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.