Policy reunion event – Curriculum for Excellence


On Friday I attended the above seminar at Glasgow University. I’d never attended an event like this before. It was run by the Policy Scotland people who worked with the Robert Owen Centre, I believe, to put on this event. It was a free and open event, attended by education professionals, representatives from relevant agencies and members of the public. The panel of speakers were all key policy – makers at the early stages of CfE, including the then minister for education, Peter Peacock; the senior civil servant in charge of the policy, Philip Rycroft and professor Louise Hayward who was involved with the Assessment is for Learning programme which was developing at around the same time. George McBride, formerly of the EIS also made some recorded contributions, and chair of the event was Policy Scotland director, Des McNulty.

It felt very unusual for several reasons. Firstly, the event took the form of a retropsective analysis by those involved of how the policy developed. This is not something we are used to in Scotland. Education policy tends to emerge from sources, usually government, or close to government or identified by government, then goes through implementation or perhaps acceptance (or some may even call it enforcement). The implementation processes of CfE have been expertly documented on this blog so I don’t wish to elaborate this now, but the unusual feature here is that rarely, if ever has a post-mortem on such a high-stakes policy been carried out in a public forum.

Secondly, panel members spoke openly and frankly about the work they did at the time. Decisions that were made were questioned and honestly analysed, positively or negatively. The emphasis on the importance of achieving consensus was questioned; the lack of a critical voice anywhere in the early stages of the process was also questioned. Related to this, little or no theoretical knowledge about curriculum seemed to be represented in the original design group – Prof Hayward’s involvement was on a parallel, but different programme for assessment. The lack of evidence of progression, or of assessment as a feature of the new curriculum was also challenged – the two policies of AifL and CfE seem to articulate with each other more by accident than design. “Assessment was not addressed as clearly as it should have been.” The initial big ideas which were established were left underdeveloped intentionally, but the expectation that teachers would move effortlessly from a highly prescriptive linear curricular model (as was 5-14) to a much less structured, more open framework without the necessary space to develop their own thinking on this was misguided.As George MacBride said, they “underestimated the acculturation of teachers to prescriptive curricula.” More than once was it mentioned that things would be done differently in the benefit of hindsight, which is only human after all. It was good to hear acknowledgement of the shared responsibility for the success of CfE which extended beyond the teaching profession.

Lastly I was struck by how arbitrary the organisation of government can be. In these early stages, two of the key individuals were removed from the process: Peter Peacock through health had to step down and Philip Rycroft was moved from his brief in this policy area. He had come from breweries before, but his time was up in education so he had to move on. Peter Peacock’s tenure in education would always have been subject to government prerogatives so he could have been moved at any time. The timing of these events undoubtedly had an impact on the process, however. For me it highlights how civil servants are there to serve the system of government above anything else. It may well be in the system’s interests to have agile servants who can slip into a different ministry with ease but I’m not sure if it is always in the interests of in this case, children in schools.

A very interesting event. Will it help us push on with the evolution of CfE? I’m not sure but If mistakes are acknowledged and if barriers and blockers are identified, and if this can help us inform our approach to CfE then there might be a chance.The hitherto lack of clarity in this policy process has obscured many of the barriers and blockages – if we can’t see how power is circulating within this process then we can’t capture it, learn from it or build on it. This brief peek behind the policy curtain may or may not be a prelude to further discussion. If it is (who knows?) and the tone of the debate remains honest and doesn’t revert to defensiveness, then maybe we can be hopeful.

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My progress review was two weeks ago and I passed. I knew where I would be challenged, and I knew where I was strong. The challenges left me feeling a bit exposed (in methodology and analysis especially) and this is where I need to focus my attention. Even in the short time that’s passed though I’ve gone back to some readings and papers and feel more secure in my understanding of critical realism. In the last post I mentioned I needed to do more work on  methodology.  Post – review, I know I still need to explain methodology in clearer terms, and in particular to highlight the ways in which it relates to my research questions and how both of these inform the methods I choose. Therefore, a piece of more extended writing on methodology, a clearer articulation of my research questions and a set of methods which will elicit the answers to the questions I want to ask is now required, with a degree of urgency as I’m hoping to get started on the empirical work very soon.

Structure, culture and agency

In discussion with my supervisor today we talked in detail about the key concepts of critical realism of structure, culture and agency and how to define them. Culture in CR terms is an independent realm of  ideas and knowledge (Archer 1995) which can sometimes conflict with each other, as in for example, a new set of cultural forms such as a new curriculum. This can offer a challenge to existing cultural forms and ideas ( i.e. existing ideas about curriculum) but  can also result in complementarities and/or tensions. The new cultural forms might  replace the old ones ( archetype A in Archer 1995) but a straightforward replacement is unlikely. Alternatively the new ideas could be entirely rejected, but this is also unlikely; what tends to happen is a hybridisation, mixing and matching of old and new, where existing cultures might change as a result of exposure to the  new culture.

Structure is a bit more slippery.  Social structure means systems of human relationships  amongst social positions (Porpora 2000). The relationships within a system can be understood by the ways in which the connections operate i.e. the relationships can be strong or weak; symmetrical,  where power, trust or respect passes back and forth between two individuals, or asymmetrical where power flows in one direction only. What passes between two individuals is an emergent property of their interaction. Structure exists independently of culture, but there is interaction between the two. The interactions will be key to my study.

Dave Elder Vass (2007) develops this conception of  social relationships to include both the people in the relationship and  the emergent powers of the interactions between them. He uses the term “people in community” to signify this more developed idea of  social structure.

Archer’s model of analytical dualism offers a  way of understanding structure and culture as autonomous systems whereby culture influences interaction through ideas; structure influence actions through power and individuals influence interactions through their own capacities, skills or knowledge. The interaction of these three separate but connected domains is central to this model. Interactions between the three domains is described in CR terms as  morphogenesis/morphostasis. Interactions are key here as they provide a methodological point of entry (Scott, 2009), and for my study, this will be a major focus.

Morphogenesis describes what happens when the three domains act upon each other. In the social interaction whereby an individual meets cultural forms and social structures, each element acts upon the other, and in the process of interacting,

Ideas can therefore be held in place by power structures, but the power structures can also reinforce the ideas. Think of South Africa pre-1996, for example. Change happens in the interaction between all three domains. So a series of interactions of individuals with structures and cultural conditions might result in emergent properties or powers which may bring about change in each domain. This could be described in Archer’s terms as a morphogenetic loop or cycle which over time,  might result in significant change.

Morphostasis would represent the same interactions resulting in reproduction, not change of existing norms, ideas (culture) and structure (relationships).

I need to develop a method that is systematic and congruent with CR for my study. My research questions need to reflect this more clearly. The task is underway!

PS: I knew my evidence of critical literature review was strong; they asked me if I’d be happy for a section of it to be made available to a final module in one of the professional learning programmes going on for teachers in the school. Of course I was: it’s here if anyone is interested:Excerpt from doctoral review report 2014 Please cite appropriately if you feel the urge :)

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Supervision meeting 26th May 2014

The pace of things is increasing in advance of my forthcoming review and the agenda for this meeting was focused more or less on my draft report which I need to submit 2 weeks before the meeting. My date is August 28th, so I have all summer to stress about this.

So as my project gathers pace I need to think more and more concretely about it, tighten the focus on what questions I am going to ask and make sure the methodology supports and articulates with the literature and questions I’m asking.  I’m hoping for a successful outcome to the review – this will mean that I am deemed competent enough to conduct the research I’m proposing and the decision will be made on how well I can justify the choices I’m making about every aspect of the project design so far. So all going well I’ll be able to pilot some methods early next school session and begin fieldwork sometime after that, hopefully around September.

I submitted a draft report for discussion at this meeting. Discussion with Mark was as usual hugely helpful and encouraging. There is work to be done but apparently it’s about 90% of the way there.  I know what I need to do. Certain parts of its need re-structuring or refocusing and I need to align my research questions more closely with my methodology. And I need to flesh out my methodology.

I will be doing a case study which is underpinned by critical realism as a theoretical framework and the methodology will be congruent with this.  I’ve been skirting around critical realism for a while and it’s only now that I am really beginning to see how useful it will be for me. I think part of my avoidance has been the language and expression of some of the writing – not the most accessible, but in terms of theory and philosophy I guess it’s never going to be easy.

So after discussion I have a clearer understanding of what purpose it will serve. What I want to look at is learning rounds as social processes – interactions among humans within existing structures and conditions. Critical realism, and in particular Margaret Archer’s model of analytical dualism gives me a way to frame this study and analyse the processes involved in these interactions and observe what changes might or might not be taking place. . From what I know about the literature around professional learning communities so far is that most of it is  a-theoretical, only some of it is empirically based and little of it looks at the actual processes involved in the work these PLCs do. My study aims to illuminate these processes. It will hopefully provide some new empirical knowledge which is supported by social theory for an under-researched area. Having already conducted a literature review into learning rounds and instructional rounds I can say with certainty that no empirical studies have been carried out into this and reached publication. Only five peer-reviewed papers were identified to consider as part of this literature review.  I hope that the work I’m about to embark on will ultimately provide something useful for the profession that will be recognised as an academically sound piece of research. Let the grafting begin!

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Conference season

Conference season

Been a bit laggy on the updates – it’s busy conference season in academia-land coming up so I’ve been preparing for two forthcoming events: the Stirling School of Education Doctoral Conference and ProPEL. The doctoral conference is an internal one for all the SoE post-graduate research students and ProPEL is a big international conference for professional practice, education and learning. I’m working on my presentation about my study for the doctoral conference, but here is a wee preview of the poster I’ve prepared for ProPEL – it’s my first one! Hope you like it. Please leave a comment if you feel the urge!

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Seminar series: Professor Peter Mayo 28/3/2014

We had a guest speaker at the latest in our research seminar series.  Professor Peter Mayo is Head of Education at the University of Malta and he was talking about his latest book, The Politics of Indignation. This talk was concerned with one specific chapter in the book on migration in southern Europe.  Critical pedagogy, sociology of education and social theory feature as his research interests.

It was clear from the beginning that we would be presented with a radical perspective on what is an utterly desperate situation.  Professor Mayo opened with a shocking statistic: 20 000 migrants have drowned in their attempts to cross the Mediterranean from Africa to southern Europe in the last 20 years. That’s 1000 bodies per year. And these are the ones who had survived war, rape, the desert, the journey to the coast. It couldn’t really be any further from the idealised image of the Med more commonly suggested in the media, and also perhaps reflected in many people’s holiday experiences or aspirations.  I have been aware of reports of dead refugees washed up on southern Italian beaches and , and have read Partir, a moving, tragic but excellent fictionalised account by Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun of a migrant’s attempt to cross the Straits of Gibraltar. This isn’t mainstream fiction however, (not available in translation into English) and the aforementioned reports aren’t commonplace in the UK.

The migration debate is topical. It’s a policy which is supported by the SNP, but hasn’t really surfaced as a major feature of their independence campaign yet. Maybe it never will. The arguments to support it are usually economic. Migrants are trafficked as human commodities in order to provide a cheap and necessary source of labour in a globalised economy.  Colonialism alone is not to blame for the wretchedness suffered by these people in their quest to find the better life in the promised land of their colonial power.  The problem is they too often find the Promised Land has closed its doors to them; the discourses of security treat them as criminals and rob them of their dignity, their possessions and even their freedom to express themselves in direct defiance of the Geneva Convention. Political intransigence inside Europe on this issue has created a value system which prioritises security over human life and the perversity of globalisation has made both a necessity and an object of loathing out of the migrant among some (perhaps working class) communities – divide and rule.

The discussion opened up into a broader treatment of activism and groundswell movements, and neo-liberalism in higher education and how globalisation is working to marginalise radicalism and social justice in research and recruitment.   It was a fascinating session, and a real pleasure to meet Professor Mayo. He was hopeful that in Scotland we have values in our education system which might mitigate the appalling racism he described. Whether we do or not, we certainly have a responsibility to ensure that inter-ethnicity is developed in a positive way.

There are some signs of hope. One of them for me is the fantastic work done by a close friend of mine, Maggie Lennon in the Bridges Programmes she set up and manages. Bridges find employment and education opportunities for refugees and asylum seekers. It has many successes to boast of and should be celebrated as a shining example of social entrepreneurship working for justice and integration. There is so much scope for educators to learn from this project, and maybe vice-versa.  There’s also a massive need for more programmes like Bridges if migrants are to be considered as more than economic commodities in Scotland, and elsewhere.


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Teaching Schools – an outsider’s (possibly flawed) impression

Earlier this week I attended a BELMAS event in London about teaching schools. It’s been a while since I‘ve been at an event like this and I really enjoyed it.  Why did I go? We often look across the border with a measure of fear and trepidation, observing the paradox of rapid pace of change and a seemingly reactionary approach to curricular reform, so it’s interesting to find out more about this change. It’s not directly relevant to my practice, but as my study is about how teachers learn in practice – I want to be aware of a wider perspective on how this is developing, not only in Scotland. It’s very much an emergent policy at the moment; it clearly has some supporters and evangelists, and some critics. Even within this there are aspects which are supported or criticised more than others. So what are teaching schools and how do they work?

Teaching schools or teaching school alliances are designated networks of schools who take responsibility for teacher education, both initial teacher training and CPD. They can be single or multiple school alliances and their partners must involve a Higher Education Institute. They need to be deemed outstanding by the inspectorate (Ofsted) to be able to apply for this status. The status is designated by the National College, who have a role in developing and supporting these school alliances. Student teachers must apply through UCAS and then various routes are available to them (Schools, Direct, Teach First) to get their qualification. Schools and the HEIs are funded to take on students. The financial costs and incentives in applying/becoming a teaching school alliance are not clear to me – there are definitely market-forces at work here, but I’m not sure exactly how they work.

There are six main priorities that these schools are tasked with. These are

  1. Leading development of a school led ITT system (they still call it teacher training in England, whereas in Scotland we tend to use the term teacher education. Nicer in lots of ways, I think).
  2. Lead peer-peer development
  3. Identify and develop leadership potential
  4. Provide support for other schools
  5. Designate and broker Specialist Leaders of Education (SLEs)
  6. Research and development

As a policy, the intention is clearly to decentralise power to schools, but not all schools, only the ones deemed outstanding by the inspectorate. John Stephens from the National College said that there will be an “irrevocable shift [of power]” from the centre to schools by 2016. These schools/networks have massive autonomy. As various speakers through the day demonstrated, they can develop their own leadership programmes and planned joint or shared practice development across schools; they have the freedom to collaboratively plan e.g. an inter- school collaborative enquiry with the help and support of a HEI partner; organise secondments or job exchanges within their alliances; run accredited masters’ level CPD sessions; they can also grow their own teachers.Capture

There are clear opportunities for a different way of “knowledge mobilisation” within the system: a long-standing problem for educators and policy-makers. Prof Chris Husbands suggested   the teaching schools model might provide a way to create –understand–share and then act on knowledge in practice? This would represent a significant “paradigm shifting innovation” (as opposed to a “consensual innovation” which I think we are quite good at in Scotland. Is an innovation that has been arrived at by consensus really an innovation? (Question for another day perhaps).

Some elements of this are appealing, others raise interesting questions. Professor Chis Husbands observed that in spite of the fact that the National Colleges sees this as a “government-neutral” initiative i.e. it will have a lifespan longer than that of the current government, few policy intentions ever really embed themselves. He questioned the desirability of the “irrevocable shift” and the medical schools analogy upon which the model is supposedly based. There has been a fair amount written about the medical/educational comparison, and I don’t want to go into this too much here, but some scholars (Gert Biesta, for example) expose it as a fundamentally flawed analogy, (as does Chris Husbands) and justify the argument around “being a student is not an illness just as teaching is not a cure” ( Biesta 2007, p8).

Sustainability of the system is also under scrutiny: both in terms of finances and support, but also the vulnerability schools are exposed to by the compulsory “outstanding” rating. If this changes for any reason (in the lead school), be that staff movement, absence or refocused priorities then the system could collapse, and this will impact all schools in the alliance, not just the one with the less favourable Ofsted rating.

There are tensions and paradoxes in this concept, but it clearly has strengths and appeal. The one overwhelming impression I was left with at the end of the day was the pervasiveness of Ofsted in all discourse around teaching schools. There is a clear accountability agenda underpinning all of this, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but when an evidently able, experienced, energising and dynamic executive leader of a school alliance demonstrated some very impressive work (and difficult challenges too) carried out inside this framework, then summarised it by commenting that “you’re only as good as your last set of Ofsted data,” I felt disappointed. Is that really the best we can aspire to for young people? I hope teaching schools can do better than that.


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Our next PhD workshop approaches and this time as well as sharing some of our own writings, outlines of our studies and other readings we will be having a go at Derrida. I was almost looking forward to this one, since I did a bit of dabbling with deconstruction in the latter stages of my undergraduate degree, but that was a long time ago. It was very current at the time though (late 80s). I took a trip to Paris in my final year to meet with the poet I was investigating as the subject of my dissertation. I got a flight for £19 and stayed free of charge in the famous Shakespeare and Company bookshop. I also went to a Derrida talk – it was somewhere near Les Halles, and disappointingly I can’t remember much about it except for his wild hair and lots of enthusiastic fawning students, with whom he engaged very openly, a bit like the students in this documentary.


Deconstruction rejects the certainties of critical theories (binaries and hierarchies like class structure, gender etc) and offers an undefined “other” ontology. The other; L’autre, or l’avenant as Derrida has sometimes referenced disrupts our experience of how language constructs and gives meanings to reality, by opening up spaces beyond traditional understandings. There is a strong focus on discourses and texts in deconstruction, but Derrida would claim that discourses are never mere linguistic entities, they organize our ways of thinking so that they become ways of acting in the world. This interplay between concepts and texts is mentioned in Merceica (2011) as “being both inseparable and mutually contaminating for each other.” (p 201) In 12 lecons de Philosophie, Derrida exemplifies this in his essay “le langage” by (de)constructing the essay around the telephone conversation he has with the commissioning editor inviting his contribution. The effect is challenging and readable and it left me with a feeling that the philosophy I was trying to understand was embedded, or internal to the text, not conceptually represented by it or external to it, if that makes any sense.

We are reading the three Derrida chapters in Murphy (2013), which offer practical and theoretical interpretations of Derrida.  Irwin (2013) attempts to make connections between Marxism and deconstruction in educational research. I’m not massively convinced about this, but that is probably more a reflection of my own limited understanding of this philosophy. Although there is a radical dimension to his work I haven’t been struck by any overtly political references in Derrida, whether that might be class structures or calls to arms. I’m looking forward to hearing what the others have to say on this.

There is also a commonality running across at least 3 of the readings, and that is that Derrida is being used as a response to some sort of constraint, and in doing this, new knowledge is allowed to develop. I wonder how this connects to the justice/social justice dimensions of research, and I think this might be why the connection with feminist analytical approaches might be so clear (if it is clear!).

The other readings deal with more practical examples: a deconstructivist approach to a new geography curriculum in NE England, and a piece on using Derrida with student teachers in reflective writing  Winter (2013) gave a really helpful practical example of “praxis” – the reciprocity of theory and practice which had been discussed in Irwin (2013) as she described the process she and colleagues went through to deconstruct their traditional (constrained) understanding of the geography curriculum and open up a new space  for this work – they created an “other. ” This was not a new version of a known script, it was something different altogether, with new epistemologies of geography and new understandings of school policy, practice, structures and culture.  It’s been claimed that deconstruction is not a process or a theory to be overlaid on some project – Winter shows in this study how the lived experience of deconstruction (what I understand as the “metaphysics of deconstruction” (Winter 2013, p197)) gives rise to “the other.” I’m not sure that the personification of the other is altogether helpful. Would it be easier to understand as a state of being – otherness, for example, rather than a being itself?

Other (!) readings to be re-visited will include Ian Munday (2013) on Derrida, Teaching and the Context of Failure, some more on methods of writing and our own critical shared writing with colleagues, as well as an outline of our individual studies. The pace of things is beginning to change, I’m hoping I’ll be in a position to start moving ahead with my study very soon, All this philosophy is great fun but I need to be getting on!

Derrida, J 1985: Douze leçons de philosophie. La découverte/Le Monde, Paris

Irwin, J, 2013: Derrida and educational research: an introduction in In Murphy, M (ed) Social Theory and Educational Research, Routledge, Abingdon 2013 p 171 -183.

Merceica, D, 2013: Engaging with student teachers on reflective writing: reclaiming writing: in In Murphy, M (ed) Social Theory and Educational Research, Routledge, Abingdon 2013,  p 200 -211.

Munday, I 2011: Derrida, teaching and the context of failure, Oxford Review of Education, 37:3 403-419

Winter, C, 2013: Derrida meets Dracula in the geography classroom.  In Murphy, M (ed) Social Theory and Educational Research, Routledge, Abingdon 2013 p 184-199.

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