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A Scottish Teacher writes…

February 9, 2020

After this post and the debate that followed it, I was contacted by a teacher based in Scotland who wanted to share their experience of what’s happening. 

Andrew Old recently posted a blog about Scotland and the much-hyped achievement of eliminating exclusions. For some, Scotland has been heralded as a bastion of social progress, inclusion and tackling poor behaviour; “look at Scotland!”, they cry, “we too can abolish exclusions!”. Bliss, apparently awaits, if only schools lost the power to exclude pupils.

The truth however, does not match the claims. It is correct that exclusions have dropped significantly, but this has not been achieved through tackling poor behaviour. Indeed, quite the reverse. Rather than listening to education consultants with books to flog, or spaces at courses to fill, it may be useful to actually ask teachers prepared to be critical – often those not seeking promotion – about what is going on in Scotland. Or even the pupils and parents of these children blighted by the bad behaviour that goes unchecked in Scottish schools.

For instance, last November, a senior pupil at my school threw a bottle filled with urine at a group of younger pupils. His sanction? Sent home for the rest of the day.

Another pupil, seemingly mature and well-behaved, put forward for a scholarship programme, sent an email to the organisation telling them to “Fuck off :)” when his application was rejected. His sanction? Nothing.

All high schools in Scotland have internal Behaviour Support departments. Pupils may be completely off timetable and complete all their learning in the facility. However, in many schools, this is a place pupils ‘run to’, if challenged in class. Indeed, many pupils are given a Timeout Pass’, giving them permission to leave your class at their own discretion to go to Behaviour Support. Needless to say, this is where they can curse, swear and be wrapped in cooing sounds, telling them it is okay.

We also ‘soft’ exclude. We will often send pupils home until we can arrange a meeting with a parent. Unfortunately, we can only arrange a meeting for the following week, or the week after. It doesn’t go on the books, but gets the school respite from the pupil.

Andrew missed one major area in his article which should be considered when discussing behaviour: attainment.

The Scottish exam structure changed in 2012 from Standard Grades, which were broken down into Credit (grades 1-2), the top level where pupils were likely to go up to Higher; General (grades 3-4), and Foundation (grades 5-6). Each level had an exam externally marked. Pupils were typically entered as ‘General-Credit’, or ‘Foundation-General’, giving each pupil a fall-back position. It was inclusive of all levels and pupils had to work up to the exam, meaning they must actually focus in class (to a greater or lesser degree).

Now things are very much different. We have qualifications called “Nationals” (a nebulous term, brought in during a certain political party being in power… But I digress…)

National 4 is the supposed replacement for General Level. There is NO exam. All internally marked units, where pupils can repeat assessments till they get the correct answer. As that National 4 is unit work, the threshold for “just passed” is shockingly low. Supposedly externally verified by the Scottish exam board, the SQA, these units are barely checked. How do I know? I am the Principal Verifier for one of the subjects and we checked two schools last year; each of these schools only had three pupils being presented. We don’t have the budget for verification duties.

Why does this impact behaviour and exclusions in any way? Well, the jump from National 4, with no exam and low threshold for passing units, to National 5 (the credit replacement), is huge. Many pupils don’t make it. The path of progression is broken and this demotivates many pupils that are “at-risk”; they begin to act-out in class and see the experience as a waste of time. However, schools in Scotland are held accountable for children till they are 18, even if they leave at 16. Progression Pathways are closely monitored.

So what do we do? We have started introducing all sorts of crazy qualifications “just to give pupils something to do”. Want to drop English in S5? Sure, here is National 4 Cake Craft! Don’t like maths anymore? Don’t push to National 5 then, do National 4 Sports Leader. We basically entertain the pupils to keep them in school. The qualifications no longer have the merit they once did. No employer or college takes these seriously anymore. The teachers know it; the parents know it and the pupils know it.

We are doing our pupils a huge disservice in Scotland and it makes me very, very upset.

Don’t look north for inspiration. We are currently ill, but I hope we recover in the future.

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