. To paraphrase the views of that outstanding Scottish scientist, James Clerk Maxwell, the committed teacher’s standpoint is: “I would never dissuade young people from trying an experiment; if they do not find out what they want, they may discover something else.

There are two false dichotomies which need to be confronted and clarified when teachers’ contributions are being judged. The first is linked to the unhelpful dispute concerning which is the more important – learning or teaching. It has echoes of the alleged medieval debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Learning and teaching can be seen as two sides of the same complex process within classrooms or lecture theatres. Investigations show that both are significant and perhaps we should leave it at that. Stated simply, a principal focus of teaching is on high quality learning by students, coupled with a genuine concern for their personal and social wellbeing. 

A second debate relates to the issue of the value of theoretical knowledge versus skills. Even when I was training to be a teacher – sadly long, long ago – I recall reading a treatise against skills. There was an elitist view – which unfortunately can still be found today – that skills were somehow inferior to knowledge. This regrettable opinion may remind readers of the supposed time when some colonial grandees felt that the British Empire could best be run by classics graduates with Oxbridge backgrounds. It is necessary for teaching to include principles, facts and skills, with the development of practical competences being neglected at society’s peril. All these features are intertwined and improve through study, application, experimentation and creativity. Proficient educators ensure that young people have suitable and up-to-date opportunities to advance in a broad and integrated manner.

Support for students

Steady progress towards personal, long-term targets are often more important for a pupil than test results and can provide a secure pathway to later academic success. Professional expertise helps in promoting pupils’ belief and confidence in their own abilities and competences. It facilitates the creation of positive mindsets regarding further attainment and enhances multi-faceted progress.

As well as students’ individual achievements, the main aims of education must address the collective needs of society. Well-judged group activities on communal issues identified by pupils – employment, human rights, homelessness, pollution etc. – can endorse a sense of citizenship and social responsibility. (A bonanza for teachers is that they can learn about topics in greater depth through preparing for and then implementing their lessons and tutorials!) There will be occasions when pupils can internalise information and concepts more fully by being asked to make presentations to their peers on matters which they have researched. Building motivation and encouraging upbeat attitudes concerning teamwork, resilience and planning for the future are on-going duties which require constant vigilance. They are among the most valued characteristics of the gifted educator. 

Account also needs to be taken about the specific obstacles which students – depending on their age, ability and social backgrounds – may experience in diverse curricular areas. Subtle, varying approaches and strategies are often required regarding learning and teaching in different subjects such as history, art and design, mathematics and technology. Indeed, further meticulous research is needed to ascertain how best to structure and present programmes of study in various components of the curriculum, including in computing and science education.  

At times, teachers have to support students in confronting their negative feelings about academic setbacks and provide guidance for them to triumph over barriers to learning and progress. Through their flair in identifying difficulties and advising on learning strategies, they can assist students in building what might be termed ‘intellectual buoyancy’ – their ability and determination to come back from disappointments and to overcome challenges of different kinds.

A passing thought: Albert Einstein, one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, does not appear to have been regarded as a truly exceptional student at school or higher education. However, he did make some thoughtful comments on the nature of teaching, for instance: “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” He clearly believed in this vital role bestowed upon teachers.     

Support for staff

Educationalists are greatly assisted in being able to sustain high-quality practical skills if they look after their own physical and mental health. Amid the pressures placed on education in today’s society, teachers need to be to be alert and resilient in maintaining their vigour and wellbeing. Stress, at an individual’s optimal level, can be a positive factor in increasing motivation and engagement when undertaking tasks. However, there are many potentially harmful features which can impact on performance. These may include a toxic combination of disruptive behaviour in class, rapid changes in the curriculum or assessment procedures, an endless demand for higher standards in formal examinations and, at times, over-demanding parents or administrators. All teachers need to be knowledgeable about how to identify threats to their mental health and to make effective use of ways to combat them. 

Lifestyles which embrace a healthy balance across work and leisure, support from trusted colleagues, and the use of individualised therapies can have a central role in maintaining confidence and positive attitudes regarding teachers’ daily duties. Importantly, staff should not regard undue stress as simply belonging to them alone or always occurring because of personal traits which indicate their fault. Excessive workloads arising from organisational failures within disorderly environments require to be examined in such circumstances. Effective managers are skilled at recognising stumbling blocks, taking steps to reduce unnecessary tensions and building job satisfaction through improving the ethos in which their staff are expected to operate.

In fairness to teachers in all sectors of education, it should be emphasised that promoting affirmative outlooks, fostering a love of learning and ensuring academic success are not simply their responsibility. Although these characteristics should be fundamental and central within all educational settings, they also must stretch far beyond their boundaries. Education must never be viewed as the exclusive property or responsibility of schools, colleges or universities. No classroom, lecture theatre or institution is an educational island; flourishing links with and support from local communities, the general public, industry and government are paramount. 

If a country wishes to raise accomplishments in specific curricular areas or across all subjects, then there needs to be a positive, collective agenda for improvement. To a large extent, a noble endeavour of this kind often requires cultural changes – not only within individual classes but at whole-school and societal levels. Momentum will be accelerated if, as a nation, a much more forthright approach is taken towards recognising, sponsoring and paying tribute to first-rate benchmarks reached in learning and teaching. The plain truth is that capable teachers help to create excellent centres of learning which, in turn, facilitate and foster tolerance, respect and economic development amongst the wider society.


What then contributes towards becoming an inspirational teacher or does it simply depend on whom you ask? Although one may come across various zany answers, there appears to be some overall agreement with regard to the following characteristics. 

Talented educationalists:

  • are skilled at motivating, organising and assessing
  • care about ensuring that their teaching styles are exemplary and that students benefit from the instructional episodes which they have planned
  • build from ‘where scholars are at’ and provide clear, helpful feedback on strengths and progress to all relevant stakeholders, particularly those learners for whom they are directly responsible
  • are leaders within their class or subject area but willingly ‘give away’ their knowledge and expertise
  • encourage their students to cultivate self-belief, confidence, open-mindedness and independent learning skills within the complex and evolving requirements of modern cultures
  • believe in the importance of research and development in education, in improving their own professional competences, and in evaluating in an honest manner their successes and disappointments as regards the raising of standards concerning potential, attainment and achievement.
Education is not filling a bucket; but lighting a fire.” (Willian Butler Yeats)

Key questions and issues for further consideration

Does society sufficiently value and commend those teachers who consistently perform above and beyond the formal requirements of their profession? Is the autonomy of teachers being eroded through the imposition of unnecessary bureaucracy and market-led directives? How can schools and learning environments adjust to the rapidly changing circumstances of contemporary society?

Nothing stands still, including the demands made concerning methods of tutoring and the acquisition of knowledge and skills. The delivery of education for all is creaking from many pressures. Further ground-breaking means of utilising technological advances should continue to be developed for both within educational establishments and beyond the normal school day. How can these innovations be used more effectively in the promotion of the principles and attributes underling high quality teaching? How best can students benefit from them in more practical, accessible and flexible ways?

(Dr Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)

Education for All Educational development Health and wellbeing

Education Really Matters: How Meaningful is Your Curriculum?

Frank O’Hagan

Issues of importance and complexity

It is a truism that any nation must not allow the curriculum on offer to children and young people to stagnate or be mired in myths of former glories. Very helpful curricular innovations can be stymied through inadequate consultation with stakeholders, a rushed execution or a lack of preparation for those whose responsibility it will be to deliver programmes of study. Strategies for effective implementation need to include sufficient, up-to-date resources for learners and relevant, ongoing professional training for staff.

A school curriculum must encompass the personal needs, motives and aspirations of every student. It requires to be fully democratic in the sense that it belongs to all of them and pays due cognisance to their diverse abilities and talents. Its operation should not permit traditional ‘academic’ subjects or national examination statistics to dominate its rationale. Instead, students – regardless of their family background, social circumstances or perceived prospects – should feel confident that their learning and progress are meaningful and well-targeted with regard to their current and future wellbeing.

To regard any nation’s curriculum as if it is a straightforward, unitary entity is misleading. One syllabus cannot possibly fit all students as flexibility and individualisation are required to meet the wide range of their abilities and needs. Additionally, distinctions can be made regarding the formal, informal and hidden features of what takes place in educational establishments. All three aspects may exist simultaneously. The ‘formal curriculum’ alludes to what the powers that be – government, authorities and school boards – state in official guidelines about contents and delivery. In contrast, the ‘informal curriculum’ refers to facets which can waver, sometimes considerably, from authorised policies. These could concern unforeseen pressures on management or even unsuitable methods used by staff during teaching sessions. The ‘hidden curriculum’ is associated with the more secretive or undetected elements of school life, for example, students’ private interests and ambitions or prohibited activities, perhaps bullying or the use of the dark web, which may be occurring. Moreover, account has to be taken of the all-important ‘out of school curriculum’ which students experience in their everyday routines. At the formal level, it includes educational, cultural and recreational activities organised by learners, parents, guardians and others. It too has both informal and hidden characteristics which may be known only to the students themselves.

For the few, the many or all?

A recurring mistake has been to place too much emphasis on what might be described as offering a WEIRD curriculum (designed, even if unintentionally, for White and Educated students in Industrial, Rich and supposedly Desirable localities). Even in the world’s wealthiest democracies, such an orientation will miss out on the needs of many underprivileged and disadvantaged children and young persons. Truly effective curriculums should be all-inclusive, flexible, coherent and well-balanced. They should lead towards self- actualisation (learners becoming all they can be) coupled along with the enhancement of intrinsic human values (learners appreciating and embracing the attributes of personal worth, compassion, social justice, morality and so forth).  

Perhaps curricular innovators and pacesetters may need to remember more often that they are generally among the ‘successes’ of the educational system. In addition to their accomplishments while at school, they are likely to have achieved well in further or higher education and to have a genuine love of their subjects. They can have forgotten how they reached their high standards of attainment and might well have acquired them without difficulty or significant amounts of assistance. The problem – and it can be a very crucial one – is that they may have little insight into the prerequisites and constraints which many learners are experiencing. Listening attentively to all interested parties will hopefully impart some realism and intellectual humility when required.

Pressures and spin

The contents of curriculums in schools, colleges and universities are highly influential with regard to attitudes and behaviours within populations. Political pressures and technological advances constantly impact on educational programmes and their functioning for learners of all ages. Although not always welcomed, these adjustments generally are well intentioned and benign. The curriculum across all educational establishments can not remain constant and unchanging, particularly in areas of rapid scientific discoveries. However, there have been, and sometimes continue to be, the occurrence of nasty manipulations, such as when scientific and historical facts are distorted or when racial discrimination and false propaganda are encouraged. As highlighted earlier, what is taught must be based on authentic values and suited to the needs of individuals and society as a whole.

Additionally, the emphasis on different subjects will change and evolve over time – the Romans gave prominence to rhetoric while, for the Victorians, classical studies were of high status. In today’s economic climate, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the so called STEM subjects) have been rightly regarded as crucial for a modern, industrial society. Likewise, the significance to the national wealth of the arts (drawing and design, dance, drama, music, new forms of media, etc.) has been recognised, thus lengthening the acronym to STEAM or STEMA. However, by themselves, this grouping particularly up to around 16 years of age would be unsatisfactory and insufficient for most pupils. Clearly, there can be advantages for young learners in maintaining breadth in the curriculum and allowing them to cultivate favourite areas at their own pace and in their own time.

Granted that STEAM subjects are of high value, it would be negligent to denigrate the importance of curricular areas such as English language and literature, social studies, foreign languages or personal, social and health education (PSHE) including ethics and employability skills. All have a place within a balanced and holistic approach prior to specialisation. Moreover, the danger of neglecting cultural heritage needs to be monitored, for example, in primary education is too much attention given to topics, such as ancient Egypt and Rome, at the expense of a nation’s own customs and traditions? Relevance within a syllabus will ensure that key global topics – healthy living, climate change, social justice and the like – are embedded and addressed rather than being tacked on as optional extras if time permits.

When it comes to describing their nation’s curriculum, politicians and administrators frequently are only too happy to use terminology such as ‘world-leading’, ‘excellent’ and ‘inclusive’. Such expressions have much in common with that of publicists and ‘spin doctors’. Does ‘an excellent, world-leading, inclusive curriculum’ sound apposite for what students are currently experiencing? Or are assertions of this kind merely superficial and out of touch with reality? Evidence-based evaluations should come before bloated exaggerations. But governments and officials across continents persist with these kinds of pronouncements. In Scotland, for example, the title ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ (CfE) seems both unfortunate and deluding. The nomenclature has the whiff of elitism and spin, perhaps even of ‘fake news’. Surely this is not in line with a national penchant for understatement rather than hubris? It has even been said – hopefully it is simply a myth – that at one point a debate took place about whether there should be the inclusion of the definite or the indefinite article at the beginning of the title (as if ‘The’ versus ‘A’ was so vital!). Neither now is to be found. If it is indeed an agenda for excellence, why are so many Scottish students not achieving excellent outcomes after nursery provision and 12 years of formal school education? Some practitioners appear to be of the opinion that ‘Curriculum for Mediocrity’ would have been a more fitting title. Others have far more disparaging or ruder remarks to suggest about what ‘CfE’ denotes. Basically, the public wants less hyperbole with better learning environments and much improved accomplishments for many more students.

Towards self-actualisation – learners becoming all they can be.

Improving the curriculum

Curricular development, along with any concurrent organisational changes, can be extremely challenging. Planning has to take account of what realistically can be achieved given existing staff expertise, resources, support networks and stipulated timescales. The features of what is offered to students of all ages must comprise appropriateness, insight and usefulness. Any neglect of deepening knowledge and understanding in core areas like arithmetic/mathematics, reading/writing or health/wellbeing will be detrimental to long-term progress.

To be truly effective, a curriculum has to be deemed as much more than an exchange of facts, points of view or statistical data. Attention to the coherence and flexibility of tasks, levels of difficulty, and pace of anticipated progress is essential. If curricular activities are beyond their current abilities, learners may simply let lessons pass them by in an inconsequential and meaningless way. Some might resent being present and engage in disruptive or obstructive behaviours. Others may refuse to participate actively during instructional sessions, even opting for non-attendance.

More research needs to be given to the management and timing of topics in order to establish the most appropriate ages or stages for particular competences and skills to be enhanced. Similarly, trials are required to uncover decidedly effective learning and teaching strategies within and across subject areas. In particular, the use of technological equipment and artificial intelligence requires to be utilised to maximum benefit. All curriculum innovations should have stated ‘improvement objectives’ which they are expected to meet. If this stance was consistently applied, it would bring to light further successful ideas and practices. Perhaps as importantly, it might make trendsetters think more carefully about potential fads and whims, thus saving time and expense on failures and ‘duds’ which should be consigned to an educational dust bin.  

As the necessities of modern societies evolve, varying aspects of the curriculum will require evaluation to gauge their merits and usefulness. A query which arises during curricular appraisals relates to the appropriateness of the balance between national and local expectations. There is a real fear of investigating the difficult issue of whether we really know what a high quality curriculum means within diverse communities. Too often the demands of central government will prevail when some adjustment – in application or contents – would be more pertinent. Evaluations always should be open, cooperative and constructive with the focus on students’ present and future requirements as the foremost concern.

The case for permitting a good deal of freedom to a school to act as evaluator regarding its own curriculum does not preclude the need for also having objective and independent validations. A potential danger is that staff perceive external inspectors as ‘them’ observing and commenting on ‘us’. Such ‘us-them’ splits can be harmful. A much more positive, collaborative and wide-ranging stance, including the involvement of all stakeholders, should be adopted. A genuine partnership across students, their parents and guardians, educationalists, employers and the wider society ought to be brought into play and used to enrich our culture of learning.    

Towards better future provision for all

Although the benchmarks and functions of curriculums will vary from one country to another, there is a general tendency for provision to benefit those who are more able or enjoy privileged circumstances. Consequently, the allocation of resources is often to the detriment of learners who are experiencing difficulties or from impoverished backgrounds. Following the utilitarian principle, it might be argued that education should provide ‘the greatest progress for the greatest number.’ However, a preferable proposal would be to make accessible ‘the best support to enable all to achieve their true potential.’ In many respects comprehensive systems have not been adaptable or accommodating enough. They are not meant to be, and should not be, a case of ‘one size fits all’ as some commentators in the media seem to imply. When examined, it is frequently revealed that there have not been sufficient options to suit the requisites of individual pupils.

It is in the interests of society that special attention should be given to those young persons who have tended to espouse indifferent and nonchalant attitudes towards prescribed objectives which they perceive to be irrelevant given their actual situation and prospects. In common with pupils experiencing additional support needs, they are entitled to creative and stimulating routes to expand their hidden capabilities and talents. There can be little doubt that unsuitable directives imposed on schools, and subsequently on learners, can result in curricular programmes which jeopardise commitment and progress.

Of course, it is a welcomed bonus when curricular content and its delivery both captivate and entertain students. Occasions which provide moments of satisfaction and pleasure can stimulate a greater momentum towards a love of learning. This certainly does not imply that periods of study should be devoid of challenges. In practice, overcoming difficulties through endeavour and perseverance can truly bring well-deserved rewards. Good use of structure within a curricular area – designing pathways with steps or ‘ladders’  to facilitate progress through learners’ own efforts and assiduousness – is an acknowledged route to success.

Concluding comments

If future curriculums are to be genuinely all-encompassing, there will have to be more ambitious and coherent national long-term plans. These will need to ensure targeted and flexible linkage of learning activities from the nursery to primary stages and then onwards to secondary schools, skills-based training schemes, colleges and universities. Future steps forward in delivering curricular initiatives will inevitably involve greater communal engagement. Extended deployment of various forms of information technology, often managed simultaneously by users in separate locations, should prove to be highly beneficial. Feedback by way of computer-assisted teaching methods will require inbuilt and effective coaching components through being clear, precise and student-centred.

While promoting dedication to study and the pursuit of excellence, the overall curriculum must avoid contributing to wanton elitism, vanity and self-absorption. It should incorporate and endorse virtues and attributes such as confidence, courage, empathy, gratitude and inclusiveness. Many aspects of current educational and tutoring practices across the world fail in meeting these standards, not only at the expense of disadvantaged and poverty-stricken populations, but for many other groups as well.

Essentially, the messages, advice and developments on the curriculum which are conveyed to society at large will need to advocate more cogently the assurance that further progress can and will be achieved. Participants will welcome campaigns and advances which are value-based and relevant to the collective aspirations of students and their communities. Integrated action for improvement must include matters pertaining, not only to academic achievements and practical skills, but also to wider national considerations concerning citizenship, culture, social justice and cohesion, ethics and standards of living.

For all ages and stages, a genuinely meaningful and coherent curriculum should be accessible to learners.


Further questions to ponder: Should more subjects, targeted to bring about social advances, be present in the curriculum? If so, how should they be introduced and delivered?

Many years ago, I attended a seminar organised in conjunction with the publication of a national report which had a specific focus on the structure of the curriculum for secondary school pupils. After an excellent presentation by a member of the report committee, he was asked about the problems of schools in addressing the perturbing issues which they encountered in their severely deprived catchment areas. His insightful reply indicated that in such a school it would be appropriate for the curriculum to include a subject which concentrated on tackling and overcoming poverty and hardship. Would it be valuable, even exhilarating, for many students to choose a national qualification of this kind? How could it effectively result in beneficial outcomes? Or would it be deemed as too risky by traditional or conservative influences?

(Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)