blog | 23.04.2020 | Barry Black

Unleashing the ‘new normal’ in Scottish schools

The COVID-19 crisis has had unprecedented implications for education systems worldwide, including here in Scotland. Over the past several weeks, we have seen unilateral school closures with scant time for educational planning.

Such closures, however, present an opportunity to reflect on the past, present and future of learning provision and curricular development. In this blog University of Glasgow PhD Student, and UBDC associate, Barry Black reflects on his PhD fieldwork and examines what schools could look like in the wake of the pandemic.

Reflections from the field

Before the school closures, I had been conducting my PhD fieldwork in several secondary schools in the Greater Glasgow area. I have spoken one-on-one with around one hundred pupils about their aspirations, their interests and their subject choices.

Before this fieldwork, I worked in education policy and spent a year doing desk research into our education system. I feel very lucky to have been able to contribute to our national debate through a time of change in Scottish education. The issues that have been the focus of the education debate have very real implications for pupils, teachers and the wider population. The issue of narrowing subject choice has implications for young peoples’ futures and other vital decisions, such as resource allocation and teacher numbers. This, along with spending cuts at a time of change, inevitably impacts upon learning and attainment, ultimately impacting most upon those at the ‘wrong’ end of Scotland’s stubborn poverty-related attainment gap.

The focus of my research is really to understand more about how young people in Scotland negotiate the influences upon them when making their choices. Ultimately to see whether the Curriculum for Excellence and initiatives such as Developing the Young Workforce have introduced the change they sought to.

Are Scottish schools ‘failing’?

Whether from my desk at the Scottish Parliament or from The University of Glasgow, the impression I had formed was that Scottish schools – through no fault of their own – were ‘tired’ institutions and that young people were being let down by an education system struggling to implement the structural changes designed years ago.

Whilst not downplaying the very real issues within our schools, my experience of being at the ‘coalface’ has challenged these preconceptions. The discourse of ‘failing’ Scottish schools was far away from the reality of what I saw. Over these past few months, I have witnessed a dynamic, vibrant, innovative and exciting system, packed full of professionals striving to do their very best by every young person.

The issues relevant to my PhD study are of course evident, but the solutions being implemented are as well. I have observed many different curricular models aiming to ensure that young people can not only take as many subjects as possible but also take the specific subjects of their choosing. For example, in one school I sampled, the shared campus arrangements with other local schools were vast, bordering on a communal senior phase timetable. Some were even teaching a handful of advanced higher pupils through extra sessions and blended online learning. Indeed, as online learning has been forced to the forefront of education, it is unlikely to disappear as we phase back into the classroom. Innovative routes of co-designing courses already exist, and such best practice needs to be shared and expanded.

I have undertaken research in a diverse range of schools including those with staggering levels of deprivation. One of those is tailoring individual employment plans for every pupil, ensuring a positive pathway upon leaving education. Often such best practice is driven mainly by teachers in a bottom-up grassroots push, and in one Higher Accounts class alone, a school had four S5 pupils already accepted into modern apprenticeships. Every pupil leaving in S4 I spoke to from this particular school had a job, college place or apprenticeship to take up after summer. Due largely to their employability focus, this was the school whose pupils demonstrated the most understanding of how subject choice links to career aspirations.

I have also visited some of the most affluent parts of this region, where the extra-curricular offer was wider than in other areas and often aimed at bolstering university applications. Such activities included peer-to-peer learning, leadership courses and debate clubs. Contrary to preconceptions that such schools only focus on STEM and university places, there was a thriving uptake of the arts and humanities, but also strong input from employers with modern apprenticeship pathways on offer.

Perhaps the most notable challenge to my preconceptions were the young people themselves. No matter their social background, interest or level of educational attainment, every young person I spoke with rightly had high levels of aspirations for themselves. Surprising to me was how well they were informed and aware of the steps needed, and subjects required, for their aspirational pathways - particularly what study and experience it would take to get there. They understood – more so I think than when I was at school nearly a decade ago – the challenges they had ahead and the work it would take to achieve. Every school I engaged with, and every member of staff I spoke with, were determined to make sure the young people were equipped with tools - inside and outside the classroom - to achieve their educational and professional goals.

What does the future hold for Scottish schools, post-pandemic?

The issues of inequality and narrowing subject choice and implications for future destination are real. They deserve scrutiny and debate and are worthy of robust research. The ongoing problems researchers are discovering and highlighting deserve the strongest of responses so that the education system can work as effectively as it can for all. However, the experience on the ground must be acknowledged; in times of depleted funding and teaching resources, best practice can emerge. Aspirations, perceptions-of-self and effective signposting can, and are, driven in individual classrooms and schools.

Over the past two years of researching educational short-comings, and sometimes downright failings in the Scottish education system, I have perhaps become a cynic regarding the trajectory of developments. What has become clear to me, however, is that the ‘kids are alright’ and their schools are too.

When ‘normal service’ resumes, likely in the next academic year, it is hoped that education reformers will be offered a unique opportunity to move away from standardised metrics, and stringent funding decisions made in a top-down fashion. Instead, the teachers and pupils themselves might offer a ground-up, grassroots insight for how aspirations can not only remain high but truly be actualised by these novel ways of working online. Through employers outwith the schools and building capacity with the support of communities coming together, schools may no longer be seen as ‘apart’. Hopefully, the curriculum will not be seen as something to implement ‘on pupils’. Perhaps we can see different ways of tackling education inequality and empowering teachers and pupils over what and how they learn.

‘Normal’ before this pandemic wasn’t working for swathes of young people. We have a vastly unequal education system in Scotland - a symptom of a vastly unequal society. We need to use this time of uncertainty and forced change to be bold. We need a new normal and it has its roots in the schools that welcomed me in.


Barry Black

Barry's research aims to investigate the social and structural factors that influence pupils’ school subject choices in the Greater Glasgow region and assess the implications for employer’s engagement in schools.