2007 - 2021

Here Comes The Latest Watershed Moment

Given the recent devastating floods across Scotland and the rest of the UK, ‘watershed moment’ may or may not have been the best metaphor to describe the current state of Scottish education, but that was the description borrowed from a recent OECD report by Education Scotland’s Chief Executive Bill Maxwell last week, in his ‘state-of-the-union’-style blogpost on the Education Scotland website.

We seem to be living in an age when ‘watershed moments’ in education come thick and fast, but as for this latest case of hydro-hyperbole, I reflect on how big the gap is between the rhetoric and the reality. Dr Maxwell’s post on the Education Scotland blog is fairly brief, so I have quoted it in full here, along with my own thoughts (in italics) on the current state of state education in Scotland.Given the recent devastating floods across Scotland and the rest of the UK, ‘watershed moment’ may or may not have been the best metaphor to describe the current state of Scottish education, but that was the description borrowed from a recent OECD report by Education Scotland’s Chief Executive Bill Maxwell last week, in his ‘state-of-the-union’-style blogpost on the Education Scotland website. We seem to be living in an age when ‘watershed moments’ in education come thick and fast, but as for this latest case of hydro-hyperbole, I reflect on how big the gap is between the rhetoric and the reality. Dr Maxwell’s post on the Education Scotland blog is fairly brief, so I have quoted it in full here, along with my own thoughts (in italics) on the current state of state education in Scotland.watershed

Bill Maxwell: Scottish education has had an excellent opportunity to “see ourselves as others see us” to borrow a famous Burns quotation.

We have been receiving a lot of international attention recently. December’s report on Scottish school education by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), one of the world’s most authoritative think-tanks, was followed this month by the premier annual gathering of education researchers from around the world – some 500 of them – in Glasgow.

The main message I took from these international engagements is one which rings true with the evidence we gather at Education Scotland. That message is that the wide-ranging programme of reform of education in Scotland over the last decade is setting the right ambition and has the potential to ensure young Scots are amongst the best educated young people in the world, but we have more to do to make sure that happens.

BB: The ‘programme of reform’ in Scottish education has actually been painfully slow, and in the case of the reform of secondary education, virtually non-existent. It is absolutely true that the vision for education set out in Curriculum for Excellence has the potential to ensure that young scots are ‘amongst the best educated young people in the world’, but we knew that ten years ago, and nothing much has changed in the interim. Indeed, we do ‘have more to do to make sure that happens’. However, recent signs are not good, and there are strong indications from the Scottish Government – through the ‘National Improvement Framework’ (sic) – that some of the core principles of CfE are about to be eroded in favour of more ‘teaching to the test’, in the mistaken belief that this will close the attainment gap between children from poorer backgrounds and those whose parents have more than enough money to be going on with. Incidentally, the OECD may be regarded by some as ‘one of the world’s most authoritative think-tanks’, but that view is by no means universal. Others believe that the PISA tests used by the OECD to make international comparisons are riddled with ambiguities, and do more harm than good when it comes to governments using them to determine educational policy (see for example this Guardian article from May 2014)

Bill Maxwell: We need to hold firm to the vision, but we also stand at a ‘watershed moment’ to use a phrase from the OECD report. We need now to move confidently beyond managing the introduction of key structural changes such as the new National Qualifications and strengthened professional learning arrangements for teachers, to a new phase which shifts the focus firmly onto teachers and school leaders capitalising on the scope which these changes give them to develop more effective, more customised learning experiences for all their learners.

BB: In reality our schools currently spend more time making sure they are watertight rather than sensing that they are in a ‘watershed moment’, and the fact that Education Scotland describes the introduction of new National Qualifications (which are not that different from the old National Qualifications) as ‘key structural changes’ reveals much about the appetite of the educational establishment – and by implication the Scottish Government – for radical changes to the system. Putting aside for the moment all the major changes which would be required to realise Curriculum for Excellence as envisaged in the original blueprint – such as a shift to project or problem-based learning, the re-definition of ‘practical’ subjects, an overhaul of school buildings, timetables and the school day, a drastic reduction in the amount of testing, greater investment in teachers’ professional development and so on – these ‘new’ qualifications change nothing. They are still predominantly pen-and-paper tests, an anomaly in today’s largely digital world, taken by young people when they reach a particular age rather than when they are ready to take them. If you truly want to move education forward in this country, you need to shift the emphasis away from National Qualifications as the end goal.

Bill Maxwell: The new National Improvement Framework, also launched last week, has now set out a clear set of priority objectives for all schools to address, as they exercise these new levels of professional freedom. It places a strong onus on teachers’ professional judgement in the assessment and evaluation of progress. There is also a strong role for educational research, both to help inform the decision schools make about what changes to make in their own provision and to generate a wider body of evidence on what is working well, and what is working less well, across Scotland.

BB: This nothing short of double-speak. A key aspect of the National Improvement Framework is a return to standardised national tests, meaning a significant reduction in ‘professional freedom’ and a diminution of teachers’ professional judgement. Teachers, especially when they are provided with robust, good quality professional development opportunities, are perfectly capable of assessing learners’ progress and reporting on it to parents. Standardised testing is not about helping teachers to make judgements about a child’s progress, it is about holding teachers to account, or – to put it more crudely – judging teachers by their students’ test results. The suggestion that there is to be a strong role in the process for educational research is to be welcomed, though one would have hoped that this was already the case.

Bill Maxwell: The framework also stresses the need for schools to engage strongly with young people, parents and carers and their local communities as they develop and refine new ways of meeting the needs of learners more effectively. If you are a parent or carer, a learner, an employer or just someone with an interest in education in your local community, you should expect to see increasing opportunities to be involved in real dialogue about the education being provided in the schools in your locality. Parents and carers, in particular, should expect expanding opportunities to be involved actively as partners in their child’s learning.

BB: One of the key features of Curriculum for Excellence – quite rightly – was the emphasis on parental and community involvement. The fact that little progress has been made in that regard will not be addressed simply by re-stating it ten years later in another ‘improvement’ document. It has always been the case that parents are more involved with their children’s primary education, and that as they progress through secondary school that involvement tends to be limited to one or two parents’ evenings a year, where they are on the receiving end of a brief summary of progress, usually in the form of grades or scores. It may well be that that is what most parents (and their children) want, but opportunities to be involved in the learning process – teaching methodology, homework policies, curriculum content etc.) tend to be very limited. I am sure communities across Scotland will look forward to the ‘increasing opportunities to be involved in real dialogue’ and the ‘expanding opportunities’ you mention, but since there is currently no indication as to what this means in reality, I guess they will have to simply reserve judgement for now.

Bill Maxwell: All of this has implications for my own organisation too. Education Scotland was created back in 2011 as a new type of improvement agency which brings a rich mix of education experts in development, support and inspection together in one place. This allows us to flex the way we deploy our staff over time, shifting the balance of the support and challenge we provide from year to year to reflect what is most needed at any particular point in time. In recent years that has meant a strong emphasis on supporting the process of implementing CfE in local authorities and schools, including a major commitment to supporting the transition to new qualifications and to new teaching and assessment approaches from the early years onwards.

BB: The order in which you list that ‘rich mix’ of education experts is interesting, because when Education Scotland was created in 2011, the balance between development, support and inspection shifted quite dramatically away from the former towards the latter, a shift that was reflected in the number of staff who were retained from the original agencies of Learning and Teaching Scotland and HMIE. I am not sure that many schools – or indeed local authorities – will recognise that ‘strong emphasis on supporting the process of implementing CfE’ of which you speak. In fact, perhaps the greatest obstacle to the implementation of CfE has been the inability of local authorities to provide clear leadership and adequate support for schools – a situation brought about largely, but not solely, by chronic under-funding – as they have struggled to adapt to the changing world around them. In such circumstances, and fearing that school inspections may reflect badly on them, local authorities often adopt an ‘accountability’ mind-set and impose another layer of inspection on schools. This encourages a fear of failure which stifles innovation and creativity. The solution to this is to end the process of national school inspections and replace it with a form of local democracy, which makes schools more accountable to the communities they serve, but I guess since you represent Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (even though you aren’t called that any more), you are not going to argue for your own demise any time soon!

Bill Maxwell: Looking forward, as we move into a new phase of embedding Curriculum for Excellence, I see that balance shifting. That will mean we move to a stronger emphasis on evaluating what is working best as schools individually, and together in networks, devise new ways of delivering the best possible learning experiences for their pupils. We will increase inspections to help gather and spread that evidence more effectively. We will also accelerate our work on new approaches to promoting improvement in key areas, particularly the Scottish Attainment Challenge as it leads a nationwide effort to close the Attainment gap.

The next few years will be crucial in ensuring our young people reap the full harvest from the seeds of change that have been planted and nurtured thus far. The OECD praised Scotland for its foresight and patience in taking an ambitious education reform programme to the stage it has reached so far. We now need to follow through and tackle the next phase of improving Scotland’s schools with renewed focus and vigour.

BB: Here we get to the heart of the matter. ‘What we need to improve Scottish education is more school inspections’, said no-one ever, yet that is the one clear promise in your whole blogpost, and, ironically, what you describe as the shifting of the balance from ‘supporting’ to ‘evaluating’ is one that we can all see happening, just as you do. The difference is that very few people in the educational community will see this as a good thing. And interestingly, while your post emphasises words like ‘research’, ‘evidence’, ‘evaluate’ and ‘vigour’, it makes no mention of teachers, and specifically does not mention increasing support for them in their professional development, which is an absolute pre-condition for improvement in any education system.

There are many good things happening in our schools at the moment, but I suspect most of them are happening despite the system, rather than because of it. An Education Scotland whose role was to support teachers in every way possible, rather than trying to measure everything they do, would be a welcome step on the road to irrigating those seeds that you mention, without flooding the landscape in the process.

Comments (11)

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  1. Fearchar I MacIllFhinnein says:

    There was a time when schools were encouraged to allow adults to participate, even to the extent of being prepared for national examinations. Now, it seems as if parents are only grudgingly allowed in to receive the judgment of the teachers on their offspring. As for influencing what goes on in the curriculum – how dare anyone disturb the bureaucracy!

    Take the example of languages: all the evidence is that, globally, multilingualism is the natural state of affairs, yet schools still seem to be the instruments for enforcing a rigorous one-track monolingual policy. Parents, pupils and teachers may have an abundance of linguistic skills, but if they are not part of the standardised English that makes up the bulk of the curriculum or the tiny proportion that makes up the one true permissible foreign language (French, natch!), then they are to be treated, at best, as an extra-curricular hobby, or perhaps as a minor part of our national heritage, if you are lucky enough to live within the catchment area of a Gaelic-medium school.

    As a parent, I found it a real struggle to obtain provision for German, Western Europe’s most widely spoken language, for my offspring. What must it be like if you have a heritage language of, say, Dutch, Polish, Yoruba or Hakka? In an increasingly globalised world, these are valuable skills, and a host of studies shows that those practising such skills perform better in other educational subjects – most notably in English.

    Still the Scottish educational curriculum persists in its historical duty of providing administrators for the empire, who need to speak standard English clearly, if a little more loudly when the punka-wallahs are too slow. Could we have an attempt to provide an education suited for a small country (Scotland or the UK – take your pick) on the north-west fringes of Europe in the 21st century, that is trying to be active in globalised markets that are already saturated with screwdriver factories?

    1. Wul says:

      Good point.
      Many years ago, my mother went back to school in her 40’s, after raising 3 boys, to get her “O” Grades. She then went on to College and eventually Glasgow Uni, gaining a Masters degree and a new career in the NHS helping people with learning disabilities. None of that would have happened without the chance to attend the local secondary school.

  2. Wul says:

    Is it really any surprise that their is an “attainment gap” between kids raised in affluent areas compared to those in deprived areas? How T.F. is a teacher or school supposed to resolve that conundrum?
    No amount of curricular fannying about is going to help a child who has come to school from a home that may be damp, cold, mouldy; who may be hungry and frightened or angry, who may be returning to a family which is wound up tight by poverty or low wages, poor mental health or hopelessness.

    Getting a child to school well dressed & fed; prepared & well rested; loved, happy, healthy and secure takes a hell of a lot of family resources and effort from parents. Until we invest real societal support to ALL families, there will always be an unacceptable “attainment gap”

    1. Ken Waldron says:

      Good point Wul.

      ” …will close the attainment gap between children from poorer backgrounds and those whose parents have more than enough money …”

      Nothing done in Schools will close that gap and to talk about it being possible is just window dressing.
      Truth is nothing but closing the gap in earnings between the poorest and the rest can achieve it. Why pretend otherwise?

  3. Norrie McPherson says:

    Teaching in Scotland used to be a profession on par with medicine, law or the ministry, rightly so!

    Enter one Michael Forsyth. Forsyth presented the profession with a stark choice, do as I want you to do or go on strike.

    The teachers hummed and hawed, threatened this, threatened that, balloted, looked for support, marched up to the top of the hill, cried, pulled hair and then backed down over a protracted period of time letting out the occasional whimper.

    Forsyth got his way! The biproduct or perhaps his main intention was the teaching profession was de-professionalised, many excellent teachers left and those that remained were malleable and all fight had gone.

    What has surprised me about the profession since the SNP took to power is that they would have been pushing at an open door to come in from the cold and become a profession again (which they should be!). Instead they have remained on the margins, silent, leaderless and divided with multiple unions / vested interests. This status will not have been lost on young people considering a career in teaching.

    I still believe there is an open door to the SNP government, look at the first minister’s most cherished stated goal. A sensible, professional and progressive body of highly educated people should know which direction to head in and which nail to hang their future on.

    I live and hope that their leaders unite, lead and knock on the SNP’s door to come in from the cold, there is no other show in town!

  4. Clive Scott says:

    Despite the constant winging from teachers about the oppression they feel they are under from overbearing assessment I have yet to hear of any being dismissed for incompetence.

  5. florian albert says:

    Bill Boyd is unhappy that CfE has not been implemented in full.
    The secondary teachers I know view things somewhat differently. They see it as yet another initiative which, after many years’ gestation, during which little worthwhile was achieved, was dumped on them and they were told to get on with it.
    They think that little was achieved in so long because CfE is -to coin a phrase – not fit for purpose.
    It implies radical change for which there is little or no support from parents and would need vast resources. The educational establishment is aware of this and, as a result, it backs away from the full implications of CfE.
    In any case, it is mostly irrelevant. Nicola Sturgeon has woken up to the scale of under-achievement in many Scottish schools. Supporters of CfE are finding out that their time has come and gone.

    The much quoted OECD report said that what was needed was a ‘move from system management … nearer to teaching and learning.’

    1. Jean says:

      What evidence is there that parents do not support CoE? I appreciate this is empirical but those I know are very much in support of it, because they see the potential for truly developing young people throughout their educational career. The emphasis on testing is irrelevant because if schools were doing their job properly, those children who need additional support to achieve even basic standards would be given the help they need. Teachers know who they are so why do they need the endorsement of test results to prove it. I have worked with amazing schools whose catchment areas meant they were in the lowest percentiles for free school meals, single parents, exclusion rates but who achieved far beyond the expectations people might have had be a use of the leadership and ethos within them. Sadly on those occasions when the management changed, especially at head teacher level, this often led to changes for the worse unless new incumbents had the ability and commitment to continue the really good work being done. Sadly, rarely was this the case with a drive to gain credibility by simply trying to improve on targets rather than taking a holistic view of the work required. Targets per se are too general.

      1. florian albert says:


        Your comment inadvertently pointed to a major failing in Scottish schools. You, correctly, write that there are schools which achieve great things against the odds. However, if it is all dependent on an inspirational head, then – as you say – it collapses when the head leaves. Most heads are neither inspirational nor duds. They are doing their best in a very demanding job.
        What is required are structures which allow schools to thrive even without an inspirational head.
        At present, the government’s own statistics on attainment, at P4, P7 and S2, show achievement is
        often poor and is declining. At S5, the statistics show a chasm in achievement routinely described as educational apartheid.
        There is no sign that CfE, either the vague blueprint or as it is being implimented, is doing anything much to improve this state of affairs.

  6. james gourlay says:

    Bill Boyd – good article. Our education system was developed as a “one size fits all”. This method makes it easier to control the recipients and makes it more difficult for them to stray from the mean. Since then it has been tinkered around the edges with very little real educational betterment. It’s all done by numbers. For example children develop abilities at different rates, yet the system sets the start of primary school at five years of age – even a difference of a few days in age can mean a difference of one year in starting school! Also there’s a lot of “tick the appropriate box” mentality of the interfering politicians who decide what “teaching” will mean. In a class of twenty pupils there are twenty different people and teaching to the “average” is not only a waste of time but is detrimental to the majority. Education needs an overhaul from the bottom up.

  7. Tila Morris says:

    This is a great article which exposes the current challenges and dilemmas:
    -paying too much heed to OECD (some of it is useful some of it is flawed)
    -not doing enough to give the good teachers scope to lead in implementing the true spirit of Curriculum for Excellence (by default this leaves the power in the hands of the gatekeepers blocking progress)
    – buckling to the pressure of demand for standardised testing (to achieve what exactly?)
    – only offering one very mediocre form of education in a false belief that this makes it fair for the majority (instead it relegates far too many to a lifetime where they lack self worth and fail to reach their true potential)
    – an obsession with certificates and grades (no matter how often employers tell us that it is of low importance compared to confidence, attitudes, creativity etc.)
    – keeping parents at arms-length (parents are key to successful learning and need to be supported to be integral to it)
    – lack of courage to change the old system (as if we’re gripped by the fear and discipline instilled in us in our own schooling)
    – making local authorities solely responsible for how education is implemented (when their bureaucracies and bad management are part of the problem not the solution)
    – lack of faith in ourselves to take a lead in revolutionising our education system

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