The present generation of educational leaders in Scotland has a poor sense of the nation’s educational history.
They suffer from what the late G. H. Bantock called ‘the parochialism of the present’, a condition that focuses on current preoccupations alone and fails to consider what might be learned from past experience.
The failure is hardly surprising since the study of history of education has been progressively eliminated from the courses that aspiring teachers are required to undergo. Some of the damaging consequences of this gap in professional understanding can be seen in the uneven progress of Scotland’s flagship educational policy since 2004, Curriculum for Excellence.
Curriculum for Excellence (CfE)
CfE was ambitious in scope, covering the full age range from three to eighteen. It started as a broad statement of principles, which were elaborated in the years that followed. Its key features were an increased emphasis on generic skills at the expense of formal knowledge; ‘progressive’ pedagogy, placing the learner centre-stage; an account of the learning process in terms of ‘experiences’ and ‘outcomes’; an aspiration that classroom teachers would become curriculum developers and change agents; above all, a desire to promote four ‘capacities’ (successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors, responsible citizens). This last point suggested that learning was more about ‘becoming’ than ‘knowing’.
Implementation of CfE has not been straightforward. Although there was broad support for the rhetoric of reform, when it came to the details and practicalities there were many problems. Some ideas, such as ‘active’ and ‘interdisciplinary’ learning, were criticised as vague. The quality of programmes of professional development for teachers, intended to prepare for the changes, did not inspire confidence. New national qualifications to accompany the curricular reform met with resistance from teachers.
Concern about a perceived decline in standards, provoked by national and international surveys, led to questions about the intellectual foundations of CfE, as well as the effectiveness of its management. But there has never been any prospect of the programme being abandoned. Too many political and professional reputations depend on it.
Learning from the past
If those responsible for directing the reform had paid a little more attention to the lessons of educational history, things might have been different. Previous reforms, more modest in scale, had all encountered difficulties and had taken longer to implement than had been hoped. This was true of Standard Grade, 5-14 and Higher Still in the period preceding devolution. Moreover, these programmes had been steered by strong central direction, in which the scope for teacher involvement had been limited. One of the professed aims of CfE was to ‘empower’ teachers, giving them greater scope to demonstrate ‘agency’. Expecting them to adopt a new ‘liberated’ mindset, after decades of being required to follow directives, was always going to be a big ask. For successful implementation of CfE, a complete change of approach was required.
Evidence of the extent of this challenge was to hand, but was ignored by the policy makers. In 1975 Lawrence Stenhouse, a former Head of Education at Jordanhill College in Glasgow, published a ground-breaking book, An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development. It offered many insights into the requirements for effective reform programmes. At the heart of his argument was the belief that there can be no successful curriculum development without teacher development. In other words, simply introducing a new policy, without proper regard for the readiness of teachers to make it work, is likely to lead to disappointment. Furthermore, winning hearts and minds, and inspiring trust, are essential requirements of effective innovation. These conditions were not met in the early stages of the CfE reform programme.
Stenhouse emphasised the importance of teachers being willing and able to take the initiative in determining their own professional development rather than simply responding to top-down exhortations. He wrote: ‘the outstanding characteristic of the extended professional is a capacity for autonomous professional self-development through systematic self-study, through the study of the work of other teachers and through the testing of ideas by classroom research procedures’.
The importance of this last point was recognised as early as the 1920s when William Boyd, Head of the Education Department at Glasgow University, initiated a series of research studies with classroom teachers, supported by the Educational Institute of Scotland. It was not until 2014 that the value of professional enquiry was given official recognition by the General Teaching Council for Scotland with the introduction of its Professional Update scheme, though it was constrained by various mechanisms of approval.
Belated glimmers of awareness
Some ten years after the start of CfE, Graham Donaldson, formerly Her Majesty’s Senior Chief Inspector of Schools in Scotland, published an article in which he acknowledged that ‘attempts to reform education . . . have proved remarkably resistant to external pressure to change’. He quoted Mark Priestley of Stirling University who stated that: ‘it is one thing for policy to frame teachers as agents of change. It is quite another to enable this to actually happen’.
Belatedly, the Scottish Government has attempted to address the gap between the aspiration to be ‘world class’ and the reality of where we currently are. One initiative was the appointment of an International Council of Educational Advisers which produced a report in 2018. Among its key recommendations were a focus on ‘professional empowerment, responsibility and ownership’ and the need for ‘capacity building’ at all levels. It also suggested that, while Scottish education had undoubted strengths, significant improvement in the future would depend on ‘deep and lasting cultural change’.
Is Scottish education capable of rising to this challenge? Many teachers remain sceptical of the encouragement to make their voices heard. A recent article in the Times Educational Supplement Scotland reported that expressing views that may not accord with official policy carried significant risks: it was even suggested that a climate of fear prevails in some schools and local authorities. This may help to explain why it has not been easy to recruit and retain new teachers, or to attract high calibre candidates for head teacher posts.
Structural changes at national level have done little to persuade sceptics that we have entered a new era of open dialogue and free intellectual exchange. When John Swinney brought forward proposals for new governance arrangements in 2016, there was a widespread expectation that ‘something would be done’ about Education Scotland, the main body responsible for some of the problems associated with CfE. Something was done, but not what was expected. Far from being restricted in its sphere of operations, it was given a wider remit, covering not only the curriculum and school inspection, but also the work of the Scottish College for Educational Leadership. The close links between Education Scotland’s senior officers and Scottish Government officials give little indication of significant cultural change at the top. Consolidating the administrative machinery always seems to be preferred over tough-minded intellectual scrutiny.
Scots tend to have a rather complacent self-image of themselves as frank and forthright, willing to express critical opinions. Official Scotland, however, remains deeply conformist and oppressively bureaucratic. In the professions, ambitious people soon learn to defer to authority, acquire the approved discourse, and observe the unwritten rules. One consequence is that many of those who reach senior positions get there not because of marked intellectual ability or a track record of creativity and innovation, but simply because they have become skilled at playing the ‘political’ game. It is hardly a recipe for producing a ‘world class’ educational system.
Revisiting our educational history might encourage us to question some of the prevailing orthodoxies of our time. The dominant ethos of the education system in the recent past can be traced to the style of early Secretaries of the Scottish Education Department, most notably Sir Henry Craik, who was in office from 1885-1904. By all accounts, he was an able administrator but also, in the words of T. R. Bone, ‘typical of senior civil servants of his day, punctiliously correct at all times, aloof, authoritarian, and ruthless when necessary’.
Craik’s unchallenged authority can be contrasted with the treatment of other figures in the history of Scottish education, whose contributions, like those of Stenhouse and Boyd, have been insufficiently recognised – Patrick Geddes (1954-1932), Margaret McMillan (1860-1931), A. S. Neill (1883-1973) and R. F. Mackenzie (1910-1987). Their reception reveals a great deal about attitudes to dissent in Scottish education. Geddes was marginalised in his own country but gained an international reputation. Both MacMillan and Neill had to pursue their educational ideals in England rather than Scotland. And Mackenzie‘s pioneering approach to the teaching of ‘disenchanted’ youngsters led to his dismissal as head teacher of Summerhill comprehensive school in Aberdeen. Perhaps we should ask why there are no comparable radical voices in Scottish education today.
Main image: John Swinney delivering Read, Write, Count bags via Scottish Government Flickr
Alastair McIntyre says
You might enjoy a read about Scottish Education from an 1807 perspective at: https://electricscotland.com/education/education.htm
Paul Cochrane says
A hit Sir! A palpable hit!
Thank you so much for writing this; it perfectly expresses the disillusionment that led me to retire (early) from primary teaching. Every single word resonates.
Thank you so much for writing this. As a teacher in her early 50s I still have many years to work and I teach with hope that my continued learning (I’ve just completed a MEd at UHI) will give me the confidence to push and encourage change within my LA. Your explanation of the historical perspective helps me to understand why SCEL has been subsumed by Education Scotland.
Gillian Bartle says
Points well made, political above the creative: highlighted by the wondering- where are the ASNeill’s?
Walter Humes says
My thanks to all of you who have taken the time to comment on my article.
Alastair – I enjoyed the extract from Sir John Carr’s Caledonian Sketches, not least the complexity of his sentence construction! Few people – and certainly not politicians – are capable of such grammatical control.
Paul – I greatly appreciate your continuing interest in my writing and I know you encourage other Twitter users to read my provocations.
Katrina – I know that many other teachers share your disillusionment. I’m glad what I had to say resonated with your experience.
SDavidson – Congratulations on your MEd. Keep up the good fight against the forces of darkness in Scottish education.
Gillian – You are right to highlight the ‘political’ aspects of the system. These include the way the big bureaucracies (Education Scotland, SQA, GTCS) operate.
Interesting read. Thank you.
Why do politicians in Scotland think it within their remit to interfere with Education policy, when they evidence no capacity to think outside tribal lines?
For too long now the independence agenda has become a central gravitational pull for our politics. This has allowed the education of our children and young people to be subsumed by priorities imposed by those with little experience of teaching in our classrooms.
I suspect AS Neill would have banned all politicians from setting foot in Summerhill.
Keith Macdonald says
Many people who have working knowledge of Scottish education but are not part of the management establishment Walter delineates (let us call them teachers) will recognise his picture. After twenty years of independence on education, a Parliament for which education should be the first priority and an expensive and very draining reform (Curriculum for Excellence) this is immensely disappointing.
The central fault in my view is that the wrong leadership was chosen for curricular reform. In the past this was led by the ex-teacher elite of heads, inspectors, teacher trainers and local authority officials who are, unlike other professions such as law, distanced from the actual practice of their calling. In the case of CfE the job was supposedly handed to working teachers who are too busy and too disparate to do it. In any case modern management supposedly requires that employees are not trusted so endless checklists were married to apparently greater responsibility.
From what I can see this has predictably resulted in some aspects of CfE, often worthwhile in themselves, becoming fetishized. Everything has to be interdisciplinary and no more than a couple of periods can go past without pupils recording some kind of choice.
The way to get curricular reform right is to give leadership to relatively small teams of experienced and committed classroom professionals to write courses which they know they will have to teach themselves. They should work on secondment.
To make sure they get it right their work should be piloted and tested before going into general use. The teams should have the resources to access specialist help such as graphic design and IT.
A start could be made with numeracy at primary and the first course could be one to help children who have fallen behind to catch up. This would provide an actual use for the P1 tests as a screen for this course. If we developed a really good one we could sell it all over the world and start to restore our once proud reputation for educational excellence. The initial cost would be small and a world beating course would make a profit.
Brian Daily says
As a supporter of the SNP I often wonder would CfE have launched that year had we not been about to head in to an INDY Ref?
I am a teacher.
The concepts of CfE have always struck me as inspiring, making these bold concepts, deciding on the real way forward. Except, I think we allowed the tail to wag the dog in the form of assessment and yes the SQA.
Please forgive the allegory to come.
“If you wanted to decide upon a new way forward for your people, then perhaps you might decide to send your son. He could wander around and spread the word, meet up with like minded thinkers and persuade them to his methods. He could look for perhaps 12 honest folks and true. They too could go forward and inform the population. In their minds would formulate the methods and reasons and the arguments for why.nthe inspired people’s would clamour for more of these ideas. The 12 might write letters to each other which could be gathered together and formed in to a book of wisdom. This could become a foundations for things to come”
I’m not sure how many of us were inspired by having a ‘bible’ dumped on our desks and telling us to interpret it any way we wanted. With all its ridiculous part numbers. It simply was incredibly bad management.
Was I ever inspired by a CfE talk or inservice? Nope. Was I inspired by ideas from other teachers? Yup. Was the process sound for producing the policy? I know a lot of people who would say yes to that. Did it produce the correct result? Nope. The system was led by bureaucrats!
Where are they all now that CfE is blundering along?
Rae Condie says
Nice one, Walter!
Walter Humes says
Many thanks for these additional comments.
Scotty – since devolution there have been no fewer than nine Ministers in charge of Scottish education, some in post for a very short time. This is not a good way to ensure effective educational reform.
Keith – one lesson from CfE is that we need to rethink of better ways of gaining the trust and confidence of the teachers who are expected to implement the proposed reforms.
Brian – I’m afraid many of the bureaucrats who were responsible for the poor management of CfE are still in place. They are skilled at ensuring their own survival.
Rae – good to see you are still keeping in touch with Scottish education. Hope you are enjoying retirement.
Keith Macdonald says
I think that the ideas I put forward might help to do that. In summary –
1, Curricular form would be best done by aiming for steady improvement rather than a big bang.
2. The main driving agent should be seconded teams of working teachers supplemented by specialist support in areas such as IT and graphic design.
3. The support of the rest of the profession for any initiatives should be judged by piloting.
Brian Daily says
I’m not sure consideration of the process is the first way forward.
Why do we want to change, what do we want to change, how do we enthuse the teaching staff to enthusiastically see the changes as the correct way forward? We do need a spokesperson or two to take us along the road. I sat at many badly led staff meetings talking about things as if I was supposed to be the instigator! And I had decades of doing that. I recall my first staff meeting when I sat excited at the front and the dinosaurs just moaned at the back. I just wanted to get on with it, whatever it was! Let’s just do it! There came a point in life where I became the dinosaur. I had seen all these ideas before being pushed by the next bureaucrat looking to make a name for themselves.
How come every government say they’re going to fix education? Gosh they’ve been doing that for many years!
It wouldn’t take much to fix it, just put a match to it! And that is where the HOW comes in.
Unless we have a messiah, philosophy, reason for teaching then we gonna go nowhere!
I want Scotland to be world class but I don’t know what that looks like.
Walter Humes says
Keith and Brian – thank you both for these further contributions to the discussion. I think we need both ‘big ideas’ (some of which will come from outside the world of teaching professionals) and workable strategies to implement worthwhile change. With CfE there was too much boasting about ‘excellence’ and not enough hard thinking about meaning and purpose. The dominant culture of Scottish education meant that many of those who were appointed to key roles were ‘safe’ and conformist rather than questioning and creative. Successful innovation depends on winning the hearts and minds of classroom teachers – otherwise the result is tokenism and cynicism. Keith – your recommendations for the process of introducing change are practical and sensible. Brian – you are right that teachers need to be inspired by leaders who have experience and credibility. That rules out most educational bureaucrats. The academic community, with some honourable exceptions, could have done more to challenge the thinking behind CfE and press the politicians about its implementation. Bear in mind too that there are powerful institutional forces at work, with senior officials who talk about reform but want to ensure that their own power base will not be weakened. That is why deep cultural change – not just tinkering with the administrative structures – is required. For that to happen, more people at the sharp end have to be prepared to speak out. Not easy, I know – for there can be career penalties for those who ‘go against the grain’ of official policy.
Keith Macdonald says
Thanks for your reply. I agree that we need a culture change which I think needs to be based around much more genuine respect (not just words) for those who actually do the job i.e. take classes through courses.
How to bring that about? Could my suggestions help do that? Suppose John Swinney set up a group of high quality experienced teachers to produce a course that would help kids who are struggling with numeracy at an early stage. It could be done cheaply and quietly so that nothing is lost of it didn’t work. Keep the inspectorate and teacher trainers at arms length.
A year to write a course and a year to pilot it. Perhaps another year to rewrite it and in three years you would have something capable of bringing about real success. If it did work it would show that classroom teachers could do what educational bureaucrats could not. Politicians would demand more and suddenly that approach would be fashionable.
florian albert says
A young English teacher, Lucy Crehan, published a book a couple of years ago. It was called ‘Cleverlands’ and it examined several school systems which were seen as more successful than the English one where she had been working.
Of the countries studied, Canada was the closest to Scotland culturally. The main strength of the Canadian system was that it recognized that the curriculum had to be monitored closely to see if it was working successfully. This was especially important when changes were introduced. Anyone with knowledge of the Scottish system would be aware that Scotland operates close to the antithesis of this. Changes are ‘doomed to succeed’ as I heard Frank Pignatelli phrase it when he was Director of Education for Strathclyde Region.
This weakness is not imposed from without. The fault is our willingness to accept an
inadequate status quo.
Brian Daily says
So if you design a system which is flawed and therefore designed to fail, and it fails, is that success? Not an accurate quote, but!
If the course designers had any training in design the courses would work! A solid specification which would outline the problems having to deal with the creative lot known as the teaching staff, would have to be created. Simply addressing that point would help towards providing integrity. I have found that the teaching force is a remarkably able lump of potential. But designing them out of the formula is so crazy!
Keith I like your idea of writing, piloting rewriting, committing! Is it the optimum solution perhaps yes, perhaps no. And yes again, Keith, keep the bureaucrats out, they can come in later and decide on assessment methodology. The dog wags the tails, not……..
Brian Daily says
Florian – I totally agree with your last comment about the inadequate status quo. There is so much potential in Scottish schools. In kids, in teachers, and in parents. We need to work out where we want to point that ship and HOW we want to encourage the crew. If you want to build ships you don’t get joiners and welders, you get people who want to be on the open sea.
Education needs to have a government cross party agreement of lack of interference.
When I look at kids in the classroom I always think about how can that amazing potential be utilised to benefit themselves and this amazing country.