.Are politicians, administrators and senior professionals capable of demonstrating the boldness that is required?
The latest PISA figures are disappointing, but not surprising. They confirm a trend that has been apparent for some time. Predictably, they have led to polarised responses by defenders and critics of Curriculum for Excellence, the flagship policy of Scottish education since 2004.
But, as well as examining the figures closely, and facing the uncomfortable comparisons that they contain, it is important to set them against the broader context of Scottish educational reform. This involves looking at questions of leadership, governance and culture.
It is legitimate to ask who is responsible for the current situation. Education has been high on the agenda of all parties since devolution, but political leadership has been erratic. During this period, there have been no fewer than eleven Ministers in charge of education, averaging just over two years in office. This creates problems of policy continuity and consistency. Given the nature of modern politics, each new Minister feels under pressure to make their mark quickly. This leads to a plethora of initiatives, usually accompanied by hyped-up launch events. For example, soon after her appointment, the current Cabinet Secretary, Jenny Gilruth, announced that a Centre for Teaching Excellence would be established. A longer-term perspective is required, but politicians find it hard to think beyond the next election.
The traditional ‘policy community’ must also bear responsibility. This includes civil servants, the inspectorate, senior staff in national agencies, directors of education and leading figures in teachers’ organisations. They are routinely consulted when new policy proposals are brought forward and their voices carry more weight than those of other stakeholders. They have also become extremely skilful at defending their bureaucratic territory, often resisting proposals that might reduce their power.
What about classroom teachers? The quality of daily transactions between teachers and learners lies at the heart of any educational system. Despite the many pressures of recent years, the vast majority of teachers have continued to do their very best for their pupils, often in difficult circumstances. Many, however, have lost trust and confidence in those who run the educational system (Humes, 2023), regarding them as careerists playing a ‘political’ game, rather than as sources of professional support and good ideas.
The institutional landscape of Scottish education is crowded and complicated. Even experienced insiders can find it difficult to negotiate their way through the plethora of bodies, variously called councils, boards, committees, collaboratives, forums and panels. There is often an overlap in membership between these bodies so that they revisit the same issues and rehearse the same positions, often coming to no very firm conclusion (Humes 2020). The system is highly bureaucratic, with an emphasis on hierarchy, formal rules and procedures, as well as informal socialisation processes which encourage conformity.
The inflexibility of this system is somewhat disguised by endless consultations and the production of reports. Final decisions and actions are currently awaited on the Muir Report (Scottish Government, 2022), the Withers Report (Scottish Government, 2023a) and the Hayward Report (Scottish Government, 2023b). There has also been a National Discussion on education, convened jointly by the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Scottish Government/COSLA, 2023).
These reports reveal an appetite for change among many stakeholders, but reactions to them also reveal the capacity of the elite policy community to delay and push back. In the case of the Muir Report, for example, an Education Reform Strategy Board was set up but it was initially heavily populated by senior staff from Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority, two organisations which the Scottish Government had already decided should be replaced or reformed. Allegations of ‘insider dealing’ led to some changes in membership, but practitioners are still under-represented. The role of the civil service in this episode is worthy of scrutiny, though its members are protected by the convention of confidentiality. Politically authorised ‘leaks’ are, of course, another matter.
‘Change will not be easy. It may be uncomfortable for many people….
There have been repeated calls for a change of culture in Scottish education from, among others, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (in its 2015 and 2021 reports) and in the reports of the International Council of Education Advisers (in 2018, 2020 and 2023). These have recommended a move from a hierarchical style of policy development, which has tended to promote groupthink amongst key actors, and strategic compliance from those on those on the front line. Critical questioning has not been encouraged, despite the invocation of concepts such as ‘empowerment’ and ‘teacher agency’. Changing the culture of a profession is not easy and carries risks for those who attempt it. To be effective, it has to start at the top. Politicians (national and local), senior civil servants, chief executives of national agencies and directors of education need to explain how they themselves will change. This will raise challenging questions about authority, power and responsibility.
There may be an opportunity to begin the process, assuming the new agencies for curriculum and examinations are eventually set up. It will be essential that they have credible chief executives and chairs of boards, able to restore trust and confidence, particularly among the teaching force but also with other stakeholders. A comment in the Withers Report may be relevant here: ‘Change will not be easy. It may be uncomfortable for many people. My strong advice to Ministers is not to shape change based on the views of those with current delivery responsibilities’.
The language of Scottish educational policy also needs to change. We live in a boastful culture. Hyperbole is routinely preferred to plain statement. Check the websites of most public organisations for examples of grandiose ‘mission’ and ‘vision’ statements. Modest achievements are described as ‘ground breaking’ and ‘world leading’. Scottish education has not been immune from this trend. Policy documents are strong on upbeat and over-optimistic pronouncements, bolstered by adjectival overload, when what is needed is hard-headed analysis and a credible plan of action. Inflated claims simply encourage irony and cynicism. In 2016 the former First Minister stated that the ‘defining mission’ of her government was to close the attainment gap between youngsters from ‘advantaged’ and ‘disadvantaged’ backgrounds. This was never a realistic target and the promise to achieve it by 2026 had to be abandoned. Most damagingly, the over-use of the terms ‘excellent’ and ‘excellence’ has become counter-productive. They should be dropped from the policy lexicon.
Scottish education faces a series of daunting challenges: the continuing effects of the Covid pandemic; the assault on knowledge and truth by populist politicians and their media supporters; the potential of the internet both to improve access to information and to serve as a vehicle for dangerous misinformation; the need to understand the possibilities and hazards of Artificial Intelligence, both for individual learners and for schools as institutions. The scale of these challenges calls for serious intellectual leadership, rather than a series of pragmatic, short-term responses to perceived crises. At present, senior figures in the policy community are trapped in the iron cage of the current bureaucratic system, which serves to marginalise dissident voices and constrain innovative thinking.
Bringing forward new proposals to improve literacy and numeracy, in response to the PISA results, may produce some improvement, but there are deeper, systemic problems that require to be addressed. Are politicians, administrators and senior professionals capable of demonstrating the boldness that is required?
Humes, W. (2020) Re-Shaping the Policy Landscape in Scottish Education: The Limitations of Structural Reform. Scottish Educational Review, 52(2): 89-111.
Humes, W. (2023) Scottish Education: a crisis of confidence and trust. Forum, 65(1): 19-29.
Thumbnail: A Close-up View of Barbed Wire By درفش کاویانی – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
FM Humza Yousaf at Crookston Nursery via Scottish Government flickr CC BY 2.0 DEED