Amidst all the political drama in the run-up to the Holyrood elections – a new party, personal rivalries, defections, allegations and counter-allegations – the substantive issues facing Scotland risk being neglected.
Whatever the outcome of the vote, education will remain one of the most crucial policy areas and the person appointed as Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills will not be short of challenges. Another SNP administration seems likely (with or without an overall majority) and a ‘refresh’ of the cabinet can be expected.
John Swinney may well move to another post.
He has been responsible for Education for longer than any previous post-devolution Minister and may well welcome a change. No one can doubt his energy and determination, but he has had limited success in relation to Curriculum for Excellence and in reducing the attainment gap between ‘advantaged’ and ‘disadvantaged’ pupils. He has also struggled to make significant inroads into the deep-rooted conservatism of the Scottish educational establishment.
So, how should the politician who takes on the education portfolio proceed?
At an operational level, the most immediate task will be to keep under review the arrangements for a full return to school. A third wave of coronavirus infections could reverse today’s encouraging trends and require a reassessment of the timetable. It is likely that the Education Recovery Group which has been meeting regularly since April 2020 to monitor the impact of Covid-19 on the health of pupils and staff, on patterns of attendance, and on the effectiveness of online learning, will continue to have an important role in the short term. A decision has already been taken not to hold the national examinations in 2021, though the amount of in-school testing to enable teachers to make their returns to the SQA has attracted some negative comment.
The temptation may be to return to ‘normal’ as soon as possible, reverting to traditional patterns of teaching and assessment. But is that the best course? Should we not take the opportunity to learn from the difficulties of the last year, to re-think some of our fundamental assumptions about the purposes of schooling? Even a body such as the Association of Directors of Education (ADES), hardly noted for rocking the boat, warns against trying to get back to ‘business as usual’. It suggests that there are lessons to be learned from the experience of the pandemic.
In a document outlining a route over the next five years, it recommends ‘a comprehensive review of assessment across all sectors of education’. This would include reflections on the strengths and limitations of technology in promoting learning, informed by its use during lockdown. Such a review would also benefit from revisiting Professor Mark Priestley’s report on the problems that arose during 2020 when examinations for National Qualifications had to be cancelled and the Scottish Qualifications Authority came in for heavy criticism over its handling of the affair. Effective progress depends on tackling problems head-on, not on using the soothing language of public relations to try to reassure teachers, pupils and parents that everything is fine.
There are other sources that can point the incoming government in the direction of policy areas that merit review. A recent report, produced jointly by Audit Scotland and the Accounts Commission, highlighted the uneven progress made in closing the poverty-related attainment gap between the most and least deprived school pupils.
Despite some improvement, it has been inconsistent, with large variations in the performance of local authorities, and some getting worse on certain measures. The report also calls for better data to gain insight into educational attainment beyond examinations. For effective education policies to be developed, it is necessary to gather evidence systematically over many years so that significant trends can be identified. This call echoes similar requests from academics over a number of years. The suspicion has been that Ministers and officials are fearful of evidence that might cast doubt on their claims that things are going well.
The document that is likely to receive most attention by the new administration is the forthcoming report on the review of Curriculum for Excellence by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. This has been a controversial exercise. When it was first announced, there were criticisms about its limited remit, the role of a senior Scottish Government official in managing the process, and the refusal to accept written submissions from individuals and organisations. Doubt was cast on the extent to which the review could be considered properly ‘independent’.
More recently, the controversy has centred on the release of the report, originally promised for early 2021, but now delayed until after the election. A draft report does exist, the main points of which have been conveyed to key ‘stakeholders’ who have been enjoined to treat the contents as confidential. Fortunately, a few of those present have leaked some of the headlines.
The draft report praises the aspirations of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) but says that the bold vision has not been matched by a clear strategic plan for implementation, communication and review. It states that the broad, general education provided up to the end of third year in secondary school (S3) is working fairly well, though some teachers would dispute this and would claim that knowledge has been downgraded in favour of rather amorphous skills.
Serious problems arise in S4 with courses aimed at preparing pupils for National and Higher examinations. This fits with teachers’ criticisms of variations in subject choice between different schools, multi-level teaching and over-complex pathways. Documentation by Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority, which is intended to be helpful, is often jargon-filled and lacks clarity.
Overall, the senior phase of schooling is said to be out of line with the original CfE vision, suggesting that further reform of qualifications is required. More generally, the draft report acknowledges that there is no shortage of ‘engagement’ with education professionals but suggests that it often appears to make little difference to what happens in practice. The implication is that endless meetings in a variety of overlapping bodies with many of the same personnel produces a confused policy landscape – and one in which procrastination and institutional self-interest can flourish.
The leaked findings of the OECD report should be treated with caution as drafts can be revised, and final texts are normally subject to ‘diplomatic’ negotiation between reviewers and government. It is remarkable how often ‘bad news’ can be recast into something more positive by ‘creative’ civil servants.
Beyond the usual suspects
One recommendation which the final OECD report is unlikely to make is that the Scottish Government should look beyond the traditional players (notably Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority). A recent briefing paper produced by the Social Market Foundation (SMF) offers some useful pointers to what is needed to extend the parameters of the debate.
The SMF is a London-based think tank, a fact which is likely to cause nationalistic hackles to rise, forestalling a proper consideration of what it has to say. But we should be open to good ideas whatever their source. The paper is written by a Scot, Aveek Battacharya, who was educated at Cults Academy in Aberdeenshire and who has carried out research comparing English and Scottish education. He also interviewed a number of Scottish academics, journalists, activists and school leaders in the course of his enquiries. Although there are robust criticisms in the analysis, the overall tone is constructive, with the aim of encouraging more innovation and experimentation in Scottish education.
If Scotland is to meet the social, educational and technological challenges of the years to come, not least in the wake of the current pandemic, its school system will need to overcome a cautious, conformist and risk averse culture. Aveet Battarcharya: Encouraging innovation and experimentation in Scottish Schools
Scottish education, it is claimed, is not ‘failing’, but ‘stagnating’. The system suffers from a ‘cultural malaise’ which makes it ‘cautious, conformist and risk averse’. Too often assessment and inspection practices act as constraints rather than as opportunities for development. Local authorities have an uncertain role and the new Regional Improvement Collaboratives have yet to achieve their potential. The career progress of too many senior personnel has depended on political and professional deference, rather than on the quality of their thinking. Decisions have not been sufficiently informed by research, despite claims that policies are ‘evidence informed’. These points have implications for initial teacher education and subsequent opportunities for teacher development. Existing courses do not encourage divergent thinking.
So much for the criticisms. What about the positive recommendations? The report proposes that there should be an Innovation Fund to support novel projects, and that innovation should be an explicit part of the remit of educational bodies. It also proposes that there should be better forums for the exchange of ideas, drawing on a wider range of participants, to counteract the tired recycling of material from traditional agencies. Most provocatively, it states that there is a need to diversify appointments to senior roles in government and national bodies. The cosy, inward-looking world of Scottish education, in which most of the leading figures know each other, needs to be subject to a degree of disruption. It is acknowledged that there is no magic button marked ‘culture change’ that will shift attitudes overnight but ignoring the problem will simply extend the period of stagnation.
The SMF report deserves to be taken seriously, though official Scotland’s record in paying heed to critical perspectives is poor. The incoming Cabinet Secretary should be aware that there is a growing number of pressure groups prepared to challenge existing bureaucratic structures, which are often perceived as unhelpful. Professional authority is likely to come under increasing attack from a better-informed and ‘media savvy’ population. It would be a mistake for politicians and officials simply to ‘dig in’ and defend traditional practices.
Change can be difficult and uncomfortable, but there is unlikely to be a better time to begin to dismantle some of the barriers which have impeded genuine growth. Scottish education needs to escape from the ‘iron cage’ of its own bureaucracy. This will require vision, honesty and courage, qualities that, sadly, have not been in plentiful supply among political leaders (of all parties) in recent years.
• The author’s most recent academic article, ‘The “Iron Cage” of Educational Bureaucracy’, appears in the British Journal of Educational Studies. A brief summary can be accessed here. See also: Election 2021 issue brief: Inequality in Educational Attainment, FAI