Raising attainment for all, not just some – Scottish Learning Festival 2014


By Stacey Dingwall

On Wednesday 25th September, I attended the first day of the Scottish Learning Festival at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre. Now in its 14th year, the two day event, organised by Education Scotland, saw over 4,000 delegates gather to discuss the latest in education policy and practice.

The theme of this year’s festival was ‘raising education for all, not just some’. This was reflected in some way in most of the sessions I attended throughout the day, emphasising the importance of achieving equity for all students, regardless of their background, in education systems.

The first session I attended, ‘Game on Scotland: the educational impact of the 2014 Commonwealth Games’ got the day off to an exciting start thanks to the presence of Kimberley and Louise Renicks, who had brought along the gold medals they won for judo at the 2014 Games in Glasgow. The sisters spoke about their involvement with the Game on Scotland Athletes Visits Programme, which has seen them visit all the secondary schools in East Renfrewshire since the conclusion of the Games.

Louise explained how part of the talk she gives in schools involves trying to motivate pupils by helping them gain an insight into how the crowd made her feel when she walked out to compete, and she also emphasised the importance of encouraging children to achieve their personal best – not everyone can or has to reach that ‘gold’ standard.

The session also included a report from Steven Kidd, the Glasgow 2014 education programme manager, on how the Game on Scotland (GoS) programme had fared against its original targets. Kidd was happy to report that GoS (the official education programme of the 2014 Games) had not only met, but far exceeded, some of its baseline targets. The programme’s achievements included:

  • over 250,000 learners in Scotland connected with the programme;
  • over 9,000 pieces of artwork by Scottish pupils decorated the Athletes Village; and
  • over 100 athletes visits to schools arranged so far to inspire learners and raise future aspirations.

A case study of schools’ engagement with GoS was presented by Peter Billington, Deputy Rector of Queen Anne High School in Dunfermline. He explained that schools across the area were each allocated a country competing in the Games, and competed against each other in some of the sports featured in the 2014 Games. This is part of a wider strategy on international education implemented across the school, in which all departments are expected to participate, and has seen initiatives including pupils learning about traditional Indian sports which are now part of the core PE curriculum.

The next session of the day saw the keynote speech delivered by the Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell. As a member of the SNP, Russell expressed disappointment at the result of the recent Scottish independence referendum, however praised the success of the decision to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote for the first time, noting the surge in political engagement across the country.

Two announcements were made as part of Russell’s speech: the first, a ‘Children’s Summit for Scotland’, more details of which we were promised were forthcoming; and a review of the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), to be delivered by the OECD in 2015.

Here, Russell took the opportunity to emphasise the importance of data in measuring the success (or otherwise) of educational policy. Also emphasised were the barriers to learning created by poverty, which Russell stated could only be overcome by early intervention. In conclusion, the minister stressed that “society cannot flourish without improving attainment and addressing inequalities” and that “progress in education mirrors the progress of the nation”.

The first afternoon session I attended was delivered by Janice Neilson of Renfrewshire Council. The session focused on the implementation of the 1+2 language policy in the area, in order to increase the uptake of foreign language learning among pupils from an early age. Neilson commented on how, when she had travelled to countries such as Germany in order to establish links with schools there, she had been struck by how many of the pupils had had the ability, and confidence, to speak to her in English – not something that is very often seen in reverse in this country. The session also included a description of a ‘Boulangerie’ project carried out in Houston Primary by four of the participating pupils, which saw the Primary 7 class selling cakes to their fellow pupils. Each of the pupils highlighted how this had helped not only their French skills but also their design, ICT and enterprise skills, among others.

The afternoon keynote address was delivered by Professor Alma Harris of the Institute of Education London, and currently working in Malaysia at the University of Malaya. Professor Harris’ speech was entitled ‘Beyond PISA: the power and potential of the Scottish education system’.

This was a topic I was particularly interested in, given my previous blog on the growing influence of the PISA (Programme for International Assessment) results across the world.

Echoing the thoughts of other academics, Harris called for the “pause button” to be put on PISA. This, she said, was particularly down to the way in which the results ‘decontextualise’ education, by not taking into account the country-specific conditions that the assessments are conducted in. Taking successful initiatives and applying them wholesale in other countries was something she again advised against later in her speech, when discussing learning from good practice in other countries and the importance of the evidence base in developing educational policy.

Professor Harris questioned when PISA had moved from being a measure to an indicator and suggested that the results should be used as an indicator, rather than a benchmark. Tying in with the festival’s theme, she emphasised the importance of focusing on how to ensure educational excellence and equity for all, and not taking raw results on face value – again, stressing the importance of context.

Harris also outlined five myths of change: the fallacies of speed, replacement, numbers, prescription and competition; and argued that competition should be seen as a motivator and not a goal, while education should be about children and not about manufacturing the ‘best’ schools or students.

Professor Harris concluded by praising the Scottish education system, noting that the 2016 ICSEI (International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement) of which she is president will be held in Glasgow. In conclusion, she declared: “Scotland has given the world a master class in democracy and hosting the Commonwealth Games – now it will give one on delivering a high performing education system”.


Stacey is the Knowledge Exchange’s subject specialist in education and skills.

The Knowledge Exchange produces a range of briefings and other content on education and skills. Our Idox Information Service also holds material and evidence on the topics covered at this year’s Festival – non-members can contact us to find out more about subscribing to our services.

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