Scottish education bureaucracy is alive – but not well

Simply shuffling the existing jokers in the pack will not guarantee real change in education policy, says Walter Humes
10th November 2020, 9:35am

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Scottish education bureaucracy is alive – but not well

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archive/scottish-education-bureaucracy-alive-not-well
Scottish Education Bureaucracy Is Alive - But Not Well

Since 2016, the policy landscape of Scottish education has seen the emergence of a number of new bodies designed to support the National Improvement Framework and the twin aims of excellence and equity.

The most important of these are the Scottish Education Council (SEC), the Curriculum and Assessment Board (CAB) and the Strategic Board for Teacher Education (SBTE). The SEC is intended to have an overarching strategic role, taking account of the deliberations of the CAB and the SBTE. Its recommendations should also be informed by the 2015 review of Scottish education undertaken by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the 2018 report of the International Council for Educational Advisers. Add to that the establishment of six "regional improvement collaboratives" (RICs) and it can be seen that the governance structure has become quite crowded.

How effectively have these new organisations been functioning?  Earlier this year I undertook a study of their operations based mainly on publicly available minutes and other documents. I also arranged a series of confidential conversations with 10 people who were members of one or more of the new bodies. Everyone I approached agreed to take part. Some were senior figures in the educational establishment, others were representatives of particular interest groups.


Background: What the 2015 OECD review said Scotland needs to do to make its school system the world's best

A teacher's view: Why we need to make the SQA listen to teachers

John Swinney: We want 'fully empowered' teachers


What did I find? The range of people involved was more extensive than in the past but there were many similarities with previous accounts of Scottish policymaking. A bureaucratic mindset was in evidence, with strong control of agendas and papers for discussion by government officials. The dominant voices came from the usual suspects - Education Scotland, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS), the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland (ADES), the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS)and School Leaders Scotland. This ensured that discussions were conducted within familiar parameters, with little scope for fresh ideas, despite a professed wish to "empower" teachers and create a more open, less hierarchical culture.

Several respondents stated that the Scottish Education Council was not fulfilling its strategic role and there was evidence of tension with the lead officers in the regional improvement collaboratives.  Communication between the various bodies seems to have been poor, despite the fact that there was some overlap of membership.  Papers were exchanged between the groups but the minutes show that these were simply tabled, not discussed.

One of the conclusions I drew was that structural reform on its own has distinct limitations. Simply shuffling the jokers in the pack will not guarantee real change. Intellectual and cultural aspects of reform need to be given more attention.

I also identified a number of areas where further research is needed. These include the extent to which the RICs have the potential to bring about improvements; the movement of senior staff between different agencies, reinforcing established practices; and the success of traditional players at local and national levels in resisting political attempts to redistribute power.

Walter Humes is an honorary professor at the University of Stirling.  This piece covers issues addressed in a longer paper, which can be viewed via this link.

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