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08/10/13 16:53

Speech at Scottish Learning Festival 2013

Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning Michael Russell
Glasgow SECC
September 25, 2013

Thank you very much Bill and welcome everybody once again to the Scottish Learning Festival.

I’m pleased to see so many teachers, frontline practitioners and education specialists with us here today, all with a huge passion and enthusiasm for Scottish education. It is an honour for me to be here once more - as Bill says, I think this is the 4th occasion I have delivered the key note speech.

Thanks also to St. Theresa’s and to Taylor High. Their performances were inspirational - I’m not short of inspiration this morning. That is the second choir that I have heard already and, for each of them, if I were preaching, I would find a text from which they sang. In the case of the one we’ve just heard, those words are “action and ambition lead to achievement”. I couldn’t think of a better summary of some of the things I want to say today. But earlier on, I also heard the choir for St Bride’s primary school in the south side of Glasgow singing their song for the Commonwealth games and that fitted the ethos of this event perfectly.

Frank O’Hagan wrote the song and the words and the last line of each verse says “The commonwealth for the common good is the hope of everyone”. I can’t think of a better way of putting what we’re trying to achieve in Scotland. This event is itself a commonwealth of ideas – it is a forum in which we can all share our views on how we can all go on improving education in Scotland.

Scottish education involves a whole range of interests – teachers, pupils, families – and we always need to think and act as a community – a commonwealth - to move forward and share our ambitions.

As Cabinet Secretary, that community ethos has always been important to me – and, I’ve always found it here in abundance at the learning festival.

This festival is now the largest education event in these islands, perhaps because it has become a forum for asking and answering difficult questions – a place for holding our nation’s educational leaders to account and for drawing in leading edge thinking from around the world. I want to welcome those international guests here with us today.

The success of the festival has also been helped, by the relative stability we have developed in Scottish education, compared at least to the “five changes before breakfast” style of highly politicised education to be found elsewhere .

Curriculum for Excellence is at the heart of that success. It has taken a decade to get it to where it is now that it has had the support of all political parties, the unions, parents and pupils and of teachers. That has to continue and I make a plea to all of Scotland for that continued support. Some things are more important than Politics! We are coming to the end of a hugely successful introduction - so let’s make sure we finish the job and do it well.


Of course, one of the other great assets of Curriculum for Excellence is that it is flexible.
The curriculum doesn’t just accommodate diversity – it encourages it.

In this sense, it mirrors our education system.

I have to admit that, when I was appointed as education secretary, I was unprepared for the sheer variety I found in our schools.
I had been immersed in education all my adult life. I had served as Shadow Minister from 2000 to 2003 I was a columnist for the TESS from 2004 to 2007. I come from a teaching family. Both my parents were teachers. My wife is a primary head-teacher. And, yet despite this immersion, it was only when I began to visit schools around Scotland that I began to realise just how different they are.

For some such diversity can be threatening.

Famously, Charles de Gaulle complained that it was impossible to govern France because it had 246 varieties of cheese.
But, rather than despair at such differences, I’ve come to see them as something to be embraced rather than feared.

To paraphrase the American civil rights preacher William Sloane Coffin Jr, diversity may at times be a hard thing for us to live with but it is the most dangerous thing for us to be without.

Sloane Coffin’s forebears were from Kilmarnock – I think he would have approved of the diversity we are nurturing in Scotland’s classrooms through Curriculum for Excellence.

Just as no two children are the same, there is no single approach to teaching them.

So, it doesn’t matter if all of you are not working in the same way. Indeed, I would be worried if you were.
It is, after all, the standard of what you deliver that counts.

And, in that, we are looking – we are all looking – for excellence everywhere.

Over the past few months, I have seen plenty of evidence of excellence throughout our education system.

Cabinet summer tours are always a chance for politicians to be buttonholed about issues of both local and national importance. We all welcome that – it is why we take part in these in the first place. In this summer’s Cabinets, I also saw just how well our education system is delivering for Scotland – North, South, East and West – and, the difference our policies are having on the ground.

Everywhere I visited I saw motivated individuals, inspired teachers, excellent facilities, committed parents and, , a willingness from everyone involved to make what we do tomorrow better than today.

• In my own constituency, Argyll & Bute, I heard from some S4 pupils at Campbeltown Grammar about their own experience of broad general education, warts and all, and saw how they were channeling their own creativity into designing the interior of the new building.

• In Hawick High School, I met a group of pupils involved in some exciting work in vocational education in partnership with Borders College and Barrie Knitwear. This is being made possible with the joint campus approach – and, it’s encouraging to see that close to 100% of senior pupils at the school are now teamed up with local employers.

• In Strathmore Primary School in Forfar, I saw how the GIRFEC approach is working in practice for those in the early years and heard from families who, in very challenging circumstances, were getting real benefits from this type of engagement.

• And in Crimond, in Aberdeenshire, the home of the famous psalm tune, the SHANARRI indicators were up on the wall facing me as I walked through the front door, giving young people and parents, given the community, the clearest message about how we need to work together to benefit every child.


I think we are going in the right direction, but not just by what I see on the ground – but, also by what the statistics are telling us.
Our pupils are achieving record exam results.

We have record high numbers of school leavers going into positive destinations, and record high numbers of Scottish domicile students accepted to our universities.

And, we have the lowest teacher unemployment in the UK.

By all the main measures, Scottish education is getting better There is no doubt about that.

Our education system is on a journey from good to great. But it hasn’t got there yet.

We still have schools that aren't doing well enough for their pupils and we still big gaps in attainment. That gap has been with Scotland for many years – and, it is wider than exists in some other European countries.

So in March this year, I delivered a lecture at Glasgow University, which I outlined a plan to improve Scotland’s attainment record and offer not just a good, but a great, education for all.

In March, I said that we would create partnerships between similar schools which achieve different results to help break the link between poverty and low educational attainment. Those first partnerships are now beginning to emerge – in Angus, South Ayrshire, West Dunbartonshire and Renfrewshire – and I want to see this activity in every local authority area in Scotland.

And, I said that we would improve information for parents. That’s why, in partnership with the National Parent Forum for Scotland, we have arranged for a new leaflet on Curriculum for Excellence to go out to every parent and carer to explain the benefits and what it means for their own children as they progress through school.

Those measures are starting to take us in the right direction.

Yet, we must go further.

In March, I said that we would allow much greater scope for schools to compare themselves against others with the same key characteristics.

I’m pleased today to be able to announce that we will shortly be releasing a preview edition of our Senior Phase Benchmarking Tool. This early release will allow secondary schools time to refine it before it goes live in August 2014. And, once live, schools will be able to get information which will help them identify where they are having most success with pupils in the senior phase, and where they need to do more.

In Glasgow, I said that we would get the key people round the table – and, two weeks ago, I convened, with COSLA, a roundtable meeting with Education Convenors and Directors from all over Scotland, to discuss how we can best raise attainment. Our meeting was very positive and I’m pleased with the consensus that we have, from across the political spectrum within local government, to prioritise attainment and in particular a relentless focus on eradicating inequity in attainment outcomes. We agreed on a number of important areas, including how we can get better at gathering in and using data.

But, still, we could do more.

We know, for example, that we will only ever be successful in driving up attainment if we continue to support you as teachers in your own learning.

We have made good progress so far in terms of our commitment to teacher quality, to standards, and to improving the offer on professional learning opportunities.

I have said before that we support the aspiration to a masters level learning for the profession. Our universities are developing a framework for that in Scotland, and we have set aside funds to make that a reality..

Above all, though, we know that leadership at every level within our education system will be vital to our success – and, vital, ultimately, to our efforts to drive up attainment.

That’s why, last November, I asked the National Implementation Board to consider the case for a Scottish College for Educational Leadership.

We want to develop a profession that is inspiring, tough, and challenging of itself.

As Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan have recognised – “this requires leadership, a kind of leadership… that focuses on developing the professional capital of teachers – as individuals, as teams, and as a profession”. That is to work with teachers, to support and empower them not to direct or control them.

On the basis of the Board’s advice, I’m now able to announce that we will provide funding to support the initial development of such a college.

I’m also pleased to announce that Tony Finn will serve as the Acting Chair and will oversee the college’s establishment as an independent body.

This new college will be at the centre of a much wider effort to improve educational leadership across Scotland – and, crucially, it will be open to all teachers, not just those in formal leadership positions. As Graham Donaldson in his report stated “the foundations of a successful education lie in the quality of teachers and their leadership. High-quality people achieve high-quality outcomes for children”.

That’s also is a positive development. And, I’m confident that, through time, it will not only improve the quality of leadership in our classrooms but also help us nurture the talent we need at every level to redress our attainment gap.

Curriculum for Excellence

Curriculum for Excellence is the foundation for all our efforts. This year, of course, we reach a new milestone, as the first group of learners reach the senior phase.

We can draw confidence from the progress that has been made so far.

With the support of councils, unions and schools themselves, we are tackling needless bureaucracy with a group led and inspired by the EIS workload campaign. We must also provide the right materials at the right time. Education Scotland will continue to work with everyone who has a stake in the curriculum and, through national forums, will help guide change in a manageable way.

We’ve got to make sure that our teachers continue to feel supported.

Therefore, I’m very pleased that we will be making a further £1.4 million available this year to assist with the introduction of the new qualifications. This will include £1m to help secondary schools supplement existing learning resources and buy new text books for National Qualification courses where there have been significant levels of change.

In addition, we will provide funds to SCHOLAR to allow teachers to align online learning with the new qualifications. From next year, young people in all of our 32 local authorities will have access to new online Higher courses in science, language and business. We recognise that we can do more to improve the information we are getting on how well we are implementing Curriculum for Excellence. Education Scotland and the Management Board have access to a wide range of data, surveys and evidence. But, I think could also benefit from further independent and international advice at the right time – particularly, as a great many of our own academics and researchers have been involved in the implementation.

So, I have asked the OECD to undertake a thorough review of CfE in 2015, providing advice on how Scotland is meeting the challenge of securing the highest standards for all our children and young people. In the second and subsequent decades of the this century.

The OECD will provide a team of independent examiners and bring their knowledge of other countries. It will provide new benchmarking information for us to act upon. I am pleased that the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Education Committee have agreed to provide advice and support for the review.

This information will be vital to us – particularly, as Curriculum for Excellence is so central to our efforts to increase attainment in schools across Scotland.

Robert Owen – practical utopianism

In July this year, I spoke at an event at New Lanark, where I set out why I believe our focus on attainment is so important – and why, as a nation, we have both a historical and a moral obligation to do better on social inclusion within our education system.

I also said that the Scottish Government would be supporting a new Robert Owen Award for an Inspirational Educator.

Now if you can stand the suspense, I will announce the first winner of that award after this speech and after I’ve answered a few questions.

Those of you who are familiar with New Lanark will know that the award is being made 200 years on from the publication of Robert Owen’s A New View of Society.

I’m glad this connection with Owen’s legacy in such a landmark year, while at the same time we pay tribute to the work of an inspiring individual then and now.

Robert Owen is the obvious choice for any award relating to achievement in Scottish education.

Owen introduced the world’s first infant school. He pioneered education to those under 6. And, he opened up the curriculum so that it was about more than reading, writing and arithmetic and included natural history, games and music.

He saw education as being important not just for the workplace but also for the enhancement of broader human experience.

In short, he saw it as having a societal as well as an individual good.

He was a supporter of the earliest efforts to obtain national education – he believed that no-one should be denied an education because of its cost.

As Owen himself put it, the “first objective of any society should be to train and educate the rising generation”. I believe that the Scottish Government believe that too

Today, under this SNP government, education remains our first objective.

Much as Owen did, we too understand that education should always be based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay. That’s why – for as long as an SNP government remains in power - students domiciled in Scotland will receive a free university education

Above all else, Robert Owen was a utopian. His was a practical utopianism which takes as its starting point the belief that we can first of all imagine a better world and then, through our collective talents and will for change, work toward making that world real.

I believe in the doctrine that tomorrow can be better than today – I identify with that same impulse.

Because in Scotland I believe that we can – and must always – do more.

Independence and education

In just over 11 months, the people of Scotland will be asked to vote in a historic referendum on the future of our country.

We will be asked whether we agree that we can use our vast resources and talent to build our country.

I know that not everyone here will support independence.

Yet, to my mind, the most damning evidence against the status quo comes in the form that you will witness day on day in your schools and classrooms.

In each and every area of Scotland – in each and every school – there are children and young people whose greatest achievement is just turning up.

These are the distracted youngsters from homes blighted by poverty.

You know them.

You know the child who has to do her homework in the library because she has no computer at home.

You know the child who can’t do PE because her shoes are two sizes too small.

And, you know the child who – day on day – gets her only proper meal at school because her family can’t afford to feed her at home.

It is to the immense shame of our society our current system of government that child poverty continues to affect so many young lives in such a rich small country as ours.

Negotiators of independence

Poverty causes problems for Scottish education.

And, alas, these can’t be fixed by Curriculum for Excellence alone or even by the innovative work many of you are doing to limit the effects of social segregation within our schools.

Robert Owen realised that a hungry child, a distracted child, could never flourish.

200 years ago, Owen did something to change that – but, under the current system of government, the extent to what we can to is limited. We can do some things. We try to do many things.

But for me the equation remains clear.

Westminster controls tax, benefits and labour market policy.

Scotland controls education policy.

And, one is sometimes undermining the other.

This year, as the Bedroom Tax comes into force, 105,000 households across Scotland will lose an average of £600 a year. Working age benefits rises will be cut in real terms for the next three years. And, child benefit will be frozen for the third year in a row.

We need a welfare system which reflects Scotland’s values, helps working families and protects our most disadvantaged people

A welfare system aligned with our education system in order to address the current unacceptable reality of child poverty and educational under achievement in Scotland.

To paraphrase Aviz Glaze, poverty must not be destiny in Scotland.

Other small nations in a similar position to Scotland have taken a different path and they are achieving much more in terms of providing a greater good for a greater number.

These countries have opted to invest more in their children across the board. Not just in vulnerable children or when a crisis point is reached. These countries begin with a different set of principles.


As teachers and educators it is in your DNA to believe in change for the better.

To invoke Walt Whitman, you are each tramping a perpetual journey –a journey that, with each step, with each improvement you make, you are inspiring our children and young people to do their best on their own path from school and into life.

I believe in that doctrine of betterment too.

It is why I came into politics..

And, it is why I believe we must always dare to envision a better Scotland. Each one of us can and should do so - no matter our political stance.

Next year, we will be asked – will all be asked – to imagine a better Scotland a generation from now, and to then bring that vision to the table and see how we can work with others to make it happen.

In that sense we are all negotiators of a new Scotland and a new future.

I believe that in education and in all other areas we are responsible for, the record of our devolved parliament shows that the decisions made in Scotland about Scotland are always best for Scotland.

So, as we move toward next September 2014, let us have the debate properly – and, let us have it openly and without fear.

Let us proceed much as Robert Owen would.

With passion, with vision and – above all – with courage in our own abilities.