The Covid-19 pandemic is an opportunity to "redesign" Scottish education, a group of influential international advisers has said.
"We would like to support Scottish education not merely to get back to normal...but to use this crisis as an opportunity to become a truly extraordinary educational system in the future," says the International Council of Education Advisers (ICEA) to the Scottish government, in its new report.
The advisers also warn that the sort of "crisis-driven responses" to the pandemic in Scottish education, and in many other countries, are "typically insufficient and...[will] incur temporary and sometimes lasting harm as a result".
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The ICEA report highlights that some groups of learners were hit harder by the pandemic than others, with access to remote learning, for example, causing "significant problems" as there was a lack of adequate wi-fi or mobile devices, "especially among poorer families".
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It adds: "There was also evidence that students with special education needs, English language learners, and/or students who were already struggling with their learning were negatively affected by remote learning."
Some countries, such as Estonia, South Korea and Uruguay, were able to respond "more swiftly and nimbly to the pandemic because of their prior stance on technology access".
They stress, however, that school buildings remain "essential because they enable children and teenagers to gather together to be part of a community and develop senses of identity" and "flatten out extreme inequalities", so new digital systems of learning "must be part of the prime physical school environment, not a replacement for it".
The report also calls for a system less reliant on traditional high-stakes, end-of-year exams. It describes high school examinations as "essentially an out-of-date 19th and 20th-century technology operating in a 21st-century environment of teaching and learning".
The advisers – who include a number of internationally well-known figures in education – also note that in many countries the pandemic led to students spending far more time outdoors, and that Scotland should follow suit: "The capacity to teach one’s subject or curriculum in an outdoor environment should become part of all teachers’ training and certification."
The ICEA report states: "With thoughtful planning and management, the destructive effects of Covid-19 may be converted to positive developments within Scottish education in the longer term. Building on its foundational belief in equity and excellence, there is every chance that Scottish education can be a global standard-bearer of education in a post-pandemic world."
The advisers warn that now "is not a time for getting back to normal" but rather to "redesign Scottish education as a universally designed system for all contingencies and disruptions" which "becomes increasingly inclusive, responsive, agile and collaborative, with changes in government resource allocations that reflect this shift".
They talk up the concept of "universal design" to ensure better responses to crises such as Covid-19 in the future. This is an architectural principle that "buildings should not be constructed for normal users and then adapted for special populations like the visually impaired or the disabled"; instead, "from the outset, a building should be designed so that it can be used and enjoyed by the maximum number and range of users".
The report adds: "The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the fact that our educational systems are not universally designed. Whether they are centralised or decentralised, any disturbance of what is considered to be normal requires crisis-driven responses that are typically insufficient and that incur temporary and sometimes lasting harm as a result."
The report also stresses that "Scottish education exhibits many strengths", adding: "It values equity as well as excellence. It has an excellent standing internationally. It is investing effort and resources to narrow attainment gaps, working with and strengthening the teaching profession, and developing collegial Regional Improvement Collaboratives."
A long list of ICEA recommendations, as worded in the report, includes:
- An education system that is universally designed and pandemic-proof.
- A commitment to system change that is driven by collaborative professional relationships and underpinned by peer challenge rather than external demands.
- Superior digital pedagogies and universally accessible, high-quality and interactive national learning platforms.
- Cyclical reviews of Curriculum for Excellence and the realisation of its core capacities.
- Deliberate development of increased student capacity for self-directed learning.
- A shift towards continuous professional assessment supported by investment in appropriate professional learning.
- An asset-based view of students, families and communities that avoids stereotypes like Generation C, and refrains from scapegoating marginalised youth.
- A theory of change and leadership approaches that emphasise distributed responsibility and engagement, professional judgement and agency, robust collaborative professionalism and local energy and ownership.
- Support for leaders in their work and wellbeing through mentoring as a professional entitlement.
Education secretary John Swinney, responding to the ICEA report, said: “It reinforces the issue of equity as the defining agenda of our time, says we have an excellent standing internationally and that Scottish education can be a ‘global standard bearer in a post-pandemic world’.
“That is no easy task and the report provides a series of detailed recommendations to help us not just get back to normal, but to use the pandemic as an opportunity to develop a more resilient education system for the future.”
He added: “We will consider the report carefully, discuss with our partners and publish a full response in the new year.”