Critical – or complaisant – friends on education

The Ferret reports new information which has come to light about the Scottish Government’s International Council of Education Advisers, raising questions about the group’s role. Here, we reflect on what these revelations, and further emerging details, mean for how the Council’s judgments should be interpreted.

The Council has so far caught the headlines twice. The first time was in July, when its membership was made public. Then, the SG enthused that it would “bring a global perspective from highly qualified educators with expertise shaping and delivering education reform around the world.”  The second bout of coverage occurred around its first meeting, in August last year.

Now up and running, it went on visits and spent two afternoons discussing papers prepared by government officials, each session chaired in turn by the First Minister and her Deputy.  It concluded this first meeting by issuing a statement widely covered in the media, generating headlines such as “Expert council backs Scottish Government’s direction for education system”.

Since then the headlines have been less comfortable for the Government: troubling PISA results (even allowing for PISA’s limitations), a startling long-term decline in the number of teachers and support staff in schools, a consultation on a shake-up of school governance condemned as confusing and under-evidenced, the discovery of unpublicised and unminuted meetings with lobbyists, critical parliamentary reports on government education agencies and much more. Hardly cheerful reading for ministers.

So, the Council’s second meeting , scheduled for 27 and 28 February, is more than likely standing out as a bright spot in the Government media grid. There should be no unpleasant surprises for ministers and officials – certainly not from this quarter.

When the Council first met, who its members were and what connections they had – with the Scottish education system and with each other – attracted no real attention. However, if their public statements are going to be influential in shaping perceptions of how well the system is doing, then these are fair questions that require full and proper answers.  The picture painted in the media so far is of a group convened from around the world so it can hover dispassionately above our schools while interrogating government policy with collective, expert eyes. Online investigation and new information obtained under Freedom of Information requests suggest something rather different.

The Panel Ten

There are ten council members. Most have substantial reputations in the field of education while one is a senior business figure.  Four are from the UK, two are from Ontario, two from the US, one is from Finland and one from Singapore. Research activity and career moves mean of course that their knowledge runs wider.

Several have worked closely, in the past or present, with the Scottish Government and its agencies. Professor Graham Donaldson is now an expert adviser to the OECD, but from 2002 to 2010 he was head of school inspection for the Scottish Government, chief professional adviser to Ministers on education, and an architect of the Curriculum for Excellence.   Professor Chris Chapman, from the University of Glasgow, acts as the Senior Academic Adviser to the Scottish Government on its Attainment Challenge, which is a role hands-on enough to have given him a Scottish Government email address.  He also sat until recently on the Board of the Scottish College for Educational Leadership (SCEL), an organisation set up and funded by the Scottish Government. Dr Carol Campbell sits on SCEL’s International Advisory Board while Professors Andy Hargreaves and Alma Harris have also contributed to SCEL’s work.

An email from a Scottish Government official on 11 May 2016 to Bill Maxwell, head of Education Scotland, brings out further pre-existing relationships: “Given your connections with them at SLF [the Scottish Learning Festival, a large annual event run by Education Scotland] and more broadly, I wondered if you wanted to approach … Avis Glaze and Pasi Sahlberg”.  Like these two, Prof Hargreaves, Prof Harris and Dr Campbell have been “keynote speakers” at the SLF, around which encounters with Ministers have sometimes also been arranged.

Four of the members hold the Robert Owen Award for “inspirational educators”, a prize invented in 2013 which remains in the personal gift of Scottish Ministers and is presented by the Cabinet Secretary for Education at the Scottish Festival of Learning. Dr Glaze, Prof Sahlberg and Prof Donaldson were already award holders when appointed to the council: Prof Hargreaves received it a few weeks after the council first met.

Even cursory online research brings out the warm relationship between some council members and individual ministers in the Scottish Government.  Twitter in particular reveals that for Prof Hargreaves and Dr Campbell, at least, enthusiasm for improving Scottish education spills over into evident and unself-conscious personal admiration for individual Scottish Ministers. Nicola Sturgeon is “awesome”, John Swinney “inspirational”, Michael Russell leaves an “important legacy in Scottish education”.

There are multiple other connections between members of the group. In the academic world, that’s hardly unprecedented among high-flyers. Even so, it is intriguing to have no fewer than three past or present advisers to government of Ontario (Prof Hargreaves, Dr Campbell and Dr Glaze) out of ten members. Six members of the Council are on the (admittedly large) editorial advisory board of the Journal of Professional Capital and Community (Prof Harris, Prof Chapman, Dr Campbell, Dr Pak Tee Ng, Prof Sahlberg and Dr Allison Skerrett) which Prof Hargreaves edits.  Googling combinations of the names of the council’s academic members, or scanning Prof Hargreaves’ 54-page CV, throws up numerous jointly authored papers and some co-managed projects.

Prof Hargreaves is the most-often recurring link, but not the only one. Prof Donaldson is an Honorary Professor at the Robert Owen Centre at Glasgow, where Prof Chapman is Chair. Among the nine educationalists, there is no-one who hasn’t published or worked in some way with at least one other member. Jayne-Anne Gadhia, Chief Executive of Virgin Money, who was appointed to chair the Scottish Government’s Review of Student Funding two months after the council met, is the sole person outside this network.

Thus, not only do the members already tend to know each other and prominent Scottish Government ministers well, as academics they all appear to work within the same educational paradigm, which is the one that also inspired the Curriculum for Excellence. So, this is not so much a range of external scrutineers bringing a rich variety of challenging perspectives, but more a high-powered consultancy team with strong shared values, some of whom have already played a role in developing the Scottish system as it is. That is relevant to how their statements are interpreted.


Within the group some members, and one in particular, appear to play a more central role. Prof Hargreaves acted as the group’s media spokesperson during its last meeting. The published minutes also record him opening discussion of the first substantive item considered by the council by declaring that Scotland has “a bold system, with clear vision and values”.

One of the email chains obtained under FOI laws shows that when the Scottish Government alerted members to media interest in the council, Prof Hargreaves was the member who offered further points that could be made about other council members’ expertise. Later, Prof Hargreaves told officials he “has had a bit of a brainwave and consulted with Chris [Chapman]” about the organisation of the next meeting. He suggested it be held at New Lanark and should incorporate public presentations in the evening by the four Robert Owen award holders. Internal minutes reveal that in the run-up to the publication of PISA results last December, John Swinney asked for a conference call to be set up with a sub-set of members (Profs Hargreaves,  Chapman, Donaldson, Harris, and Sahlberg), to which list Dr Glaze and Ms Gadhia were later added, apparently after becoming aware of the discussion.

More generally, only a limited idea of how the council’s members were selected emerges from the internal documents.   An email from 28 January last year provides a draft list of names to Kate Higgins, then the education Special Adviser.  How this list was constructed is not explained, although later memos suggest that Education Scotland had been involved in preparing it (though they also show that the addition of Drs Ng and Skerrett, both of whom have worked with Prof Hargreaves, did not come from this source).

The note to Ms Higgins also reveals that one name on the list was of particular interest to her, although whose is not stated. Adding a business representative was suggested at a relatively late stage in the process: the rationale for broadening the membership out beyond specialists in education is not spelt out. Whose idea the council was remains unknown, although a comment on 28 January that the “Cabinet Secretary is aware we are looking at this” does imply that the idea did not come from then education minister Angela Constance (who is noticeably outside the loop of warm tweeting between members and ministers).

The group’s intended purpose is clearer: in an email dated 16 May, Mr Maxwell commented to a Scottish Government official: “I would very much agree that the Council should be in a ‘critical friend’ role (i.e. more akin to the Council of Economic Advisers)”.

Though members are giving their time for free, this has still so far been a relatively expensive body to run, the cost being met from the Scottish Government’s Attainment Fund.  So the value for money judgements here are unusually stark: every pound spent on this is one not being passed on to schools.

Travel costs might be expected to be high for a group drawing many members from overseas. Flight costs range from just over £1,000 , for Prof Sahlberg from Finland, to just under £6,500 for Prof Harvgreaves, based in B oston. But it has also been relatively expensive to accommodate this group. Even at their highest, hotel costs for its nearest equivalent, the Council of Economic Advisers (another ten-member body which has held some two day meetings) have been less than one-third those of the new education council. They have sometimes been much less. Part of the explanation lies in the decision to accommodate the new council in the £240-a-night Sheraton, one of Edinburgh’s most expensive hotels.

Costs have been further increased by providing members, including those from Scotland, with at least three nights’ accommodation, and up to five in some cases. This was backed up with the constant support of a reasonably senior official staying at the same hotel.  The Scottish Government has described this as allowing council members “to share discussion, prior, post and out of the formal meeting sessions”, suggesting that much important conversation and opinion forming will be happening in smaller groups and going unrecorded (an increasingly common theme for those seeking to hold the Scottish Government to account).  The sense of a high-end consultancy team is reinforced.

The group’s schedule also included working lunches, and a dinner with senior staff from Education Scotland and the Scottish Government.  The overall impression is of a group of hard-worked, but exceptionally well-treated – and sometimes-feted – critical friends (to use Mr Maxwell’s description), where the emphasis is heavily on the “friends”.

How critical?

Should we welcome the engagement of all these experts in our system? Why not? There’s no doubt that between them they know a lot, and they are willing to volunteer their time.  They are only due to meet three times: the government would no doubt argue that spending £100,000 on so much expert advice is reasonable, given the total size of the education budget. However, while it would be odd for a government to court advice from people who were intrinsically hostile to its aims, would not even one or two challenging voices from within education, but bringing a more contrasting perspective, be a sign of greater confidence? Who will call out, if the emperor’s clothes are looking even a little threadbare? Perhaps some encouragement might be taken from an intriguing comment from Dr Glaze, in response to Prof Hargreaves’ suggestion of devoting time to PR-friendly tours, visits and events round New Lanark, that “I would like to see us, as a group, have rigorous debates, as a group (sic)” about a long list of fundamental questions.

The government should, of course, be consulting with experts and gathering evidence, but it is difficult to shake off the feeling that this particular group has been constructed with an eye on PR rather than policy, as a means of generating put-downs for FMQs rather than a serious desire to invite scrutiny.  Given recent revelations about Professor Naomi Eisenstadt’s neutering of criticisms in her poverty report, how much hope can we have that self-confessed fans of the Scottish Government, people closely associated with the system’s design and development, and people who see in Scotland an opportunity to implement their most cherished ideals, will want to shine their lights too hard into our darker corners?

A tendency to rose-tinting is already apparent, with individual council members evoking a degree of perfection in Scotland unfamiliar to those working in and using the system here. Thus, Prof Hargreaves told the Royal Society of Arts in January 2016 that in Scotland “every parent is invested in all of the system”, even though the capital suffers massive middle-class flight, with over a quarter of its secondary-age children in private schools (a similar pattern is found in the affluent areas of Glasgow).  Prof Harris tweeted last month that “Scottish educators value parental engagement, fairness and equity”. The Scottish Parent Teacher Council, however, recently told the Scottish Government that its governance consultation had left parents “feeling puzzled and excluded”, identified problematic variation in how well schools engaged with parents, and noted “sadly, in some situations there is a culture of parent blaming”.

Mr Maxwell’s parallel with the Council of Economic Advisers is telling. The Scottish Government has been criticised for establishing the CEA with an eye more to political cover than robust challenge. The CEA has stood accused of lacking critical distance from the Scottish Government, and its members have sometimes seemed inclined to idealise Scotland. Prof Joseph Stiglitz once memorably implied that debt for higher education was a problem in England only, just as total Scottish Government lending to students edged towards £0.5bn a year.

The Scottish Government’s response to The Ferret noticeably side-steps the issue of relationships and critical distance, and it should perhaps be observed that the word “independent” appears nowhere in the new Council’s name. Whether the Scottish Government simply does not recognise this is an issue, or understands the issue very well but hopes it will pass unremarked, is impossible to say. But the complicated web of relationships between the council and the government and its agencies, and between council members, is a necessary piece of context for the rest of us, if we are trying to make sense of its place in the system.

Human shields

There may be nothing amiss here. Yet hanging rather too heavily over this body is the atmosphere of a mutual admiration society and those reporting its statements would be naïve to ignore that.  The public comments from this group that merit front-page headlines and prominence on tea-time bulletins will not be the ones simply endorsing government policy (“they would, wouldn’t they?”, to echo Mandy Rice-Davies). The ones worth real attention will be those which are properly challenging.  If none such are forthcoming, many of those working in and using our schools may be left wondering how far the council is concerned with Scotland as it is daily experienced by pupils and staff – or with an educational nirvana it dreamt up itself.

Will next week’s meeting produce new insights into the state of education in Scotland? Or will this second of three planned meetings produce nothing but more congratulation? Either way, it should at least be clearer after that whether the International Council of Education Advisers has been convened principally to bring a challenging external eye, or mainly to provide a shield against domestic criticism, in the Parliament and elsewhere.

Image of the panel’s first meeting courtesy of Scottish Government via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Back row L to R  Ms Jayne-Anne Gadhia, Prof Chris Chapman, Dr Allison Skerrett, Prof Pasi Sahlberg, Prof Alma Harris, Dr Pak Tee Ng

Front row L to R   Dr Avis Glaze, Prof Andy Hargreaves, the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister, Dr Carol Campbell, Prof Graham Donaldson


  1. Bill Halliday says

    So your ideas to aid Education? Or your suggestions for people might be able to help?

    Maybe you should read “WingsoverScotland”‘s or even Derek Bateman’s thoughts on attention grabbing inuendo followed by padding that has the eyes glazing over after a couple of paragraphs ensuring very few will get to “There may be nothing amiss here.”

      • Peter Shaw says

        Indeed. And Bateman, too. Rarely noted for impartiality, or an unscathing eye.

        Bill, if – despite your two thunderously unserious and anti-scholarly points of reference – you are serious with your question, perhaps you should read other work by the authors. And other serious articles and literature generally.

        This article had a specific point of focus – examining how robust any claims of due impartiality of the Council might be, and raising well-researched and reasonable questions on this score. You clearly are looking for something else.

  2. Walter Humes says

    Good piece, well-researched and asking the right questions. This initiative can be regarded as an example of ‘policy as spectacle’ – that is, it is more to do with government PR than with measurable benefits. The mutual admiration of the panel of experts and members of the Scottish government does not give much confidence about the likely output from the group. The current state of Scottish education needs a much sharper critique from independent voices.

    • Paul Cochrane says

      Spot on, as ever. I spoke to Mr Swinney last Autumn and said that his biggest obstacle to progress was the internecine links at the top amongst EdSco/HMIE, SCEL and the SQA. We have had 20 years of Mr Donaldson’s HGIOS vision and matters continue to deteriorate. I hold out little hope as the NIF proposes digging the hole faster, with a bigger shovel, more managers and less workers.

  3. Alan Gordon says

    I felt the article could have been shorter.
    10 person council. They know a lot about education. 100k for 10 experts, pretty good deal, if they come up with the goods. We’ll be watching.
    Maybe not that brief.
    Many words expended to suggest cronyism or cheap strategy. The stakes are high, (forSG and the group) the problem has been building for a while. I look for analysis with balance. I would be interested in your analysis of their recommendations, so long as it does not resemble a Brexit type, “there you are, 4 months and still nothing’s happened”. I’m sure you are above that.
    Thank you and sorry for my lack of brevity.

  4. Keith Macdonald says

    As a recently retired teacher I agree with Mr. Humes. It is group thinking at the top that lead to the wasted opportunity of Curriculum for Excellence and I fear that it is going to be repeated in the next ill-thought out “transformational” initiative.

    What is needed is steady improvement based on the help teachers actually need to do their jobs more effectively. The most productive area for this is curricular support – helping teachers prepare stimulating and worthwhile lessons for their pupils. This would not only improve education but reduce workload.

    • Janette Adams says

      Exactly Keith , the layers of bureaucracy are just becoming unbearable .In the last few days the press has been full of stories on teachers from Scotland and England who are ready to walk . I recently read a comment about the length of time sorting paperwork, typing outcomes etc etc . If that takes longer that planning lessons then something is wrong .

      • Keith Macdonald says

        Thanks for your reply. That accords with my own experience at work and my former colleagues tel me is still happening. Curriculum for Excellence has involved a massive commitment by teachers and the rewards look very thin so far. There is no a lot of talk about any “transformation” and I really do not think the workforce could stand it.

        The problem is that these initiatives are planned and executed by people who have not been in a classroom for years and know they will never return. They simply do understand the practical implications of what they are doing.

  5. Bill Halliday says

    It will definately make some people question their Elected Reps. about what they are hearing from this panel and if any of it needs action.

    It’s not that Holyrood are not working at the Education problem but it has to be admitted many Teachers are not happy with the latest approach.

    Davidson,Dugdale Rennie et al continually using children’s futures for point scoring without any proposals for improvement is disgusting.

  6. Bill Halliday says

    I’m not and never haave been a Teacher but have a daughter who is and feels more of a Social Worker at times. It seems the recent ‘new’ approach involves more paperwork that some teachers are simply unable to cope with or even refusing to do.

    Your suggestion to give teachers more time to prepare sounds admirable. How could that be done?

    • Keith Macdonald says

      Thanks. I am not suggesting that teachers should spend more time on preparation, The need is to reduce workload. I am suggesting that a lot of course preparation could be done at national level. This would enable a much higher standard of presentation – better graphics etc. and for course materials to be tested and improved.

      The ability to do this would vary from subject to subject. For example in Maths most courses at any one level have very similar content and the same is probably true in Science. Even in say. literature, teachers could get a lot of help centrally in arranging author visits , film shows etc.

      • David G says

        I don’t necessarily disagree with you. The problem is that when teachers (i.e. The EIS) were asked about curriculum reform they said they wanted teachers to have the power to create curriculum for their own students. When their wish was granted, they found out that they had let themselves in for a lot more work.

        • Keith Macdonald says

          Thank for you response. I take your point about the EIS. I think they made a mistake in accepting Curriculum for Excellence so uncritically. I do not think the professional standing of teachers depends on them preparing all their lessons nor do I believe my idea would be a draconian imposition of central control. I expand on this point in my reply to the other response.

      • Bill Halliday says

        In light of the thoughts on Teachers having been taken by surprise with the workload spin off from having freedom to develop their own curriclums, this sounds like a good proposal. It would however inevitably lead to accusatiomns of more “SNP Centralisation”.
        Perhaps there is place a here for the involvement of the “Council”. They, as an independant body could consult with Teachers on their Curriculum wishes/needs then produce the material you speak of. It would even be possible to do the consultation by Local Council Areas and involve business/industry/parents.

        • Keith Macdonald says

          Thanks for your response. You raise valid points but I think I can deal with them. The other response I got raised the related concern about professional status. I would like to try to answer that here as well.

          The concept of professional freedom seems to me quite a complex one, both in theory and practice. Obviously professionals should not be free to ruin the lives of their clients. That means kids should not be taught badly any more than patients should not get the best medical care. In many professional situations there is a widely accepted best way to do things and I really do not think we would normally accord professionals the freedom to deviate from that.

          In practice we live in an era and country of constant back checking and fear of critical inspection. This means that all professionals are expected to be able to defend any judgement they make at any time and risks are discouraged. This was certainly the case when I was teaching and we were instructed e.g. to keep elaborate records on the basis that an inspector could come in at any time. I hope we move away from this culture but there is not much sign of it at the minute and I think Curriculum for Excellence has encouraged and not lessened it.

          I know there is a view that to be a proper profession teachers should prepare all their own work for classes. This seems to me rather odd. We do not expect GPs to devise their own medicines or courses of treatment. Normally we expect them to select but not devise or test a course of treatment using their professional judgement.

          You raise the point about accusations of centralism. In the political hurly burly that will be made as well as one about indulging lazy teachers. However I do not think it is a serious charge for the following reasons.

          1. Any centrally produced material should not be in the inflexible text book form but digital which means that teachers can adapt it to the needs of their particular pupils.

          2. No centrally produced materials should be compulsory. If a teacher or school can come up with something better they should be congratulated, paid some money and their resources circulated to other schools.

          I have actually suggested to the Cabinet Secretary that he tries this idea out by commissioning material for primary pupils who have fallen behind a bit in numeracy . Working teachers must be at the heart of the writing team but expertise in graphics, presentation and IT should be brought in. This could hardly be presented as a Napoleonic take over and if it worked would help reduce the criticism you talk about. I can just hear opposition parties saying it was their idea all along and criticising the Government for implementing it so slowly.

  7. Bob Tait says

    Let’s keep a good hold on what The Ferret has brought to light. Actually TWO big flaws in this expert advisory group and how it has been set up. The first: the potential for all the downsides of cosy croneyism, bubble-think and comfy PR. Which brings us to the second and much more serious flaw: the group hasn’t been set up and resourced to do the kind of policy and implementation scrutiny Scottish education does very much need. The fact that there are only three planned meetings tells us all we need to know about this flaw. For an expert group – of people who know each other or not – to do an effective job it has to have time to gather in and if necessary initiate research and analysis. Otherwise it just isn’t serious or fit for purpose.

  8. Bill Halliday says

    Thank you for that. Would that we had seen articles discussing your points and suggestions rather than the constant round of sensationalist drivel we have been treated to. As a grandparent as well as a parent of a Teacher, this will enable me to ask questions and suggest routes to be investigated.

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