Minutes of Evidence:  10 May 2001




(Prof Munn, Professor of Curriculum Research, Institute of Education, University of Edinburgh)

Thursday 10 May 2001

Members present:
Mr Kennedy (Chairperson)
Mrs E Bell
Ms Lewsley
Mr McElduff
Mr McHugh

Prof P Munn University of Edinburgh

The Chairperson:

Welcome Prof Munn, and thank you for attending.

Prof Munn:

It is my pleasure. I have prepared a paper for the Committee and I will briefly go through that, re-emphasising one or two points made by Prof Bryce and Prof Humes. Perhaps the most important point is that no education system can be lifted from one country and planted in another. Education systems are part of a country's history, culture and tradition. Whatever you may have found here you will not be able to transplant it without problems. There are things that you can do, but these will change inevitably as policy and practice start to bed down.

I want to begin by evidence by summarising the answer I gave to the first question sent to me by the Committee. I was asked why comprehensive education has been apparently regarded more positively in Scotland than in England and Wales.

There are three main points. First, there has been a tradition of omnibus schools in Scotland, particularly outside of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee. The difference within cities is a recurring theme. I would like to come back to it because it may be directly relevant to you. Omnibus comprehensives took in all children - although they were streamed. There has been confidence in the success of the system.

Secondly, levels of achievement have been raised. For instance, in 1998-99, 91% of pupils in S4 gained five or more standard grades, and 34% gained five or more standard grades at credit level. There has been stability in the numbers achieving three or more Highers - which is the baseline entry qualification for higher education - at 23%. Thirty-two per cent of school leavers enter higher education directly, and 19% enter further education. Therefore most parents' practical experience of the Scottish comprehensive system is that it provides their children with qualifications that then do something for them. That is important.

The figures I have quoted are averages and as such they conceal quite wide variations. For example, Glasgow City has the lowest percentage entering higher education straight from school. It also has the lowest percentage gaining Highers. Glasgow is also one of our main sources of poverty and deprivation. However, there has been confidence in the secondary school system.

Thirdly, there has been sustained confidence in teachers as competent and successful professionals. There has been no real anti-teacher campaign in Scotland the way there has been in England and Wales. There has been no policy of naming and shaming failing schools. Trust in the professional expertise of teachers is still high. In my paper to the Committee, I outline the importance of education as a marker of Scottish national identity. I am not going to talk about that today but I would be happy to answer any questions that you have on the topic.

There is an issue concerning the effectiveness of the use of banding and setting in schools, and you were asking Professor Bryce and Professor Humes about that. It is hard to answer that question simply; practice varies quite a lot. There used to be no examples of banding or setting in primary schools, but that is beginning to change. There are now some primary schools - particularly at the upper levels - where children are being banded into Maths and English sets.

Practice also varies in secondary schools. There is an argument that because of our five to 14 curriculum, secondary schools should have good information on the attainments of the children coming to them. Therefore they should resist the temptation to think about a fresh start in secondary, and should band children early. That has been resisted in most schools.

Most banding takes place in third and fourth years of secondary school. There is no streaming in any secondary schools, as far as I am aware. There was a substantial report by Her Majesty's Inspectors (HMI) on that, and it might be useful for you to have a look at it.

The Committee asked about the success of the community comprehensive system, and for comments on the incidence of pupils' not choosing less popular comprehensives. I will not labour the point - you have heard it already. Generally, the community comprehensives are regarded as successful. The big question for me is whether that applies in cities, where there is real choice of schools. In large parts of Scotland there is no real choice, particularly of secondary schools. There is only really one secondary school, unless we wish to invest huge sums in transporting children all around the country.

As regards parents choosing where to send their children, I know that Prof Bryce said that 90% of parents chose the local comprehensive. I have had quick look at the figures for 1997-98, which are the latest available, and there were 31,500 placing requests in that year. That might give you something of a flavour of how local authorities are administering that aspect. Twenty thousand of those requests related to primary schools, and around 11,000 to secondary. Most of them were granted, but there is a wide range. For example, a very tiny proportion of placing requests was made in Argyle and Bute, which is a rural area Over 2,500 placing requests were, however, made in Glasgow.

The Committee asked about the approach to vocational education and training in Scotland, the extent to which schools and industry liaise, and how effective the relationship is. Vocational education and training is not my area of expertise. In my paper I tried to set out the main issues straightforwardly. There has always been a concern about parity of esteem between vocational qualifications and more traditional academic qualifications. Our attempt to overcome that has been the introduction of the Higher Still Curriculum. This is at a very early stage, and we do not yet know how successful it is going to be or how ready universities are going to be to accept vocational-type qualifications, but it is an attempt.

There is a flourishing further education sector which provides a wide range of courses, from degree level equivalents, HNCs and HNDs to lower level vocational qualifications. Somebody with a HNC or HND can usually move into Year 2 - or sometimes even into Year 3 - of a university course. There is quite a lot of articulation between schools in further education and higher education.

I mentioned work experience as a common feature for all pupils. Something else I should perhaps raise, which I did not mention in the paper, is that we have two schemes - school seekers and modern apprenticeships - which you may already have come across. These are designed primarily for 16 to 17 year-olds, and they are a work-based approach to getting qualifications.

The Committee asked if I believed that there is a higher degree of social inclusion in the Scottish education system than in other systems in England, Wales and Northern Ireland?" I tried to answer that question in two ways. First, if we look at the provision of common schools as an indicator, it is encouraging in terms of structural provision, which promotes social inclusion. The independent sector is very small - fewer than 4% of all pupils attend independent schools. There are variations in that figure depending on particular parts of the country. It is reckoned that about 25% of pupils who might go to Edinburgh secondary schools go to the independent sector. The proportion of pupils in special schools remains steady. If time allows, I would like to come back to the important question that was raised about whether comprehensives can cater for every child.

In terms of provision, curriculum, and types of school, Scotland is more socially inclusive. However, if you lift the lid on provision and look at the actual practice, there are things to be concerned about. My work is on exclusion from school. There is concern about the numbers of young people being excluded, the fact that boys are four times more likely to be excluded, and about the underachievement of boys. If we look at practices, Scotland is similar to other parts of the UK. There is an interesting question there about the relationship between structure and practice.

The Committee asked if there is any evidence of concern on the part of teachers, higher and further education institutions and employers regarding the introduction of the new 'Higher Still' exams. The short answer is, yes. There is concern on the conceptual aspect - whether it is right to chunk knowledge into modules and blocks. There has been debate about that. There has also been concern, particularly from teachers, about the claimed over-assessment of children in their fifth year. As you will know, there has been huge concern about the administration of the public examination system. That has been very damaging to the reputation of Scottish education. One has to have an exam system in which there is public confidence - that goes without saying. Part of the problem has been the attempt to combine the schools' internal assessment with the external assessment. We are all hoping that they have got it right this time.

Lastly, the Committee asked what I would identify as the main challenges. I would not change what I put in my paper. The curriculum is overcrowded. It is dominated by subject specialisms, and to me these look increasingly out of date, given the rapid expansion of knowledge that there is in the modern world. There is concern about initial teacher education - you have already heard that from my colleagues - and the continuous professional development of teachers.

There is serious consideration of ICT. We have had a huge Government drive to introduce computers into classrooms. However, teachers have been remarkably reluctant to use them. We have not thought through the types of issues raised by ready access to the Internet. For example, do we need schools when we can get access to knowledge and information in other ways? That issue has not really been debated yet.

The last point is the underachievement of boys. If I were to add anything else to my paper it would be that there is too much concern with assessment.

The Chairperson:

Thank you, that was an excellent presentation.

Mrs Bell:

You said that one of the concerns is too much assessment. We looked at that issue and said that it is about testing rather than assessment. Our children are tested rather than assessed and that is one of the strengths. We had great problems in that our system - as all systems do - had trouble catering for children with special educational needs and those in disadvantaged areas. We have considered a number of items. I am encouraged that Scotland has gone through its own transitional review mode with the 'Higher Still' programme for children who have abilities. However, do you think that that system could treat pupils equally - especially children with special educational needs? Today, we visited a school comprising about 800 pupils. I would be wary about placing children with special educational needs in a school of that size until I knew that the support was sufficient. I am not running anyone down but I am concerned about this matter.

Prof Munn:

You are right to be concerned. There are many stories going around. Children with severe and profound handicaps could be catered for in schools that are well resourced with well-trained teachers and specialist help. However resourcing is a large issue. The presence of children with all kinds of disabilities can have a beneficial effect on school ethos; other children can learn to be more tolerant and accepting.

It is important that children with severe special needs experience a sense of dignity and belonging. That can happen in different ways. It is interesting that the percentage of children in special schools has not changed much over the last three or four years - it is just under 2%. There has been a debate about whether special schools should be abolished. It has been, in my opinion rightly, resisted.

Mrs Bell:

How do the units operate?

Prof Munn:

There are different kinds of units. Some specialise in catering for deaf pupils: some in behaviour support, and others in teaching visually impaired pupils. There has also been an extensive programme of physical improvement to school buildings to make them more accessible to children in wheelchairs.

A theme that runs through comprehensive education is that a lot depends on the beliefs and expectations of teachers. The belief that somebody with special needs is inherently less worthy in some way or cannot attain, can transmit itself. Someone asked whether the system could move quickly. There is a hearts-and-minds question involved. If you can benchmark standards, as Prof Bryce said, that is helpful - it puts some stability into the system. However, if you are trying to change from a system that is based on the belief that you and I have an innate ability that we can accurately measure at 11 and that is it then that is a different matter.

You would be trying to change from that system into one that says that our ability is not fixed; that it develops and does so at different rates; that there are different kinds of abilities, and that those ought to be celebrated. Unless people really believe that, the change cannot happen quickly. A huge public relations job is necessary to convince teachers.

Mr McHugh:

You said that you could not uproot one system and set it into another. Although that is true, our aims and objectives - which are to find an alternative to our current system that deems that children are failures at 10-plus - are not far removed from your system. Yours is one of the better models that we have examined.

Prof Munn:

Good. One does not want to come over as saying that we have got it all solved - we certainly have not. There are certain similarities between Northern Ireland and Scotland that may help. There are issues about how you design the curriculum, and what kind of assessment system that you will have. You can see the principles on which the Scottish system was established. It might be that those principles can be translated into the Northern Ireland context. How those principles are worked out and enacted in schools might be different.

Mr McHugh:

It might be harder to sell them.

Mr McElduff:

Thank you. Go raibh maith agaibh arĂ­s. When I showed my sister, Ciara, the itinerary for our visit, she said that I had to tell you that she regularly quotes your arguments on topics such as bullying in her assignments.

My question relates to the first item that you addressed in your paper. Why is there such high regard for teachers in Scotland? That is perhaps distinct from other countries, systems or societies in which teachers do not enjoy such confidence.

Prof Munn:

First, there is our system of training. We have had an all-graduate profession for a long time, and that is different from the situation in England. As well as the post-graduate secondary route that Prof Humes talked about, we have a post-graduate primary route, and we have a four-year B.Ed. that is equivalent to an honours degree. Entry standards are quite high, therefore teachers are seen as academically well equipped.

Secondly, the system has resulted in success, and there are a lot of people in Scottish education from humble backgrounds who have benefited from the education system and from good teaching. That reinforces itself and trickles down. Those are the two main reasons. There is a tradition of the local dominie in villages being a figure of respect, so there is also that historical link.

Ms Lewsley:

One of the issues for us is that because of our system, we find that we are league driven. Although we have a high standard of academic achievement, we also have a high number of underachievers. As in your case, most of those are boys. One of the reasons for boys underachieving in Scotland was that they seemed to be doing quite well until they left primary school. The transition - the S1 and S2 years - seemed to cause them more difficulty. What types of programmes have you put in place to try to alleviate that? Have you found any reasons for such underachievement?

Prof Munn:

The problem first manifests itself in the S1 and S2 stages. Part of the reason is cultural and is to do with male identity. Society is undergoing quite a change in the way in which we think about men and women and their roles.

In the early stages of secondary school, it is not "cool" to be studious or to achieve. My personal view is that there are a lot of unfortunate role models around, where the aspiration is to be a footballer or a snooker player. That you do not need to be educated is also evident. There are things are being tried. Buddy schemes, for example, are in operation where older boys "buddy" younger boys to try to ease them into school and good work habits.

Almost all our schools are co-educational - there is only one that is single sex. Some schools have experimented with boys-only classes for maths or science. Again, it is too early to say whether those have been successful.

The Chairperson:

We are almost at the conclusion. What evidence is there to indicate that children from poorer social and economic backgrounds are equally served by the Scottish education system? One of the potential problems with the current system is that in classes of all abilities, a teacher must teach to the middle of the class. Therefore those at either extreme, either the less academically able or the more academically able, lose out as a result of that. Have you any comments on that?

Prof Munn:

I will take the second point first because it is very important. Recognising that validity of that point, we have been developing personal learning plans, where children's learning needs and their development over particular units of time are mapped out. That is a development from something that is quite common in special education, which is an individual learning plan (ILP).

We know a lot more now about how to differentiate in classrooms. The traditional model of one teacher teaching 30 children does, of course, take place, but there are also, to a limited extent, other ways of teaching - group work and ICT, for example. There is certainly a concern that in some schools that you can get death by 1000 worksheets, that children go from one lesson to another to another and they only do worksheets. One answer is to encourage greater differentiation and to "skill up" teachers to feel comfortable with that, so that a mixed pedagogy and range of methods is used.

On the first point, the evidence lies in the attainment statistics and in the progression to further and higher education. We still know that children from social classes D and E are underrepresented in higher education. That is partly because of entry qualifications, but it is also because of fees and grant structure. That, again, is something that we are trying to tackle.

The Chairperson:

That concludes the public session. I thank Prof Munn and our earlier contributors. It has been extremely useful. As Chairperson of the Education Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly, I feel that it was extremely timely and useful that we came at this time. We thank all of those people who have assisted us in considering these important matters.

Find MLAs

Find your MLAs

Locate MLAs


News and Media Centre

Visit the News and Media Centre

Read press releases, watch live and archived video

Find out more

Follow the Assembly

Follow the Assembly on our social media channels

Keep up-to-date with the Assembly

Find out more

Useful Contacts

Contact us

Contacts for different parts of the Assembly

Contact Us