Skip to content

Final thoughts – for now….

March 22, 2010

I promised some comments when drafting  my final post from a hotel room in Stockholm, early  last Wednesday morning.  Since then I have been in Edinburgh, Moffat, Dumfries, Aviemore and then home , and have talked a lot about what I saw and heard.   Some of it has made its way into the media,though as ever the media takes its own tack and chooses its own emphasis.

The Times Educational Supplement Scotland front paged the Swedish free school model in a way that rather over eggs its applicability to  Scotland and to my thinking  and also has further inside comment  ( at ) .  Emma Seith is right about consensus, but I think  less sure in her views on the curriculum – the Swedish changes will swing back from where they were, but will end up pretty close to where we are going to be.   And our move towards much greater teacher autonomy through Curriculum for Excellence is in keeping with the Finish model, though we still have things to learn in that regard.   The biggest difficulties for us would be if, in emulating Finland, we not only managed to achieve consensus and trust but also wanted to move to radically reduced assessment and inspection which we as a nation  would be, I suspect, culturally uncomfortable about.   Those moves just don’t fit with  where we have come from or how we traditionally see education in our view of the functioning of services and society.

And there is the key issue, I think.   There is much in Sweden and Finland (and in other places – Ontario and Alberta for example, as well as elsewhere) which we should think about in Scotland and which we might be able to adapt and alter.   But it is highly unlikely that we could translate, lock stock and curriculum (so to speak) all the details of their systems into Scotland.  Nor should we – we have great things here, which we value and which have arisen out of our circumstances and history and which we should enhance by careful reform, rather than diminish by crude imitation of others.

What we do need is an openness to new thoughts and a constant curiosity (an approach in contrast to the world weary cynicism of at least one BBC report – here – which does not do justice to the enthusiasm of most of the teachers I meet).   I am certainly not advocating perpetual revolution but I am suggesting that we should always think about what we need to do to make our educational outcomes better, and if we can glean some of that from others in places with similar problems and possibilities then we are wise to try and do so.

As it happens I will get a chance to see some schools in the USA and Canada in a few weeks time when I am in both countries for the Scotland Week celebrations.   I hope to be able to report on those in another blog so watch this space !

Last thought on a wet and blowy March afternoon at home here in Scotland – Sweden and Finland were both stunningly  beautiful in the snow and I would love to have seen much more  outside the cities where I am sure it was even more beautiful.   I will be back at some stage, I hope !

Stockholm City Hall beside an icy lake.


Conversations , political and practical.

March 17, 2010

In a couple of hours I will be on my way to Copenhagen and should be back in Edinburgh in plenty of time to vote in the Parliament at 5.00pm.    It has been a hectic few days but last night’s dinner, kindly arranged by Anna Komheden, the Desk Officer for Education in the British Embassy in Stockholm (who spent the day with us and contributed some valuable insights as well as efficient shepherding!) and hosted by the Deputy Head of Mission Alison Thorpe was  a useful summing up and provided some practical grounding for what we had heard.

My meeting with the Minister, Jan Bjorklund laid the foundation, of course, for appreciating what was taking place in education.   The Swedish government has clear views about what needs to change and their educational reforms have included work on the curriculum  , on vocational education (separating out the academic and vocational streams more clearly) , on school discipline , on teacher education and on assessment.    The view of the coalition (he is the Liberal leader in the Parliament   and the Liberals are part of a four party coalition) is that Swedish education had been allowed to drift in the last decade or so without sufficient supervision and sufficient rigour.   That has resulted in the drift downwards in international educational performance as well as in individual learning.

With Jan Bjorklund in the Education Ministry

Once again that appears to be greatly at odds with with what is happening in Finland but in fact the focus on improving and sustaining teacher education is the same – only the starting point is different.  In Finland the starting point is a highly motivated, very well qualified and strongly trusted teaching profession ; in Sweden not enough people want to be teachers and the status of the profession is low.  It is also not well paid, and indeed our teachers in Scotland are better remunerated.

The question of remuneraton and status was a key theme over dinner which was held in a lovely restaurant by the water a short distance from our hotel though the outdoor dining it specialises in was hardly an option given the weather !   We all walked there after I had done a final interview with Emma Seith of the Times Educational Supplement Scotland who has been with our group for the journey and who our hosts have allowed to attend many of our visits and discussions.

Pontus by the Sea - a view from the restaurant

The General Secretary of the largest Swedish teachers union, Soren Holm, was one of the guests at dinner.    There was also a Headteacher of a Vocational School, an expert on cross border education projects, someone involved in pedagogy and teaching research and an individual from the children’s health sector.   All were open and forthcoming and the discussion was wide ranging.   As in Scotland there was no absolute agreement  about current or future educational changes though there was a measure of consensus and also keen support for a long term approach.  It was obvious therefore that there would be and is considerable interest in the Finnish system and a desire to  emulate in some way their societal trust in teachers and their broad agreement on policy.   One guest made the point – and it is not the first time I have heard it – that Finland is good at consensus anyway and that education is just one part of national life that benefits from the ability to agree goals.

Other topics covered in an enjoyable and wide ranging exploration of Swedish and Scottish education included curriculum reform , school drop out rates (which are higher in Scandanavia than with us) and the importance of comprehensive education – making education available to all on the same basis.    The free school model was discussed but it is clear that it is no longer a major bone of contention in education or politics with a recognition that it provides a key part of the overall system.   One of the guests made an intriguing point that whilst most there is continuing  controversy in Sweden about private profit in the provision of public services  the core issue for them is  diversity of  quality provision paid for always by the state not by the individual.

The Scottish group walked back on a beautiful clear and cold night (it was -10 when we left the restaurant at about 9.15) , passing the Royal Palace

Racing round the royal palace

where there was much work going on to prepare the course for a ski race around the building today.  Last year, we were told, snow had to be brought in and it kept melting.  This year there has been no such problem.

It will take some time to work out what the key messages from this trip has been but I will try and summarise them in a final entry.   Meanwhile time to leave for the airport !

Islands, ice and an iphone.

March 16, 2010

Take off from Helsinki

The flight from Helsinki left at 8.45 am so the team was away from our hotel before 6.45 am. But the flight arrived in Stockholm at 8.45 am – we are on our way back and  the clock is counting us back to Edinburgh time !

Flying into Stockholm over the 25,000 (apparently) islands that lie off the capital of Sweden the ice was the most obvious feature – lots of small and not so small landscapes  dotted about a vast sheet of whiteness, with the occasional track of a vehicle and sometimes a little patch of dark blue water.

Island in the ice

By 10.00am we had been driven into the city and taken on a small sightseeing tour and we still arrived at our first meeting – with the Director General of Skolverket ( a type of hybrid educational and curriculum body) and the Director of Inspections – right on time.

The contrast between yesterday’s messages and todays was initially very stark.   Sweden, whose educational performance in international tests is broadly similar to Scotland’s , has recently intensified its inspection activity, is focussed on increasing assessment (though even the new regime will be still less frequent than at home) and wants to have a more rigorously prescriptive curriculum.   In that sense the tide seems to be running on this side of the Gulf of Bothnia in exactly the opposite way to the other side.   But in fact as our meetings unfolded during the day – lunch with the Deputy Mayor and Education Convener of the City of Stockholm , Lotta Edholm, a visit to a “free school” run by an educational foundation established by two dynamic Swedish women, and a discussion with the Education Minister Jan Bjorkland – it became clear that things were not that simple.

Lotta Edholm, Education Convener in Stockholm City Council

Lotta and her two colleagues entertained us in the magnificent surroundings of the Stockholm City Hall, an early twentieth century building in which the Nobel Prize Banquet  is held after the ceremonies and which has the most astonishing art nouveau Golden Hall.     She is a passionate believer in the “free school” system but it is necessary to come here to understand it.   It is not about private education – the schools are open to all pupils although the upper secondaries do select on the basis of results or aptitudes if they deliver specialist courses.    The basic philosophy is choice, not privilege and the guiding principle is ambition not exclusivity.

Of course there are other views of the schools though there seemed to be a unanimous view that the system , which has been in place for more than 15 years, is likely to remain no matter who is in government (though some details, such as the involvement of commercial companies, is still up for debate.)   On our visit to Viktor Rydbergs School early in the afternoon the teachers union rep in the school explained that although the unions were utterly opposed to the establishment of the free schools, they were now quite comfortable with the concept and that around 30% of their members worked in free schools.

The Viktor Rydberg delivers the standard curriculum , as they all must by law.  But it also specialises in social subjects and the arts and is very popular.   There is fierce competition for places but there is also fierce competition for places at some of the municipal schools too.  The issue is not, as the Minister told us later, what type of school it is, but how it delivers for its pupils.   Certainly it is possible that these schools syphon off the best pupils and the best staff but that is not axiomatic.

I cam away from the Viktor Rydbergs convinced that nothing I had heard

The Viktor Rydbergs Gymnasium

(or even contributed) during the Tory instigated debate in the Parliament last week actually explained what was being done in Sweden or what the “Swedish model” was actually about.   The issue now needs some much closer examination in the context of Scottish education, an examination based on outcomes not on a flawed assumption (from all sides) about its operation.   It might well be that a Scottish Local Authority would be best placed so to do – to look at the schools with the help of Stockholm Council who actually inspect them and see if the modus operandi has anything to offer their area.

The head teacher and management team of the school were enthusiastic and devoted to their task.   So were the two women who had founded the school at the start of the new policy and whose foundation now had four schools operating in the city and plans for further development.   This individual initiative has been inspirational and has helped many people – another factor to take into account in terms of freeing up contributions from across society to education.

Yet – and it is a big yet – the question of structure are not nearly as important even in Sweden as the same questions we talked about in Finland ; questions about trust in the system, about supporting and educating teachers, about learning autonomy, about curricula and assessment and about consensus and division in political dialogue on education.   Sweden has views on these too and sometimes looks with as much interest at its neighbour as we do. Perhaps the strongest messages are on that central matter of teaching and ensuring that teachers are well supported and well equipped – just as they were in Finland.

I will write about the Minister and our discussion later and about tonights dinner which I am just about to leave for – a group of educationalists and health workers coming together to discuss shared concerns.   Clearly we have much in common and some key problems we could share and solve – though there is much that is different too.

And the iphone – oh dear !!   The ice on the pavement outside the City Hall is clearly very hard indeed and my screen is in bits.   At least the phone still connects !

From Dundee to Finland for work experience

March 15, 2010

One of the most impressive experiences of the day was meeting four students of Health and Social Care at Dundee College who were as surprised to see me as I was to see them !

With the Vice Principal of the College in a Dental Technicians Class

They were just starting on a four week work experience  placement in similar sectors in Helsinki and there s a strong link between Dundee College (and Stevenson College as well as a list of others in Europe) ) and the Helsinki City College of Social and Health Care which is a vocational upper school within the Finnish system.

Outside the College of Social and Health Care

I went there this morning to look at vocational education and some of the new assessment challenges (similar to Curriculum for Excellence) which the system is introducing.

That visit followed discussions about the Curriculum at the National Education Board and a very wide ranging but productive debate with Pasi Sahlberg, who directs the Centre for International Mobility (a body that seeks to bring in, and send out Finnish students for wider experience).   After the College I had lunch with the State Secretary for Education and then had two useful meetings within the Palmenia Centre for Continuing Education, the largest lifelong learning institute  in Europe.   Finally this evening the British Ambassador, Dr Valerie Caton, invited the Scottish Government party for a drink at the Embassy and gave an interesting and wide ranging introduction to Finland and current Finnish issues.   She and her obliging staff also efficiently solved a passport problem for one of our group.

Reflecting on the day and fuelled by  an excellent dinner in a restaurant featuring cuisine from Lapland –  rye bread, local cheese, reindeer, elk, the vendace (much too rare in Scotland to be eaten) and lots of berries appear to be the staples – there already seem to be several key themes to mull over when I get back.    Teacher education is of central importance and so is the content of the curriculum.   Vocational education is an area for renewed consideration (common problems but some common solutions too)  but the dog that didn’t bark,  here in Finland at least , is structure.  There are over 350 municipalities and all deliver education in a state model that takes a national curriculum and adapts locally – without much dissent or dispute.   But of course this is a system which has very little deviation in quality between the best and worst – the smallest in the world according to international comparisons – and which also out performs any other in Europe.   Food for thought as we move on early tomorrow morning to Sweden.

A Pause…

March 15, 2010

..between the morning and the afternoon meetings allows some early thoughts.   Snow dominates all , of course (the sight of yachts frozen into the harbour was remarkable as was the passage of people across the ice as if it was the most natural shortcut in the world) but so does the quality of teaching.

The Frozen Harbour

By that I mean that the focus of all our discussions has been – sooner or later – that outcomes are secured by the nature of the inputs, and in the case of education that means the nature of the learning experience.   So if there is a fall off in any performance then the first question is not  “what is wrong with the pupils” but rather “what needs to change in the teaching”.

This is achieved, however, not in a judgemental way but in a positive and supportive way. Inspections were abolished in the 1970’s and there is only a single national assessment at the end of the school process.   “We don’t let teaching get in the way of learning” is one way that someone put it this morning and that applies to teacher education as well – the emphasis is on securing the best with the best but personal help and personal encouragement.  Not by prescription or top down diktat, as someone else put it.

Now we are off to talk about evaluation of the learning experience for both pupils and teachers.

Serious snow.

March 14, 2010

Serious snow is the first thing that strikes you at Helsinki Airport – in fact before you land you can see, just as you approach, the piles of the stuff that have been pushed back from the runways and the aprons.   Driving into the city it is thick – and I mean thick – on the verges and the central reservations of the urban motorways.

Helsinki is also two hours ahead of Edinburgh so it is now almost midnight but I have read my briefings and am keen to meet the whole range of people we are visiting tomorrow.  One of them – Pasi Sahlberg – is no stranger to Scotland and indeed I only just missed  hearing him at the Holyrood Education Conference a couple of weeks ago.  He spoke later on in the event but I heard great things of his description regarding the “Finish paradox” which essentially contends that Finland’s educational experience is hard to account for and probably can’t be replicated.   I hope its not entirely true, given that I want to learn what we can from success, and success always needs to be replicated if possible.

On the other hand Helja Misukka, the Finnish State Secretary for Education has charge of a new project to commercialise the Finnish educational experience and export it – a little like some of the success our universities and colleges (and the SQA) has had in a variety of places where we have exported our learning models and which I saw at close quarters during my visit to India last year.

Helsinki in the snow

Time for bed as tomorrow is a long day, with no less than six meetings or visits (including to a Vocational School and to Helsinki University) and then a meeting with the UK Ambassador to Finland in the evening.

I shall endeavour to report back when I get a minute with impressions , thoughts and perhaps some images of the snow that I have taken.   The one here is from the web, but looks much like the view from my hotel room window, down into the garden of an apartment block.

A parliamentary send off….

March 12, 2010

I don’t think I will have been on a trip that has been better flagged up than this one, which starts tomorrow.  It will be my first as Cabinet Secretary for Education but having blogged on  both  my major trips last year  as Minister for Culture, External Affairs and the Constitution ( to North America for Scotland Week in April and to India last October)  and having had a good reaction to that type of communication  I wanted to carry on with the approach, though this time perhaps for a different audience and for a shorter period, as I am only away from Sunday to Wednesday.

The preview came  from the Tories, who held a debate in their time in Parliament on Thursday to talk about models of education elsewhere and why they favour some of the Swedish innovations of recent years.   You can find the verbatim transcript of the  full debate at the Scottish Parliament website (HERE) or reports of it in various Scottish newspapers from Friday ( including the Daily Record whose account  leads on my past criticisms of my old school, Marr College – a dispute that is long over.)

Marr College, Troon

I certainly think we in Scotland should always be open to new ideas and happy that others have experiences which we can learn from.   But we can’t and shouldn’t import without intense scrutiny, constructive  criticism and much, much thought about how anything new  might fit  in with  our important traditions – traditions of access and excellence for all and above all.

Many of those who have looked at such things, including one of my predecessors, Peter Peacock, think that Finland might be a closer fit that Sweden and certainly its standing within the international league tables of educational performance is exceptional.   So I look forward to listening and learning in both places  – and I shall need to be wrapped up for warmth in both places too according to the forecast I have just checked; it is likely to go down to minus 16 in Helsinki on Monday night, and whilst Stockholm is  not quite as cold  it still won’t be above freezing !