What exactly is wrong with Scotland’s educational system? Most commentators agree that it is facing serious challenges, whether in terms of the attainment gap between children from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds, problems of teacher recruitment and retention, or falling standards as judged by international comparisons.
The Scottish Government has introduced a series of initiatives designed to tackle the problems. So far, however, official responses have failed to acknowledge some of the underlying reasons why the system is struggling. If we are to make real progress we need to be frank about these, however uncomfortable they may be.
Failure to learn from the past
Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) was introduced without learning from the experience of previous reforms, notably Standard Grade, 5-14 and Higher Still. These had highlighted the importance of certain key principles: a strong theoretical rationale; a realistic time-scale; the need to win the hearts and minds of teachers; a convincing assessment system. Much of the effort expended in the launch and development of CfE was poorly grounded, exhibiting what has been called ‘the parochialism of the present’ – that is, an arrogant sense that the past has little to teach us.
There already existed an impressive body of writing on curriculum development which could have informed the process, not least the output of the late Lawrence Stenhouse, a former head of education at Jordanhill College, who had revitalised the field in the 1970s. Stenhouse’s work and reputation extended far beyond Scotland but the architects of CfE seemed unaware of its importance. They blundered on, making things up on the hoof and confusing activity with progress.
Public relations are no substitute for hard thinking and careful planning. Too many ministers have mistaken spectacle for substance.
Poor political leadership
Politicians often talk about the importance of leadership in education, placing prime responsibility for improvement on head teachers. Their own leadership, however, has often been poor. Since devolution, there have been no fewer than nine Education Ministers/Cabinet Secretaries in charge, some occupying the post for a very short time before moving on to other remits.
Effecting real change cannot be achieved through a few high-profile initiatives, some extra cash and launch events with smiling children. Public relations are no substitute for hard thinking and careful planning. Too many ministers have mistaken spectacle for substance.
A complacent and self-regarding policy community
The direction of Scottish education depends not only on government policies but also on the cooperation of the wider policy community. This consists principally of senior staff in major national institutions (Education Scotland, the Scottish Qualifications Authority and the General Teaching Council for Scotland). In addition, important committees generally contain representatives of bodies such as School Leaders Scotland and the Association of Directors of Education.
An ‘insider culture’ develops in which members assure each other they are doing a good job. It is all very cosy and encourages unquestioning conformity. ‘Outsider’ critics are marginalised or ignored. John Swinney missed an opportunity to disrupt this system when he announced the membership of the new Scottish Education Council in November. The list is drawn from the usual sources. What is needed are a few ‘wild cards’, people prepared to ask tough questions and challenge orthodoxies. The fear is that the council will simply recycle pedestrian ideas, with members defending their existing territory.
Any system that claims it wants policies to be ‘evidence informed’ has to have a transparent approach to collecting and analysing information.
Lack of up-to-date independent data
In its 2015 review of Scottish education, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development said that it could not undertake a full evaluation of CfE because important information was simply not available. This raised the suspicion that the Scottish Government may have been trying to conceal damaging evidence. Professor Lindsay Paterson of Edinburgh University has described Scottish education as a ‘data desert’, and has pointed to the withdrawal of the country from some international surveys.
There are also gaps that need to be filled. We could do with a specialist centre for the study of the economics of education, which would examine the relative benefits of investing in different programmes. The general level of understanding of educational finance in Scotland is poor, even among some of those responsible for large budgets. Recent work by Professor David Bell of Stirling University has highlighted the potential of better awareness of the economics of education. Any system that claims it wants policies to be ‘evidence informed’ has to have a transparent approach to collecting and analysing information.
Defensive and protectionist professional attitudes
It is not surprising that many teachers are cynical and disillusioned. Experienced staff have been through many cycles of reform, with promises that their professionalism will be enhanced. They have lost faith in those who purport to lead the way to a better future. This includes the leaders of their own organisations, who have come to be seen as part of the educational establishment.
The Educational Institute of Scotland has a long history and, at certain periods, has made important contributions to educational debate – most notably after the First World War, when the case for secondary education for all was being advanced. Sadly, however, it has become deeply conservative and defensive, focusing largely on resources, salaries and conditions of service, with periodic threats to take strike action. This conservatism and resistance to change, ironically combined with a self-image as supporting the political left, damages the status of the profession.
The language of Scottish education needs to become more honest.
Boastful and sentimental language
The language in which policy initiatives are promoted has become embarrassingly boastful, seemingly designed to confuse aspiration and achievement. The First Minister talks of Scotland becoming a ‘world class’ educational system and the word ‘excellence’ is scattered through every document. Again, the four capacities of CfE (successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors, responsible citizens) quickly became a mantra which could not be questioned, far less criticised.
Official discourse has also become increasingly sentimental. This is especially evident in the promotion of ‘wellbeing’, a soft feel-good concept that does little to address hard educational issues. It is summed up in the acronym SHANARRI which stands for the eight ‘indicators’ of wellbeing: children should be safe, healthy, achieving, nurtured, active, respected, responsible and included. Such adjectival overload has become a feature of many official documents. It is a wish-list that seems more designed to make policy makers feel good about themselves than to face the harsh realities of many children’s lives.
The language of Scottish education needs to become less boastful and sentimental, and more honest.
A deep vein of anti-intellectualism
Educational leaders in Scotland pride themselves on adopting a pragmatic approach and seeking to promote ‘best practice’. While good practice should certainly be celebrated, there also needs to be a deeper, intellectual engagement with the aims and values of education. This involves entering difficult philosophical, sociological and political territory. Decisions about education need to take account of the kind of society we want to create, as well as the knowledge and dispositions we want to promote among learners.
Addressing such questions inevitably involves thinking about concepts such as freedom, authority, rights, justice and democracy. That kind of analysis has not taken place in Scottish education since the Munn report of 1977. If we are serious about remedying the defects of the current system, we need to be more open to a discussion of first principles. The academic community should have taken a lead in this regard but, regrettably, too often it has colluded in the shallow discourse and intellectual evasions of government.
David Watt says
CfE did learn from standard grade, 5-14, Higher Stiil and developed its 3-18 changes in a holistic way rather than piecemeal approaches. Never any problem in discussing first principles such as happened in the national debate in 2000 and we shoudn’t shy away from the need for cultural change such as that indicated by the first OECD report of 2007. There is the danger of talking up that ‘Golden Age” of Scottish education which now seems to have moved on from the early 60s to the late 70s. Scottish education is better now than then.
Frances McKie says
I remember the horrible experience of imposed Higher Still, driven on to us until chaos emerged and brought it to a standstill, There was no debate. We were under orders. Changers need to remember the baby when throwing out the bathwater, and pay attention when those instructed to implement changes report back from the classroom with, perhaps unexpectedly, some negative news. All changes need continuing careful honest review of real effects on teaching, learning, attainment, assessment and morale . Reviews should come directly from the classroom. And the minister in charge needs to want to know.
George Gilchrist says
Spot on. There are many strengths within the education system in Scotland. However, the fact that it is a small system can be both a strength and a weakness, where disruptive voices are easily isolated or quelled, meaning it is easier for everyone to become complicit and promote the status quo or the ‘national’ policy agenda. Whilst I do not agree with a lot of what Lindsay Patterson has to say, I do think we need to ‘hear’ those voices and consider what it is they are saying about the curriculum and the system. I am afraid our political masters, and their agencies, want the party line toed and it is easier for them to achieve that in a smaller system. Our strength should be that it is easier to collaborate and achieve consensus in smaller systems, whilst tapping into research from across the globe. So many opportunities have been missed to include all voices in the discourse, and that is no accident.
Taking Parents Seriously says
Excellent article. I wonder if it’s naivety on the part of the politicians?I agree wholeheartedly about the insider, self-congratulatory culture and, among the members of the new Scottish Education Council, I have personal experience that falls short of appropriate standards. There is a lack of accountability that encourages bullying behaviour from the higher echelons towards dissenters among both staff and parents. When will the GTCs treat evidence from parents with the same respect as that from headteachers, for example? Who watches the watchmen? They simply can’t conceive that “people like us” could behave so unethically and so it continues.
Some superb conflation and inference in this article, as Labour/Lib devolution choices neatly assumed to be ascribed to the SNP. I fear this is just another hitch to the SNP BadWagon. As a child who attended primary in the 70’s & had their secondary schooling disrupted by the strikes of the 80’s, I can confirm this was no golden age. Schooling is better now, hanss down.
Roddy MCDowell says
Incisive summary of the complicity of Scotland’s educational leadership class in in the poverty of its own performance.
Maggie Mellon says
Curriculum for Excellence and Getting it Right for Every Child are twins in this kind of sloppy, self congratulatory thinking. Refusing to allow any proper discussion or to produce properly researched and grounded evidence or to look at actual results are common to both policies. Excellence is not something you claim – it has to be earned, and then it does not need to be named. Meanwhile more children homeless or in temporary housing, more children lacking hot dinners and good shoes and coats.
Julie Adams says
Might I add that distractions (technology has to shoulder the blame for much of this); a culture where the truth of poor performance by learners has to be dressed up in positive language in reports; indiscipline have all become barriers to learning during the past decade. The teaching profession is accountable to absolutely everybody- and often downright exhausted.
Could not agree more. Teachers who have questioned reforms have routinely been called “negative”, making most too afraid to even raise their heads above the parapet. Money has been thrown at raising attainment, particularly for children living in poverty, with unrealistic timescales which only add to teacher stress. The real issues have not been addressed adequately. Poverty has taken decades to leave its mark, yet teachers are expected to turn around educational achievement within a few school years. Class sizes have risen, support staff and services have diminished, while at the same time, expectations to evidence attainment continue to increase.
Very simply the curriculum is too crowded! Too many outcomes to be met. The quality of what is taught is lost as teachers have to move on to the next thing at a pace that is far too quick for most children. The curriculum needs to be stripped back so that there is a return to quality teaching and not quantity. Far too much paperwork so that teachers cannot focus on creating resources. More emphasis is placed on what is put on paper than carried out in the classroom. Start asking the teachers what is wrong with education. Pay is one thing but I bet most teachers will agree that the other points are more important.
Christine Armstrong says
At last! Carol you have hit more than one nail directly on the head. We need to teach less but teach it better in terms of allowing our pupils to be creative by providing them with a sound basic skill base through which to do so. Smaller classes, less teacher contact time and less focus on results figures in boxes on various meani g less documents would, ironically, eventually provoke the very improvements in achievement demanded by the current regime. Go figure Ms Sturgeon.
Mary Brown says
Very much agree with the excellent points made by Professor Humes. As a psychologist, I think what he is describing among the decision makers is ‘groupthink’ – anyone who criticises the prevailing view is frozen out. The only thing I might add is the assumption that learning is ‘fun’ – it isn’t, it’s often hard work. The commentators who challenge the idea of a ‘golden age’ of education are correct up to a point (I was educated at this supposed period and I can confirm it was far from a picnic). What was expected then was significant self discipline and determination by learners – and obtaining qualifications was not about ‘getting a better job’ as is today’s mantra -which is not true today either. But to be fair, Professor Humes doesn’t bang on about a golden age either – he is rightly saying there are things which need to be fixed now if we are to ensure that education actually educates, and educators should be prepared to embrace challenges to the prevailing view.
To seriously improve our education school leaders need to be brave and do what they know us right for their communities. The noise of badly thought out initiatives (1+2 languages being one of many) needs to be filtered by school leaders. We also need to create a proper culture of respect for school staff. Schools alone cannot fix the ills of society yet the burden of this with GIRFEC as a system alongside CfE puts schools wrongly on the front line. Teachers give millions of pounds of free labour to keep it together. This should not be needed.
paul martin says
I am unsure of your point about 1+2 Languages. It seems an excellent idea especially in light of:
1) Brexit – which it predates
2) Immigration – it (part) acts as a welcome, recognising incomers expertise
I agree though with “proper culture of respect for school staff”
florian albert says
When I read this article a couple of days ago, I found myself nodding in agreement.
Afterwards, a few thoughts occurred to me.
1 The article starts, ‘What exactly is wrong with Scotland’s education system.’ For very many people, there is little or nothing wrong with it. If, as a parent, you can afford to send your children to a private school or buy a house in the catchment area of the ‘better’ state schools, you will probably have little to complain about. It is commonplace to speak of ‘educational apartheid.’ The key point about apartheid was that it created big winners as well as big losers.
2 Walter Humes, like other critics of the educational system such as Keir Bloomer and Lindsay Paterson, spent many years as an insider, a member of the educational establishment. During this time, did he not raise the alarm ? It is not as though the deficiencies in the Scottish education system are of recent creation.
3 Is Scottish education unique in its mismanagement or is it typical of modern Scotland ?
I suspect that it may be the latter. The police service appears to be utterly dysfunctional;
the legal system, according to Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review is no better and our councils rarely appear as models of good governance.
Paul Cochrane says
1. ‘Wrong’ is a poor description but ‘underperforming’ is better.
2. If you knew Walter Humes you would know he consistently raised the alarm – to his own detriment.
3. Scottish Leadership has been questionable for decades.
Frances McKie says
Professor Humes has highlighted key issues. Teachers and learners have been ploughing through many changes to the curriculum and structure of Scottish Education during the last few decades. These were imposed within a very authoritarian and hierarchical environment with very little genuine consultation, monitoring or objective review. There have been real crises, including Higher Still.
Evading International assessment, talking only to ourselves, is not meaningful. Politicians of all parties need to be honest and seek to know the real situation. Instead they have a history of surrounding themselves with those whose main priority is vindication of their very own impositions on teachers and learners, come what may. Some innovations, some big ideas did not work. Some of them did great damage. The effects are still with us 30 years later.
Paul Martin says
“I do not agree with a lot of what Lindsay Patterson says”
You are not the only one and, in the same way as Ivory Tower man and Ken Robinson, Walter is good at identifying the easy stuff; whilst ignoring such as #inclusion (read edu-cuts) thus leaving the tough work up to Heads and DHTs who have to meet raised expectations of various stake holders