In an exclusive interview with Technical Politics, Richard Lucas, Leader of the Scottish Family Party and a parliamentary candidate for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, a Highland constituency being held by the Leader of the Scottish National Party in the House of Commons, spelled out what he considered to be the deficits of Scottish educational policy, what we can learn from high-performing education systems, and what he regards as the role of schools with regards to moral education.
“We would scrap the Curriculum for Excellence, the Scottish Government’s curriculum that’s been in operation for a long time now and has got the support of all the parties in the Scottish Parliament.
It’s based on a flawed philosophy of education and a very progressive view of things. It’s based on putting the learner at the centre and following children’s interests and developing character qualities, rather than a curriculum of things that need to be taught, measured and tested.
Obviously, there needs to be a balance in education. In Scotland, it’s out of balance. It’s all towards groupwork, developing character qualities, boosting confidence and this sort of thing, rather than learning specific knowledge and skills.
We would be moving towards a more traditional academic curriculum where the teacher knew what they needed to teach, and where there was regular standardised testing over the whole of Scotland, and where objective feedback would be given to children.”
Scotland’s results in PISA 2018 were released earlier this month, and they mark the continued mediocre academic performance of 15-year-olds in international comparative tests of reading, science and mathematics competence, results that were widely featured in the Scottish news media over the weekend.
Scotland’s headline results for reading was up eleven points from 2015 at 504, while mathematics was down two points at 489, and science was down seven points at 490 according to ‘Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2018: Highlights from Scotland’s Results‘, a report published by the Scottish Government.
The comparable scores for England were 505 (one point higher), 505 (sixteen points higher), and 507 (seventeen points higher). A 40-point difference in scores is sometimes taken as a proxy for a year’s difference in learning.
International large-scale assessments of education have been dominated in recent years by high-performing Asian educational nations, such as Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea.
While the headline results for China should be treated with a large degree of caution, on paper students from Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang are performing almost three grade levels above their counterparts, and students from mainland China today dominate the top science and mathematics faculties in many Western countries. Japan, South Korea and Singapore have enjoyed similar success not only at the high school level, but in preparing their graduates for advanced studies in STEM subjects. According to Lucas, this performance can be attributed to more than simply curricular and pedagogical approaches however, as academic success is made possible by a certain cultural attitude to learning.
“If you think about Singapore and Japan, what’s the common factor. Well, one common factor is that they have a more highly-structured society, one where the young people, I would imagine in most cases, would be very respectful of the authority of teachers. They are very orderly and disciplined, and there would also be a culture and an expectation of hard work and aspiration, and a valuing of academic education.
Lucas criticises the Scottish Government for its narrow focus on educational equality at the expense of educational attainment.
“The Scottish Government is not even that bothered about pushing up standards; that’s partly why they’ve withdrawn from these league tables. Their objective is to close the attainment gap. They don’t particularly want the best to get better. They just want to narrow the gap between wealthier and poorer areas, and that’s their central goal in education. Their agenda is a social engineering project.”
While social conservatives will typically criticise social engineering when practiced by socially liberal governments, we challenged him as to whether he saw a corresponding role for schools in the provision of moral education.
“That’s quite a complex question.
There are some moral issues that are straightforward and uncontroversial. I think that schools should explicitly make it their duty to instil those values in young people.
So, for example, honestly. You don’t steal things. You treat others with respect.
So, there are a whole range of character qualities and standards of behaviour that can be taught uncontroversially from the very beginning of nursery right the way through the education system. Bizarrely, that doesn’t happen.
If people were thinking about a moral education lesson, no one would think let’s have a lesson on not stealing things. It would always be about complex moral issues.
Whereas it is really important to just get the basics. There are a lot of things that everyone agrees on that can really be taught explicitly through various mediums in school.”
As regards moral education in high school, the Scottish Family Party advocates a far more pluralistic approach, where students are presented with various moral perspectives. This surprising position seems almost libertarian in comparison with more doctrinaire pedagogical approaches that would advocate explicit instruction on moral issues, and the former may well be a better fit for our notoriously thrawn mentality where reflexive oppositionality comes a close second to football as a national sport.
“As children get older, they start looking at issues where there is more of a spectrum of opinion in society. For older children looking at these issues, what we would favour is presenting them with different moral perspectives.
At the moment, the Scottish Government has got its own moral perspective and they act as if it’s the one true truth. Whereas if students heard different points of view, they could make their own mind up.
Look at alcohol education. Currently the message is ‘Drinking is fine. Getting drunk is sort of okay as well, but make sure you get the taxi home’. It’s that sort of message, whereas I would say, they need to learn the facts about alcohol obviously, some safety advice as well would be helpful, but how about the young people hearing from someone that’s tea-total. I’m not tea-total, but hearing someone making the case for tea-totalism, and then the kids can weigh up that. Hearing someone making the case that it’s wrong to get drunk.
So they can hear those different values and perspectives, and from those they can make their own decision. They are making their own decision having heard different points of view, and that will help them to form their own values.
At the moment, they are presented with quite a narrow official line, and that’s taught to the exclusion of everything else.”
This interview was given prior to the release of the PISA 2018 results.
Article Licence: CC BY-ND 4.0