Public trust in the reports of official enquiries commissioned by government and other agencies is generally low.
There is often a feeling that the process is stacked in favour of powerful institutions; that senior figures are rarely held accountable for their failures; and that, while the people most directly affected by the issues that led to the review may be listened to, they are often disappointed by the outcome.
This pattern can be seen in reactions to a range of reports into disturbing cases involving the health service, the police, local authorities and financial institutions. Even when a report produces recommendations that are widely welcomed, their implementation may be inadequate, so that the same concerns arise again a few years later. Too often what is offered are rhetorical gestures and vague promises, when what is needed is substantive change and measurable improvement.
OECD review of Curriculum for Excellence
Against this background, it is worth asking what we might expect from the current enquiry into Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) being carried out by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). So far this has not received much media attention, for the understandable reason that central and local government are giving priority to the challenge of reopening schools in August, under arrangements that ensure the safety of pupils and staff. But the report is potentially important since it is expected to cast light on the strengths and limitations of the CfE programme and offer guidance on the direction of future policy.
CfE has been a politically sensitive topic for the Scottish Government. It has had a chequered history since it was first proposed in 2004 and formally introduced in 2010. Questions have been raised about its conceptual coherence, its communication to teachers, its excessive bureaucracy and its assessment arrangements. The OECD carried out an earlier review of some aspects of the programme in 2015, following sustained pressure on the Cabinet Secretary for Education from individuals and organisations, including the Royal Society of Edinburgh. The suspicion was that the government feared negative findings from any external agency.
In the event, the OECD produced a mixed report, identifying a number of strengths, but also areas of weakness. It concluded that there had been too much emphasis on centrally driven, system-wide leadership and not enough on ‘professional leadership focused directly on the nature of teaching, learning and the curriculum in schools.’ It called for ‘a strengthened “middle” operating through networks and collaboratives among schools, and in and across local authorities’. The Scottish Government’s response was set out in a document entitled ‘Delivering Excellence and Equity in Scottish Education’. Subsequently, six Regional Improvement Collaboratives were set up to encourage the sharing of expertise and the enhancement of professional knowledge. In 2019, a ‘refreshed’ CfE narrative was produced, designed to restate key messages, simplify advice to teachers and take account of new thinking on the nature of curriculum.
The latest review is more wide-ranging than the Scottish Government had intended. The original plan was to focus on the senior phase of secondary school, but opposition parties in the Scottish Parliament voted to extend the scope to cover the CfE experience as a whole, including the articulation between the broad general education of the primary and early secondary years of schooling, and the senior phase when studies are geared to qualifications gained through coursework and performance in national examinations. The coronavirus pandemic has meant that the 2020 examinations have not taken place and plans for 2021 are still being worked out.
Aims and methods
In examining any enquiry, there are certain key questions to ask. What are the terms of reference? Who is involved in the process? What sources of data will be available to those conducting the enquiry? (in the 2015 review, the OECD said it could not carry out a proper evaluation because the necessary data to do so were simply not available.) What arrangements will there be for consultation with stakeholders? Will there be an opportunity for critical voices to be heard? How will the final report be drawn up? Will it be genuinely independent or subject to ‘negotiation’ by government officials?
Early in 2020, the Scottish Government produced a document setting out the ‘guiding principles and aims of the review’. One of these ‘guiding principles’ made it plain that certain issues were not up for discussion: “The principles and aspirations of CfE have had widespread support from practitioners, learners, parents and politicians in Scotland and, as such, are not being questioned in the review”. While this may have disappointed critics, it was hardly surprising. Too many political and professional reputations have been invested in the programme for its underlying rationale to be subject to conceptual interrogation at this late stage. The focus of the review is to be on how agreed policies are being implemented and experienced by young people. A ‘collaborative’ approach, involving ‘partnership’ with a number of agencies, is recommended.
The main point of contact between the OECD and the Scottish Government is the National Coordinator, a senior civil servant within the Learning Directorate. She is responsible for making available relevant documentation, organising meetings, arranging visits, and preparing for the launch of the final report. At the time of writing, universities have been asked to provide a list of publications by academics who have carried out studies of Curriculum for Excellence, to be passed on to the reviewers. Some of these studies have been quite critical and it is to be hoped that there will be no prior sifting of material that may be judged ‘unhelpful’. There is, in any case, nothing to stop the OECD team from carrying out its own search for relevant publications.
The OECD requested that ‘a project advisory group’ should be set up to support the work of the review. This is quite common in research studies and allows for people with relevant expertise to ask pertinent questions, comment on progress and offer constructive suggestions. The Scottish’s Government’s response was to ‘convene a Scottish Practitioner Forum’. The change of terminology from ‘advisory group’ to ‘practitioner forum’ may be significant, suggesting an emphasis on stakeholder engagement in a consultative process rather than on substantive input into the direction of the review.
The forum is being convened by an experienced Director of Education nominated by the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland (ADES) and will comprise around 12 members. ADES has been a long-standing member of the policy community in Scottish education and is routinely consulted on legislative proposals and policy changes. From a government perspective it is, therefore, a trusted voice in educational debates, disinclined to offer public criticism of initiatives, even when its members may have private reservations about them. As for the other people on the forum, it would be surprising if any ‘wild cards’ are to be found, since the tried and tested mechanisms of patronage ensure that those who get through the vetting process have to be judged ‘sound’. In the conformist culture of Scottish education, any tendency to ‘rock the boat’ is unlikely to lead to career advancement.
Marking their own homework?
One of the organisations which will be strongly represented in the review process is Education Scotland, an executive agency of government and the principal advisory body on the curriculum. It will undoubtedly be able to supply some useful data from the results of school inspections but there are other aspects of its position that merit scrutiny. To say that it is an interested party in the proceedings would be an understatement. Many classroom teachers blame Education Scotland (and its predecessor body, Learning and Teaching Scotland) for the problems that arose during the development and implementation of CfE. Its involvement in the review exercise could be seen as an example of an organisation seeking to mark its own homework. It is to be hoped that the OECD team will be alert to this danger and prepared to challenge the official narrative of senior Education Scotland staff.
Perhaps the most fundamental question to ask about this review is whether the report that emerges will be genuinely independent. At every stage political factors come into play: in the parliamentary pressures which led to it being set up in the first place; in the mobilisation of civil service personnel to support it; in framing the remit and defining the roles and responsibilities of those involved; in decisions about who to appoint to the Scottish Practitioner Forum; in drawing up the agendas of meetings and planning the format of sessions with teachers and learners; in reaching agreement about the final text and the date of its publication.
Furthermore, the OECD, though highly experienced in carrying out such reviews and a good source of comparative data on educational systems, cannot be considered as a neutral player. It has its own agenda as a powerful cross-national driver of educational reforms. Critics argue that it limits the scope of individual nation-states to preserve their own distinctive educational identities and represents a particular economic ideology that favours the workforce needs of large multi-national corporations.
There is another political consideration to bear in mind. The original timetable was that the review would be completed by February 2021, but the need to respond to the educational challenges of the coronavirus pandemic may lead to some slippage. The next elections to the Scottish Parliament are due in May 2021. If the OECD review is largely favourable in its findings, it would be helpful to the SNP for the report to be published before that date. If, however, the report contains significant criticisms, the temptation to delay its release may prove hard to resist.
Walter Humes is an Honorary Professor at the University of Stirling. His most recent study of educational governance in Scotland can be accessed at: https://www.scotedreview.org.uk/media/microsites/scottish-educational-review/documents/Humes_Re-shaping-the-policy-landscape.pdf
Featured image of John Swinney at Wester Hailes Education Centre on launching review of curriculum via Scottish Government flickr CC BY-NC 2.0