Connect Consultant George Gilchrist believes that education really is getting better

Connect consultant and former headteacher George Gilchrist reflects on our Annual Lecture 2019 from Carol Craig and tells us why he believes education really is getting better all the time.

'I was a pain at school. I mean as a pupil, rather than as a teacher or headteacher. Though I suppose there are some colleagues and former line-managers that might wish to dispute that second point. Anyway, getting back to my school days, I was a perfect example of a hyper-active, mouthy, under-performing kid that teachers - then and now - can dread having in their classes. I liked to play to the audience of my peers, to get a laugh, often at some physical cost to myself. This was the era of rampant corporal punishment in education, and my antics often resulted in exasperated teachers resorting to physical punishment, trying to beat some sense and compliance into me, whilst also using the same 'strategy' to enhance my academic performance.

I was thinking of this last week following the annual Connect lecture given by Carol Craig creator of the Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing. The theme of Carol's lecture was around Resilience and how we might go about developing this in young learners. During her lecture, Carol spoke about attitudes to children in Scotland, how these could be characterised as authoritarian in nature for many years. She linked this back to the experiences of many parents passing through the state education system when corporal punishment was rife. The use of the belt, or tawse as it was called up here, was finally abolished in 1987. Scotland was one of the last education systems to take this step, and even when it was abolished, there were many who still felt this was a retrograde step, and probably quite a few still do. The current debate in Scotland  around the smacking of children by parents is revisiting many of the arguments put forward about belting children in schools, and demonstrates some of the deep ingrained beliefs held by many in our society.

It was this discussion at the lecture that got me thinking about my own school days, and comparing those to where we are now. I was able to talk to Carol after her lecture, and reflect some more on the train journey home, hence this blog.

The reason I was a pain, looking back, was because I was alienated from education and the teachers I crossed paths and metaphorical swords with. Many seemed to come from another planet to the one myself and most of my classmates inhabited. In primary school, the vast majority of us were the sons and daughters of miners, ship-yard workers and labourers. I grew up on Tyneside where mining, ship-building and factories tended to dominate. Most of us were working-class, though we may not have recognised it at the time. Our teachers were not. They talked differently, acted differently and obviously thought differently. They most definitely had a model in their heads of how we should be shaped, but some of the strategies they employed to achieve these ends were at least questionable, but possibly verging towards child abuse.

I enjoyed infant and primary school, though I got myself into a few scrapes on the way, with my mother being summoned a number of times. I have no recollection of my father going anywhere near one of my schools. That was very much the culture of the times and the area. Having failed my eleven plus, myself and all the other failures were shipped off to a Secondary Modern school, to be prepared to take our parents' jobs down the mines, in the ship-yards or in the factories, whilst the children of the more middle-class parents - yes, there were a few - made their way to Grammar or Technical schools. No-one had any high expectations of us as we entered our single sex secondary schools, and some of us were determined to meet those expectations, as best we could!

I disliked most of my time at secondary school. I liked the sport, found I was a pretty decent runner, and had the odd teacher, usually young, whom I assume were students, who would appear, take a genuine interest and nurture some of my abilities, then leave. However, teachers generally looked down on us and were more than happy to use the belt to maintain law and order amongst their lively charges. The belt was even used to try and beat some knowledge and sense into us. Three mistakes on a spelling test? Belt. Three mistakes on a tables test? Belt. Shoes not polished? Belt. Grime on hands? Belt. And so it went on. Is it any wonder that those of us who didn't take to such regimes became even more of an irritant to those trying to maintain it?

School was regimented and authoritarian in terms of its ethos, curriculum and approach. I now think there was a fear amongst staff that they had to keep control, or all hell might break loose. A number of male staff had come into teaching from the forces, and they were the worst. They didn't even try to hide their contempt for many of their pupils and their families, but often also for the position they now found themselves in.

I think it is fair to say that schools and education in the 1950s and 60s were a million miles from where we are today. What concerns me is our inability to recognise how much we have moved on in education, in terms of policy, thinking, knowledge and practice. This should be a cause for celebration, not one which promotes cynicism, ignorance and ever increasing levels of dissatisfaction by many outside of the profession, and unfortunately by many within it.

I completed my 'teacher training', for that is what it is called in England, still is, though 'teacher education' as used in Scotland has always seemed much more appropriate, in 1975. There were massive changes taking place in education at that time, much of it driven by research and our developing understanding around learning and pedagogy. Structural and organisational changes were also being implemented in systems across the UK. Comprehensive education was in its infancy, though still facing challenges with Margaret Thatcher and a Conservative government trying to put the brakes on its growth. The General Teaching Council was established in Scotland, and the UK as a whole moved towards teaching becoming a graduate profession. I was one of the first graduates of the new Bachelor of Education course accredited by Manchester University, but still being delivered inside a Teacher Training College.

From this time, and since, the changes to the learning experiences of many pupils have been profound, underpinned by new research and a ever developing understanding of how children grow and learn. Despite numerous changes of Government, this process has continued in our schools and classrooms. They are completely different places than they were in the 1960s, and most of the differences have been overwhelmingly positive and beneficial to more and more young learners. They may look the same physically, but what goes on in them is completely different. The young learner of today can, generally expect to learn in ways that are informed by up to date evidence and research, and which are resourced beyond the dreams of teachers and learners from the sixties. Our schools are staffed by committed, well educated and professional teachers and leaders, the majority of whom actually like children and young learners. Not always the case in the 1960s or 70s.

Of course there have been many 'false dawns' of promise in that time. We will all have experienced the various 'initiatives' and 'changes', either as learner or teacher, that promised much but delivered little. But, despite all of those negative experiences, the direction for our learner's learning experiences has always been forward. Sometimes, the closer you are to a process, the more difficult it is to see the profound changes that are taking place, often through little steps, not the heavily lauded and over-hyped system 'initiatives.'

The world is a different place to what it was in the 1960s and our schools and education systems reflect this, as do our learners. The average primary school and secondary learner has much greater knowledge and understanding than those of the 60s. Their understanding of themselves as learners, how to support and develop this, and their ability to think creatively and responsibly is way ahead of where it was in the average child of the 60s. Schools and classrooms are more warm and welcoming and staff have a range of strategies to deploy to support learners, rather than just one, which either worked or it didn't. Schools continue to grow partnerships with parents and others, to better support learning. They readily tap into the expertise of other organisations and the community in which they are located. Societal and technological changes mean that schools and teachers are less isolated and less likely to be operating in their own little 'bubble' of practice. However, we better understand the importance of context.

Teachers see professional growth as part of their responsibility and are much more focused on improving outcomes for all learners, not just some. It is much more likely now that more children and young learners are developing holistic talents that equip them for the world as it is now, including how to solve some of the problems created by earlier generations. Schools have high expectations and want to support all their learners to attain highly and succeed.

Of course, not everything is wonderful or rosy, and we face continual challenges in education, with more and more seeking to want ownership of it, or to control the direction of travel. Growing up, I can't recall newspaper headlines criticising schools or teachers, like those we experience today. Resources are getting ever more tighter and such challenges are creating more, in terms staffing and being able to properly support learners. These impact on all learners and frustrate those trying to make a difference every day. However, where we stand now is a long way from where we were in the early part of the twentieth century. We have made massive and significant positive changes that are reflected in every classroom and every school today. Many of the frustrations of the profession now are there because we better understand what we could be doing to support our learners better, if we had the right level of support and resourcing.

I believe we need to cut ourselves a bit of slack, taking time to reflect on where we actually are compared to where we were. Better still, would be if 'others' came to recognise all that we have achieved and continue to achieve day on day. I for one am fed up to the back teeth of hearing about the 'problems' or 'failures' in education, schools and systems. There is so much to be proud of and to recognise. I visit schools and speak to teachers and school leaders, and I am constantly blown away by practice, and all that is being achieved. No one person, no system, is perfect, I get that. But, how long have we banged on about the problems with 'deficit models' of school or professional development, and their negative impacts on those trying their best every day? Yet we, and others, still fixate on things we 'could do better' instead of recognising and celebrating our substantial successes.

Education should not be viewed as a business, nor a sport, 'it's much more important than that,' to misquote Bill Shankly. So let's stop applying models from those or other industries to our schools, teachers and systems. It would be great if we recognised and celebrated what has being achieved, then determined to keep supporting our schools and our teachers in any way we can, to help them deliver what they know they should.

We should never rest on our laurels, but it does no harm to look back and see where we have come from compared to where we are. I might look back in anger, but I look forward with nothing but optimism, as well as admiration for all we have achieved. If I was going through my education again now, I am a lot more confident that teachers and schools would  work with me, to build on my strengths and support where necessary, and, just perhaps, I would not be such a pain to so many.

We are not where I would like to be for all learners and families, but compared to the collateral damage of the 1950s and 60s, I know we are in a much healthier place.