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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 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.)

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Education for All Inclusive education Learning Teaching skills

Education Really Matters: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Frank O’Hagan

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” (Nelson Mandela)

A dedication

Up to the time of her death, a beloved sister of mine was a teacher for more than 40 years, working almost exclusively with pupils from deprived backgrounds or those experiencing social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. When she started her teaching career in the 1960s there was such a shortage of teachers that her very large primary class had to be divided into two groups. On alternative weeks, one group attended a morning session and the other an afternoon session. Both groups were considerably larger than the average primary class of to-day. While bravely facing her imminent death, she still worried about young persons’ future lifestyles and lack of learning opportunities. Sadly, many of her fears have morphed into a reality – continuing austerity, low levels of literacy, feelings of alienation and a lack of employment prospects. As I jot down my views on diversity, equity and inclusion, my gratitude goes to her and the many teachers, educational psychologists and inspectors of education who have contributed to improvements in this field and with whom I have had the privilege to work.

The times are always a-changing

In recent years, although there have been changes for the better, concern about services for vulnerable pupils with diverse needs – who live amidst all sectors of society – continues to be a debated and disquieting issue for parents and educationalists. What is more, in periods of hardships and public cutbacks, this aspect of educational provision for our more disadvantaged students can be seen as an easy target for financial constraint and staff reductions. A range of workable strategies will be necessary to ensure that so many young people do not come to perceive themselves as enduring failures. 

Everyday attitudes about the characteristics of young learners alter and transmute, as do conventional stances regarding how their education should be subsidised and managed. These modifications are due to many different factors such as the impact of research projects, developments in teaching methods and advances in society’s views about the rights of children. Outlooks have evolved and perceptions have become more nuanced in a variety of ways. For instance, autism was once considered to be a very rare, one-dimensional and rather inexplicable disability. Nowadays, it is generally recognised as being much more prevalent and to be across an extensive and complex spectrum which comprises intellectual, linguistic, social and behavioural dimensions. Moreover, it is not unusual for pupils who have been assessed as on the autistic continuum to possess high levels of concentration and/or an in-depth comprehension concerning specific topics of interest.  Additional cultural swings have included a greater acknowledgement of the potential of many learners displaying attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to demonstrate positive cognitive features such as creativity.

There are many promising means of developing suitable and empathetic contexts which are truly beneficial for all young people. Through well-tailored, personalised learning programmes, recent findings in educational neuroscience have provided a more hopeful perspective on the capacity of students to adapt to the difficulties which they encounter. Thankfully, there is an evident willingness among professionals to face the very significant obstacles which have to be overcome.

The message is clear that ability is not a fixed entity and that pessimistic attitudes about capabilities regularly need to be confronted. Nonetheless, key questions remain. Has society the will and capacity to address issues relating to diversity, equity and inclusion? How can plans be focussed on success while retaining inbuilt flexibility and identifiable care?  Can educational systems have targeted interventions available to ensure that any apparent ‘breakdowns’ in levels of accomplishments can be quickly ameliorated?

Current challenges to inclusiveness

It is well nigh impossible to be unaware of the presence of diversity in modern society. It manifests itself in statistical surveys and in traditions and pretexts covering age, background, gender, ethnicity, ability, religion and so forth. It is our human melting pot containing both splendour and richness. It also can give rise to apprehension and unease has when individuals or groups are viewed as ‘others’ who are not fully entitled to the rights and privileges enjoyed by ‘in’ groups (a process sometimes referred to as ‘othering’).

Values – such as acceptance, appreciation and kindness – are elements of daily living to be treasured in education and training. Meeting the needs of diverse groups implies interconnectedness and cooperation in establishing universal rights and in building an equitable society. This stance calls for an end to greed, unrestrained capitalism and the continued destruction of Mother Earth. It stipulates that the voices of all students concerning their feelings and self-identified needs should not only be heard but be listened to attentively. Undoubtedly, there exist across our troubled world many obstructions to this vision which require urgent reform. Among an extensive list, depending on customs and place, it may be the disregard of the rights of children who are forced to work rather than be educated, the underachievement of poorer white male adolescents, or vocational openings being denied to students who are physically disabled.

Difficulties encountered, when teaching young persons with varying needs, are too often viewed as arising ‘from within’ or ‘belonging to’ them. From such perspectives, recognised learning problems can be treated as if they are owned by students and their private responsibility. Highly significant environmental factors – prejudices, the lack of adequate nutrition, impoverishment – are overlooked. Consequently, learners are not properly involved in decision-making but are subjected to pronouncements which are hoisted on them by way of a hierarchical system. Parents and guardians, due to their prior experiences, also can feel excluded and may need encouragement to build trust and become actively involved in combatting inequalities.

Skilled educationalists realise that many young people require basic but essential assistance in ‘learning how to learn’ in order to ensure future progress. Staff dedicated to inclusivity will have an expertise in: (1) creating warm and stimulating climates to facilitate headway; (2) establishing purposeful learners’ plans; (3) setting short- and long-term targets; (4) applying procedures relating to advice, guidance and support; and (5) providing motivational feedback to students, parents, guardians and other relevant parties. When acquired, pertinent skills – listening, collaborating, planning, problem-solving and coping mechanisms – can be transferred across curricular areas. It is critical that, for the prerequisites and characteristics of high-quality learning and teaching to be maintained, the capability and proficiency of staff are constantly upgraded through on-going professional development.

Every learner has the right to be included

All pupils deserve to be deemed worthy of making advancements at their own levels of attainment and capacities to learn. Various forms of integration have been implemented, for instance in terms of: locations; social arrangements and communal involvement; and functional and/or instructional settings. Genuine inclusive educational environments will fuse all such approaches into a cohesive and harmonious framework from which no student is excluded. Further, they extend to cover equitable opportunities for vocational training, employment placements and lifelong learning. The overriding philosophy must leave behind a previous ‘What are your problems and weaknesses?’ way of thinking and adopt an outlook which asks ‘In what ways can we assist you to enrich your attributes and extend your talents?’ Staff endorsing an all-encompassing ethos do not see themselves as working in ‘examination factories’. If necessary, they are willing to have fewer or no public accolades as regards their rankings in ‘fake’ national league tables.

When approaches to education are focused on the identified requirements of each learner, travel along productive and rewarding pathways to success is augmented. Along with this methodology, inclusiveness can be a strong catalyst in bringing about camaraderie among students of varying abilities and aptitudes. It follows that, if possible, they should not be cut off and isolated from their peers when undertaking tasks. Learners with diverse needs can expand their knowledge and skills fruitfully in hospitable pedagogic cultures. Authentic collegiate learning provides a sound basis for the cross-fertilisation of views on how they can assimilate information and benefit from new strategies on route to further accomplishments.

For educationalists to play an effective role, they have to challenge the status quo and provide the means of developing competences to overcome social and economic hardship. Programmes which cultivate both worthwhile qualities (for example, confidence, self-esteem, honesty and resilience) and relevant know-how (healthy living, money management, occupational capabilities and so forth) to enhance future chances are of the utmost importance. For these purposes, information and communication technology is helpful in nurturing learning and teaching and in addressing differing needs. At present, computer-based learning, though often very advantageous, is not a panacea. However, further innovations, as the quality of the machine-learner interface improves, augur high prospects.

All forms of educational provision require having well-defined roles, responsibilities and protocols in place for staff who are expected to respond to vulnerable students exhibiting risky behaviours, such as substance abuse, self-harm or noteworthy learning difficulties. Circumstances might necessitate the input of professional agencies which have clear remits to contribute at whole-school, group or individual levels of involvement. Short-term targets may focus on speedy improvements in attaining specific competences, expedited by time-limited, solution-based approaches to resolving pressing concerns. Longer-term objectives could embrace the acquisition of interpersonal skills and a sense of self-assurance. Indeed, for all, it is fitting to move forward well beyond existing hindrances and to encourage positive and rewarding lifestyles.

The dangers of labelling and classification

The drawbacks of labelling can include obscuring learners’ needs, making unwarranted assumptions about their abilities, and inadvertently depriving them of occasions to engage in inclusive practices. Labels also may have a negative impact on the confidence of teachers who might come to the erroneous conclusion that a pupil’s requirements and capacities cannot be accommodated at their school. Improved appliance of assessment methods can detect the co-existence of differing cognitive and behavioural difficulties, all of which require to be addressed within carefully-organised modes of intervention.

Teachers and educational psychologists wish to ascertain strengths and requisites when assessing learners. Unfortunately, by engaging in a classification process they may unwittingly fabricate a rationale which results in pupils being even further removed from mainstream education. For instance, students can suffer a ‘triple whammy’ as when a categorisation unduly influences: (1) low expectations relating to their potential; (2) an assumption that they should not be accepted into a school; and (3) the likelihood of them being permanently excluded.

There has been a widely-held belief that categorisation and labelling are important in providing legal protection, acquiring funding and gaining access to extra assistance from services and educational establishments. Certainly, case studies to back this view can be found. Nonetheless, there are other ways in which these benefits could be obtained if a comprehensive framework of students’ rights was utilised.

Endeavouring to fit an individual’s needs into a single grouping can have deleterious consequences. In general, there has been a distinct move away from the usage of tight categories. However, even looser eclectic descriptions, such as ‘experiencing additional support needs’, carry with them the danger of being interpreted as a rigid classification. A constant emphasis on differences and a disregard of similarities opens the way to shifting from receptive towards restricted mentalities. Vigilance to ensure that a learner is not excluded (or should one say ‘imprisoned’?) via the improper use of a label is paramount. (In any case, do we not all have additional needs, albeit diverse ones at differing levels?)

Assessment which leads to well-directed assistance and incentives

Appropriate appraisal procedures are required to address difficulties and play a crucial role on behalf of learners who are experiencing them. They not only clarify levels of current competences and capabilities but also indicate which forms of involvement and aid are most advantageous. In erstwhile routines, a great deal of credence was given by professionals to formal intelligence tests and standardised results in connection with language and numeracy. More recently, there have been considerable criticism and scepticism concerning the application of such types of normative measures. Very often, as an alternative, the emphasis has been placed firmly on using assessment techniques to help structure and maintain successful tutoring strategies, adaptive behavioural interventions and uplifting learning environments.

There is much to recommend in utilising processes which combine accurate assessments of strengths and requirements alongside the identification of those circumstances best suited to needs. Carefully-staged observations of everyday situations are valuable in avoiding simplistic analyses when attempting to map out how best to intervene. Within therapeutic and educational surroundings, formative assessment can be highly beneficial in terms of promoting both effort and achievements. It enables teachers to highlight what learners have mastered already and to devise future learning pathways.

Skills relating to on-going constructive assessments may appear easy on paper but in practice require substantial expertise. They take account of: devising and setting realistic objectives for all students; sympathetically but rigorously monitoring their progression; providing feedback in an inspirational manner; and collaborating with learners in reviewing their aspirations and in planning forthcoming goals. A concerted engagement following this outline reveals hidden talents, rejects segregation and increases a sense of belonging.

“Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and test of civilisation.” (Mahatma Gandi)

Conclusions

The needs of too many students are frequently missed, their perspectives misunderstood and their voices ignored among the bureaucratic and complex demands of modern education. A cultural shift is fundamental if inclusiveness is to gain traction. The acceptance of diversity and the commitment to ensuring equity for all entail high levels of advocacy, respect, tolerance, compassion and appreciation to permeate throughout learning communities. Unconscious bias has to be recognised and abolished along with negative stereotyping and labelling. Specialised support should be extended and focused within mainstream education, if necessary, using existing special schools and clinics as resource centres.

Governmental and local authority guidelines must wholeheartedly incorporate egalitarian principles and values. If official proposals or prescribed curricular topics prove to be unworkable, the duty of educationalists is to draw attention to deficiencies and to recommend or ‘reclaim’ appropriate courses of study and training programmes for their students. Schedules which include thoughtful and regular monitoring to enhance emotional wellbeing, acknowledge accomplishments and generate further advancement are key ingredients in maintaining successful developments. When effectively delivered, professional collaboration promotes confidence, self-belief and ‘can do’ mindsets regarding endless options for personal, social and intellectual growth.  

In summary, proponents of inclusive education aspire to foster welcoming, coherent and vibrant systems which:

  • are open and respectful to all learners without any imagined or created barriers to admission and full participation
  • provide individualised learning pathways which ensure meaningful progress irrespective of identity, attributes and social background
  • encourage students to take responsibility to attain their desired learning outcomes through well-planned and accommodating interchange and negotiation
  • offer a comprehensive and integrated range of counselling, guidance and supportive strategies in conjunction with relevant professional agencies and local facilities
  • help to build and maintain energetic, equitable and flourishing national and community services.

Appendix

Points for consideration

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal No 4: ‘To ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’ (by 2030).

United Nations: Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: General comment No 4, 2016. Article 24: Right to inclusive education: ‘The right to inclusive education encompasses a transformation in culture, policy and practice in all formal and informal educational environments to accommodate the different requirements and identities of individual students, together with a commitment to remove barriers that impede that possibility.’

These are world-wide challenges. How advanced is our nation in reaching these high standards? Perhaps, more basically, are those in positions of power and responsibility fully aware of goals to which they are committed?

Note: For a brief charter focusing on the principles and characteristics of equity and inclusion in education, please use the following link: https://improvingcareand.education/home/inclusion-and-equity-in-education-key-principles-and-characteristics/

Additional note: A wide variety of items on inclusive practices are available for study and reflection at: https://inclusivepracticessite.blog

(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.)

Categories
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 elements 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 criteria 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) standards have never been deemed as high enough; and (2) the requirement for more inclusive and effective improvements in educational provision is forever with us!

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, procedures can amount to 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 institutionalized, 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.

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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, particularly 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 political governance, 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!

(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.)

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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.

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. 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 constantly 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 entailed 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.

Conclusions

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!  

(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.)

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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 governance 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 an undoubted 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 conduct of affairs can be characterised by a toxic mix of attributes which indicate that executives who perform more poorly than others are likely to be the weakest at estimating their own abilities (sometimes referred to as a Dunning-Kruger type effect). Without doubt, some in positions of authority who are incompetent are also 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, cases 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 genuine grasp of the real hassles or 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 settings. 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 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 were 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. Their administration and structures, particularly in the larger ones, 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. Regrettably, 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, very good teachers can be subject to anxiety through no fault of their own. Skilled and compassionate supervisory styles identify and address the true causes of unnecessary strains and pressures. They take steps to prevent employee burnout, promote wellbeing and ensure that support is given when it is needed. Such managers, 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. However, 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 schemes which are:

  • candid and easily understood – as opposed to bureaucratic and confusing
  • achievable – distinct from multi-layered and overwhelming
  • open and accessible – unlike 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.  

(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.)

The efficient usage of new technologies opens up worthwhile challenges for imaginative leaders to extend educational opportunities for learners for all abilities.
Categories
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. Additionally, ‘digital empowerment’ (or what might be referred to as CRISMATICS, namely proficiency in the use of Computers, Robots and Intelligent Software) opens opportunities for independent learning in areas of special interest.

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. Personal 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, and independent computer-based 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.

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.)

Categories
Caregiving Collaborative planning Health and wellbeing Manifesto

Evaluating the Quality of Carer Support Plans and Statements

Frank O’Hagan

“Blessed be the caregivers for they shall save the NHS.”

Introduction: When the quality of personalised carer support plans and statements are being evaluated, it is important that national and authority guidelines are being followed. However, my own experience indicates that the standard of forward planning is generally poor. On occasions, proposed outcomes may be imprecise or even unavailable for voluntary and/or paid caregivers. I would very much like to be proved wrong in making this evaluation.

The principles underlying operational planning for different groups, involved in providing or receiving care, have much in common. This brief article emphasises the value of collaborative work and effective decision-making. It also highlights the importance of examining a number of features relating to the formulation and contents of documents. These include: (1) administration; (2) personal support; (3) health and wellbeing; (4) psychological support; (5) social engagement; and (6) reviewing and forward planning.

Are we all ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’?  Cooperative inputs involving all stakeholders can ensure that, even in the face of difficult circumstances and obstacles, significant progress can be achieved. In particular, a dedicated contact person and other team members – who are knowledgeable about the requirements of caregivers and of those for whom they are caring – have key roles to undertake within this process. Skilful planning guarantees that all are fully cognisant of their duties and are working towards the same positive results. Or to express this enterprise in another way: a pivotal aim is to guarantee that, as far as is possible, everyone is ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’. And, very importantly, that all are singing with gusto and conviction!

Effective decision-making: In best practice, plans and statements should only be signed off after an appropriate and comprehensive assessment of someone’s requirements has been concluded. It is essential that the process of reaching decisions takes due account of the views of caregivers and pertinent members of professional agencies. At all stages of planning and implementation, attention must be paid to matters of confidentiality and the right of access to information. Crucially, decision-making should focus on devising SMART targets; this characteristic requires objectives and benchmarks to be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timed. Completed records must avoid the dangers associated with bureaucracy. Schedules for execution and re-evaluation should be wholly understood. When put into operation, programs for action ought to be purposeful, expedient and dynamic, leading to creative and life-affirming initiatives in both care and provision.

The formulation and contents of carers’ plans and statements:

  1. Administration: Planning decisions should make clear as to who have particular responsibilities for specific tasks and activities. This also will indicate those who are acting as designated contact personnel and how they can be reached without unnecessary delays. In best practice, the responsibilities of members of a well-integrated support team will cover: (1) ensuring that planning is based on accurate information about individuals and their needs; (2) assisting others, as necessary, in effectively carrying out their undertakings; and (3) participating in timeous, collective appraisals to keep arrangements up-to-date. Together, these aspects should provide a general overview of which forms of interventions, therapies and social services are to be employed and managed. It is imperative to make sure that everyone is knowledgeable about their respective roles and confident that they are able to complete them successfully.
  2. Personal support:  The value of enabling caregivers to benefit from taking as much control as possible of their lives has to be highlighted at all times. On a cautionary note, carers should be helped to ensure that the stresses and tensions which they may be experiencing do not govern their choices, activities and routines. Aspirations in this domain will focus on the promotion and maintenance of abilities relating to agency, empowerment, resilience and independent living competences. In response to changing situations, attention to immediate or gradual modifications in planning may be necessary. The knowledge and understanding of the wishes of individuals about future resolutions, if circumstances were to deteriorate, ought to be clarified well in advance. Some key judgments, such as those pertaining to wills and power of attorney, should be made as soon as practical and kept under review.
  3. Health and wellbeing: Many professionals have significant assignments to undertake concerning the identification of physical and mental difficulties and the availability of pragmatic solutions. Their contributions can include close surveillance of those being cared for or specialist guidance to carers looking after those with ailments such as pain, obesity, diabetes, blood pressure, cholesterol levels and oral hygiene. Issues relating to mental health may necessitate the involvement or advice of psychiatric services and members of community teams. Directed instructions will be important towards the enhancement of their esteem and self-assurance. Worthwhile health and wellbeing objectives in schedules could concentrate on establishing higher standards in daily living as regards nutrition, physical exercise, relaxation, sleeping routines and the like.
  4. Psychological support: This area links closely with or can overlap topics mentioned in the previous section. Its aims should be to consolidate a line of attack which encompasses the psychological features of ‘good living’ such as feelings of agency, self-worth, composure and safety. The value of shared and community-based interventions, as opposed to individualistic approaches, also should be given serious consideration. Taking part in recreational activities, mindfulness sessions and problem-solving meetings can all contribute to the reinforcement of confidence, calmness and interpersonal skills. Sometimes, it may be helpful to identify specific types of training which carers may have to embark on before carrying out their duties. For instance, this could involve tuition or counselling being made accessible in order for them to foster the emotional wellbeing of those for whom they are caring.
  5. Social engagement: Depending on the situation in which they find themselves, carers can benefit from a wide variety of social and communal activities such as: participation in leisure pursuits and friendship clusters; membership of art, drama, dance and recreational clubs; and attendance at concerts, theatres and sporting events. Some may need assistance in: (1) organising properly-equipped living quarters to extend self-sufficiency; (2) learning about a range of suitable utensils and apparatus to reassure them in caring chores, perhaps with specialist recommendations from occupational therapists; and (3) making good use of gardens, local parks, libraries, disability-enabling cafes and other local facilities. Additionally, targets could relate to enhancing their capabilities in the application of new technologies, for example, to facilitate internet purchasing, participate in relevant distance learning, and keep in touch with support groups.
  6. Review and forward planning: Plans and statements should be regarded as ‘live’ documents with the unambiguous purpose of making sure that there is relevant on-going backing for caregivers. It is vital that all those involved are aware of monitoring and reviewing procedures and kept informed of how well they are being implemented. Good practice will allow for flexibility regarding the most suitable periods and dates for formal reviews and future planning to take place. Collaborative approaches can reach appropriate decisions as to when provision and goals may need to be modified or are no longer applicable.

Summary and concluding remarks: Vague and elusive verbal promises are often expressed on behalf of those seeking vital aid but frequently these nebulous assurances are not recorded, never materialise and leave no trace of accountability. Efficient and competent planning entails a thorough method for outlining worthwhile targets towards maintaining or improving health, wellbeing and resources. Within plans and statements there should be clearly noted roles and responsibilities. They must never be treated as wish lists. On the contrary, they should be regarded as an integral feature within a concerted and practical process which delivers high-quality, person-centred assistance.

Footnote: Please see the related page entitled “Better Planning” for further comments on the use of SMART targets and ways of meeting needs. https://improvingcareand.education/home/better-planning/

Categories
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.

Summary

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 with regard to raising standards of 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.)

Categories
Caregiving Collaborative planning Health and wellbeing Manifesto

How can Support for Caregivers be Improved?

Frank O’Hagan

… because carers need cared for.

Caregivers in today’s society

It is generally recognised that many carers who have had no formal training deliver a great deal of unpaid support and save vast sums of money for hard-pressed local authorities and the National Health Service. Many adults have to retire early to look after loved ones. Some of them have personal, financial or employment anxieties which are exacerbated by the time and efforts required to acquire high-quality guidance and help. Other carers are in their teenage years and suffer significantly due to home circumstances. They often miss out on aspects of the educational and leisure pursuits which their peers experience.

In everyday matters, carers provide a very wide range of provision for the most vulnerable by encouraging social activities, monitoring nutrition and physical exercise, cooperating with professional home services, preventing unnecessary hospitalisation, and assisting with planning for the future. Within their localities and in the wider society, they campaign openly for the establishment of disability-friendly and disability-empowering communities. Additionally, they promote public awareness, for example, by contributing to school projects on understanding the nature of dementia and on how to address related concerns.

But, just as modern society with its ageing population needs caregivers, urgent reciprocated backing is essential. Considerably greater resources ought to be allocated to enhance the health, wellbeing and applied skills of carers. If appropriate forms of support are lacking, then not only the quality of their lives but also the routines of those in receipt of community care will suffer. In turn, such outcomes are likely to lead to even more bed-blocking in hospitals and greater demands on residential placements.

Addressing caregivers’ requirements

A clear distinction has to be made between those who undertake caring  tasks through personal dedication or a sense of civic duty and those who might be termed ‘professional carers’ and are paid for their work. Both of these large groups can be sub-divided further. For instance, there are caregivers who live continuously in the same premises as those with disabilities; helpers who drop in habitually on a voluntary basis to check on the wellbeing of neighbours in need; and care personnel who have accountability for monitoring the value of support being provided in residences or sheltered accommodation. These distinct examples by no means give the complete picture of the wide range of current caring roles. They are mentioned simply to highlight the necessity of individualised and tailored assistance when planning to develop suitable abilities and skills in a meaningful and all-encompassing fashion.

Caregivers have their own personal prerequisites, specific to the particular situations in which they find themselves. On occasions, there is the danger that advice from specialists is inclined to be directed towards them as if they were a homogenous entity although in undertaking their daily duties they have many disparate responsibilities and constraints. Even when pertinent support and training sessions are available, it is commonly the case that they are unable to attend as there is no cover available to free them from their designated tasks. Of course, at times, it is possible and correct for both the carer and the recipient of care to attend together but frequently this is neither practical nor fitting. Agencies often ignore taking obstacles to meaningful participation into consideration when organising training, tutorial or therapeutic events.

Government, health and social services and support agencies have significant responsibilities in monitoring and responding to the necessities of carers of all ages. These can include: relevant and timely information (and the avoidance of misinformation); welfare and social amenities; availability of financial benefits; and respite care. Attention must be given to guaranteeing that the ‘power’ of professionals over carers is not abused. Specialists will wish to ensure that their roles are not perceived as taking control of matters but rather as facilitating both collaboration and empowerment in order to accentuate positive outcomes.

Listening, evaluating and progressing together

On occasions, policy with regard to caring can appear as if it was a value-free enterprise influenced merely by financial factors rather than by quality-of-life deliberations. Paying close attention to the voices of all stakeholders about their hopes, beliefs, targets and aspirations can be so easily neglected. Those being cared for, their carers, spouses, neighbours and friends can aid in transmitting valuable information and concerns to busy professionals. Everyone needs to fully recognise the strength of involving appropriate interested parties as an essential feature of good practice. Of course, in all aspects of work, due attention must be given to matters of confidentiality and the right of access to information. Effective preparation and teamwork enable clear, well-judged strategies to be formulated, shared and implemented.

When it comes to gauging the characteristics of care settings – whether the location is at home or in a residential placement – the answers to a variety of key questions should be carefully noted and examined. Are the dignity and rights of those being cared for fully acknowledged across age, gender, ethnicity, faith and disability? How significant, germane and measurable are the criteria used for appraising the worth of support being made available? How effectively do professional staff self-evaluate the execution of their duties? Are relatives and caregivers asked for their views prior to reports being written and circulated?

Of course, in certain circumstances, potentially controversial queries may be justifiably raised. For instance, why are the persons in receipt of care, or carers, not always being offered opportunities to give their own assessments of reports or submit objections – as a basis for further discussion and reflection – prior to final submissions by providers? If apt, it is important to acknowledge the chasm which can exist between ‘institutionalised care’ settings and integrated community support services.

Regardless of familial, communal or residential situations, it can be strongly argued that relatives and carers should be given key roles in commenting on the overall benefits of what is available. In truth, they may feel a responsibility to identify potential weaknesses or elements of inadequate procedures within prevailing settings. In doing so, they will be seeking to ensure that their loved ones are not being subjected to adverse conditions. Their objectives should underline the merits and potency of enhancing environmental factors and of promoting high standards in personal and social wellbeing. Joint aims and a sense of togetherness can go far in establishing irrefutable progress.

In summary, caregivers are generally closer to those for whom they are responsible than professionals who may only visit for short sessions or on an irregular basis. Additionally, those who require care and support have to be shown respect and be involved when planning is being devised. Their contributions such as offering alternatives to being kept indoors, or in bed, for lengthy periods can be insightful. They often need greater agency and participation in decision-making and to be allowed to make suggestions relating to activities, tactics and therapeutic interventions.

Towards more inclusive and collaborative practices

New laws and regulations relating to care in the community may envisage ambitious reforms and transformations and be hailed as ‘world-leading’ (whatever that might mean!) by politicians. However, while legislation and policy documents are useful in that they can set criteria and benchmarks, they have ultimately to be judged by the appeal and advantages of their outcomes. What really matters is the impact which they make in terms of improvements to the everyday lives of the recipients of care and their caregivers. As for current provision, in many respects there are failures to deliver core aspects of good services and facilities whether they pertain to post-diagnostic support or advanced care. Analyses of feelings and apprehensions among caregivers indicate a broad spectrum of ways in which cooperation could be developed. A comprehensive implementation of the five inter-related recommendations, briefly sketched out below, would go a long way towards bringing about significant approval and satisfaction in this regard.

1. Better procedures for distributing information. Caregivers frequently become aware of vital practices, competences or facts by accident or serendipity rather than in a systematic manner at a much earlier stage. Steps to ensure that they always receive timely and easily understood reports and updates – including topics on rights, benefits, social services, legal issues and medication – would be most welcome. This issue possibly has to be addressed most urgently at both ends of the age range as the youngest and oldest carers may not be well placed to keep themselves informed and up-to-date with recent changes and innovations in areas of interest.

2. A nominated key support professional. It is not surprising that carers often experience doubts and concerns about their abilities to undertake chores and assignments competently. They may need aid in extending their self-confidence and constant help towards the gradual building of personal resilience. Trusting relationships are at the heart of compassionate and effective interpersonal bonding. To establish what Carl Rogers termed ‘unconditional positive regard’ can be a demanding task and take a lengthy time to accomplish. For these reasons, all carers, no matter their skills and past experiences, should have a designated specialist whom they can approach in confidence about their trepidations and fears. This appointment should be reflected on and completed as early as practical – if possible around the same time as a formal diagnosis is made, or at least shortly afterwards. There also ought to be arrangements in place to regularly review and evaluate how well this partnership is working and, if apposite, to weight up whether modifications are required.

3. Collaborative involvement in the planning of personal and social support. Well-designed outlines for future goals contribute towards ensuring that there is germane and practical assistance in place for those requiring personal and/or social support (such as those experiencing physical disabilities or dementia). This is particularly critical when, as commonly occurs, a variety of specialists, agency staff and volunteers are involved in the overall process. To insure that operational decisions are expedited transparently and efficiently, carers should have regular invitations to participate with regard to identifying options, setting targets and estimating progress. In this way, they can have key roles as influential members within integrated and flourishing networks.

4. Improved access to training opportunities. There is a cogent case for an expansion of training prospects for caregivers. They deserve on-going support in improving their knowledge and interpersonal skills. Flexible arrangements and judicious scheduling are required which match the stipulations itemised during assessment of needs. Sessions aimed at upgrading knowledge and skills could cover: methods of communication; relaxation procedures; aspects of health and safety; risk assessment; note-taking; working memory, including ‘memory joggers’; navigational skills such as the use of ‘cognitive mapping’; and effective applications of modern technology. (As an example, in the case of communication, there might be tuitions and demonstrations on how to exploit pertinent techniques which comprise: employing familiar expressions or instructions; re-phrasing; repetition; pointing; signing; allowing time to receive responses; making use of photographs; and so forth.)

5. An extension of support services. The requirement to extend services is closely related to training opportunities but so important that it is worthy of a separate recommendation in its own right. The determination and resilience to endure in difficult circumstances are likely to depend on a range of complex factors such as social relationships, healthy lifestyles, backing from volunteers and connections with external organisations. At present, depending on locality, there are constructive inputs through authority-funded link personnel, carers’ cafes and friendship groups to enable shared issues to be discussed and possible solutions examined.  Nonetheless, there is substantial scope for the development of bespoke packages of guidance and coaching in a wide variety of areas, for instance: physical and mental health and wellbeing; nutrition and exercise; financial advice; and the availability of respite breaks. Further innovations in the use of information and communication technologies also could make available more productive methods to connect with those who face difficulties in being physically present.

To summarise in a few words: A much improved and extensive array of support is required for caregivers of all ages.

Carers of the world unite!
Categories
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 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. 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.

The emphasis on different subjects will change and evolve over time – the Romans gave prominence to rhetoric while, for the Victorians, classical studies were accentuated. 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. Additionally, the importance of the arts to the national wealth also has been recognised, thus lengthening the acronym to STEMA. However, by themselves, this grouping particularly up to at least 16 years of age would be unsatisfactory and insufficient for most learners. Clearly there can be advantages in maintaining breadth in the curriculum for young learners and allowing them to cultivate favourite areas at their own pace and in their own time.

Although STEMA 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.

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.

At all stages noted above, a genuinely meaningful curriculum should be accessible to learners.

Appendix

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?

(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.)