On the Consultation for the National Discussion on Education
What follows are thoughts in relation to the national discussion on education, and the sorts of reforms needed to achieve radical and long-lasting improvements in Scottish schooling. By James McEnaney.
The Context of the ‘National Discussion’
First of all, I think it’s important that we understand the context of this so-called ‘national discussion’. The reform process that we are apparently undergoing started on 21 June, 2021. This was when the long-awaited, and government-commissioned, OECD report into Scottish education was published; it was also the day that the Scottish government announced the demise of the SQA. The report was potentially extremely damaging, both for the Scottish Government and its institutions in general and to Nicola ‘I want to be judged on this’ Sturgeon in particular. The inescapable conclusion of the OECD findings is that the First Minister’s education policies since 2015 have either failed to improve Scottish education (teachers’ class contact time is disgracefully high) or actively taken it in the wrong direction (scrapping the SSLN in favour of what was always going to end up a failed standardised testing regime).
This is why the abolition of the SQA was announced on the same day – to save Nicola Sturgeon from her own hubris. It was a tactical move to distract from the truly damning content of the report — and it worked. The manoeuvre was aided by the fact that the OECD document was written in language that is often all-but impenetrable for non-specialist readers. I was interviewed on that day about the end of the SQA, and remember trying (and obviously failing) to explain why the real story lay in the report itself.
Now don’t get me wrong – the SQA absolutely, 100%, without doubt or mercy, must be dismantled. Like the soon-to-be-disbanded Education Scotland, it is a failed organisation with no part to play in the future of schooling in this country. But if the government were serious about scrapping the SQA, why would they have placed so many people from the organisation at the heart of the reform process? Does changing the name on the door (the Qualifications Authority for Scotland, anyone?) while the same type of people remain in charge really count as much more than a PR move?
So we started off with the Muir review, which examined and made recommendations for the structure of the bodies charges with overseeing education in Scotland. I have no doubt whatsoever that those involved acted in good faith as committed professionals, but the fact is that this sort of discussion should obviously have been taking place after a much larger debate about the overall structures and ideology of the system itself. By pushing the Muir review ahead of other actions, the potential avenues that it might be able to recommend for reform were always going to be limited by the power of the status quo. What’s more, we’ve already seen key recommendations rejected because the government has decided that they’re inconvenient.
The same issues and risks apply to the Hayward review of qualifications themselves, which should surely happen after an extensive and democratic discussion of the purposes and expected outcomes of end of school certification? Otherwise, how can the full range of possibilities ever truly be on the table?
And what of the national discussion itself? Well it’s neither national nor a discussion. In my book, Class Rules, I called for a ‘national conversation’ on the future of education, but I had something quite different in mind. To me, a national discussion/conversation shouldn’t be about gathering ideas so that a couple of (deservedly respected) academics can hand a report to the government (who clearly can’t be trusted with it anyway) but rather to develop a new consensus and, ultimately, establish a new mandate for educational reform – one that is, crucially, independent on party politics. If this is not achieved then the god-awful state of Scottish politics pretty much guarantees that proposed changes will become a point of party political (and even constitutional) bickering.
The philosophy and principles and goals of an education system are a democratic matter and must be secured on that basis. This means genuine input from pupils, parents, businesses, community groups, charities and more (the sort of people that public bodies refer to as ‘stakeholders’). But doing that properly takes time, and the current process is far too rushed. The consultation to which I am, in effect, currently contributing was only opened at the end of September, and though lots of virtual and some in person events have taken place, what do you think would happen if you asked 100 random people on the street whether they were involved in a national discussion on education?
We should be running dozens of open, well-advertised, public events at which people could not only discuss their experiences and opinions, but also learn about the possibilities from people with the necessary expertise.
Those of us professionally immersed in education know, for example, that criterion referenced assessment rather than the current norm referencing approach would transform the “exam system” but to lots of people that phrase simply, and entirely understandably, means the system as it is and how they’ve always known it. We know that Scotland’s incredibly high levels of class contact time are one of the biggest barriers to enhancing the quality of what happens in the classroom, but the idea that we can improve education by having teachers spend less time with their pupils is obviously going to be stubbornly counter-intuitive for many people.
We should also be running hundreds of teachmeets, some mixed and others focused on specialisms, and through these events having teachers build the new system from the ground up. This part, the actual mechanics of the system like curricular theory or assessment approaches, is primarily a matter for teachers and relevant experts.
Instead, we’re racing through this whole process because the government has political goals it wants to meet. Come the next election, it seems that the SNP want to be able to crow about how they have carried out a huge consultation and kicked off a transformational change in Scottish education. All the signs are that this will be untrue, but being able to make the claim might help keep the focus away from their actual record, and thus at least partially combat one of the party’s biggest political weaknesses. As ever: politics first; pupils at some point down the line.
This national discussion, in context, therefore looks like a means by which the government can pretend to be serious about change while actually tightening their grip on the system and cutting off various avenues of reform. The end result is still, it seems, going to be a report to the Scottish Government from which politicians will pick the bits they like and ditch the bits they don’t, with those decisions based on political preferences rather than the needs and rights of young people.
In all honesty I can see a good argument for not engaging at all, but as only a complete boycott would work (and it’s too late for that now anyway) I’ve decided to make this public contribution to the national discussion.
I cannot, however, do that within the confines of the consultation questions that have been made available. They’re too vague and open (maybe that’s the point?), some don’t really mean anything at all, and in some cases anything approaching a valuably detailed answer would open up questions that go a very, very long way beyond education policy anyway.
I could (and probably should) write a book about the future of Scottish education, but below are at least some thoughts on major avenues for improvement of schooling in the country. They’re in no particular order and the list is not exhaustive. It’s not particularly eloquent either, but I hope that what follows can contribute in some way to what comes next for education in Scotland.
What Scottish Education Needs
CfE / the Experiences & Outcomes
I’m often asked if CfE should be scrapped and, realistically, it depends on what you mean by CfE. If, however, you would define it by the Experiences and Outcomes then the answer would be yes. An honest assessment of CfE tells us that it’s central promise have been a failure – it was supposed to liberate teachers to do their jobs as effectively as possible but became defined, and strangled, by the vines of bureaucracy that grew from it. The publication of ‘benchmarks’ was supposed to simplify the system but made it more complex. From day one the “E’s and O’s” structure has encouraged, by its very nature, and thanks to a lack of trust in teachers from both councils and central government, an insidious audit-driven approach to young people’s educational experiences. It needs to go. The broad curricular areas are largely fine, and while the terms are all vague enough to be interchangeable, the fundamental idea of the Four Capacities – that we are aiming to develop human beings rather than build exam factories – remains appropriate.
School starting age
There’s no need for me to rehash all the arguments around this. We know that the school starting age in Scotland is very high compared to other places and that there’s plenty of good evidence for raising it. For me, however, the main reason to do is that this is the perfect catalyst policy to transform not just Scottish education, but broader aspects (and inequalities) of Scottish society. Introducing a universal, full-time, publicly-run kindergarten system, free at the point of use (just like schools are now), is probably the best shot at a policy that could make a dent in what people call the ‘poverty related attainment gap’ because it would shift our focus and encourage us to act as early as possible to equalise as much of children’s developmental experiences as possible. People often talk about, for example, the impact on the kids who grow up in houses with no books – well lets make sure they spend lots and lots of time in an environment that does have them. Lets give them lots of opportunities to engage in all different types of play, and experience with a whole range of different experiences. And lets do it in a way that addresses one of the biggest pressures across society – the appalling lack of affordable childcare, and consequent impact on earning ability of many parents.
End of school assessment (or ‘exam reform’)
The most fundamental issue here is that we must move beyond the obsession with a one-size-fits-all approach to assessment. It is absurd that we use basically the same testing methods for maths students as we do for those studying English or physics or geography – a ‘traditional’ exam on one day only at the very end of the year, with a bit of coursework or practical activity added in where needed. Teachers who have been involved in qualifications development over the years often talk of their frustrations that key decisions about assessment approaches had generally been made by SQA officials before any of the actual teachers had entered the room. This has to change. Maths teachers should decide on the most valid, reliable and fair method of assessing and certifying (or examining) their students, while English teachers and physics teachers and geography teachers etc etc must decide on what is best in their area of professional expertise. In some areas the ‘new’ approach might look very similar to what we already do (I’d probably expect this for maths, for example) but in other areas – and I’d desperately hope that my subject, English, is in this group – the means of awarding qualifications and grades to students could be completely different and far more reflective of students’ true abilities in that curricular area. And let’s not forget that there are plenty of options for assessment. I often think about the driving test, which you sit when you and your teacher believe that you are ready. If you don’t succeed you can keep trying until you do perform at the required standard and after that it doesn’t matter whether you passed first time or fiftieth – you’re equally qualified to take charge of a couple of tons of metal and go hurtling around at up to 70 miles per hour. If that process is valid, reliable, fair and, above all, safe, then it seems hard to believe that the one-off, make-or-break exam to which we seem to be addicted is, in fact, the only way.
And it’s not just the assessments themselves – it’s also the quantity. We grind young people through exams for three years in a row and, in the process, waste months and months and months of time. Add up the weeks required for 3 exam periods and 3 sets of prelims; now add in all the time that is spent not teaching the subject but rather coaching the exam. And now imagine how good our students could be if we could spend that time actually teaching them.
The discussion about exam reform needs to become a discussion not just about end of school certification, but about the very nature of what we currently call senior phase education (but what is, in practice, still S4, S5 and S6). A potential change to the school starting age would open up the possibility of changes to the other transition stages and even the current primary-secondary structure of our schools. In some ways it seems that a truly 3-18 CfE would function in four stages: development (3-6; early level), primary (6-12; levels 1 & 2), middle (12-16; levels 3 & 4), higher (16+; qualifications). If that is so, what might those different institutions look like? What sort of local variations and community provision might be possible in the development stage, and might the higher stage look a lot more like current college provision?
Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. Read that back a few times. Say it over and over again until it has really sunk in – because unless we accept that basic principle then we are going absolutely nowhere. So longer as teachers in Scotland are underpaid, overworked and profoundly underappreciated the quality of education cannot really be improved all that much, no matter how many snappy slogans the government’s spin doctors come up with.
The most pressing matter for me is class contact time. The government has promised a relatively small cut and even that doesn’t look like it is going to be universally implemented any time soon – but even if it were it wouldn’t really represent much progress, particularly when officials and bureaucrats and spreadsheet-botherers are already looking for ways to dictate how the time can be used (because it’s the only way they get to feel like their jobs are worthwhile).
Non-teachers often (understandably) don’t really understand this issue, but in my experience it’s quite easy to show people why it matters so much. Ask them how much time they’d like to think their child’s teacher spends reviewing their work each work. 10mins is probably the minimum that most parents would want – but if that happened then we’d need to create several new days in the working week to create the time that is required. And that’s just for marking and individual feedback / planning. What about whole-class planning? What about curricular development? What about tracking and monitoring, guidance, extra-curricular work, professional collaborations, department meetings, CPD etc etc etc etc etc etc?
On top of contact-time, we need to address class sizes (which are far too big), progression routes (that keep teachers in the classroom), and of course pay (which is the subject of ongoing industrial action for the first time in decades). We also need to provide proper support for teachers both within schools (get rid of faculties) and beyond (re-establish the sort of local, regional and national support networks that used to exist).
And while we’re doing all of this, we need to make it very, very clear that teachers are highly skilled and dedicated professionals who know much more about education than Scotland’s newspaper columnists and (largely mediocre) politicians.
Schools at the heart of communities
I was profoundly affected by my experience of teaching on the Isle of Arran, where the role of the island’s only secondary school felt entirely different from those in which I had completed my placements or the one I had attended as a teenager. On Arran, I felt like I was serving a genuine, coherent community, and I believe that this is something we should be trying to explore in much more explicit terms across the country. I think one way of doing this would be to expand the school day, so that every single school in the country opened by 8am (at the latest) and stayed open until at least 6pm (at the earliest). This would not just contribute to a much-needed revolution in childcare, it would also allow us to massively expand services in schools, whether that be provisions for young people (sports classes, extra-curricular activities, academic support, counselling and health services) or families (debt advice, support to access benefits and other services, adult education and training schemes). In order to achieve this, we would have to expand our understand of the school workforce, because obviously none of these additional provisions could or should be staffed by classroom teachers who contact time we need to cut. We’d want to be bringing in community workers and coaches and artists and musicians and psychologists and outdoor instructors and all sorts of others. It would be a long-term project, and the mechanics of it might look quite different in different contexts across the country, but it could also be properly transformative.
Proper review cycles
The framing within which educational reforms have currently been placed suggests that we are aiming to have a bit of a chat and then make some changes that will sort us out for the next 20 years – but that’s exactly the mistake we have to avoid. We’re not looking for a quick fix – we’re looking for a roadmap. One of the major flaws of CfE was the failure to build in, or ever establish, proper review cycles (a failure identified by the OECD, by the way). This means that reviews can only ever be reactive, and that all but ensures that they will also be driven by politics – for example, a bad set of literacy results sparks political debate that then leads to demands for a review because SOMETHING MUST BE DONE.
If it weren’t already the case, the world now moves far too fast for that sort of complacency, and our systems are going to have to be much more agile than the government seems able or willing to imagine. A big part of this, I think, is that politicians are scared of ceding control – but getting control of such things out of the hands of politicians is absolutely vital. They can’t be trusted to put young people first and we should stop pretending otherwise.
I am often accused, with good reason, of being a cynic – and I often point out that my cynicism has, unfortunately, served me rather well over the past few years of writing about, and working within, the Scottish education system.
I do not believe that the Scottish Government, or indeed Scotland’s politicians, are serious about pursuing the reforms we need. I do not think they are capable of putting the needs of young people before their own. I do not think they are willing to break up the cosy consensus and (lucrative) old pals act that protects the status quo. I don’t think they’re good enough. I don’t think they’re brave enough. I don’t think even they really believe otherwise.
But I would be absolutely thrilled to be proven wrong, and – like so many others – am ready to get started on the proper work of building the education system that our kids deserve.