Donaldson 10 years on: 'good progress' but much to do

Author of landmark report identifies three key areas where Scotland's curriculum should be reviewed

Henry Hepburn

Donaldson 10 years on: The author of the landmark Donaldson report has said that there is still more to be done in Scottish education

There remains a long way to go in realising the aims of the landmark 2011 report on teacher education, its author has said.

But Professor Graham Donaldson observes that "good progress" had been made in the 10 years since Teaching Scotland's Future made its far-reaching recommendations.

Professor Donaldson also believes that, while Covid-19 has wrought untold damage on Scotland, it could also be a catalyst for some positive long-term changes in education.


A decade down the line: How we reported the publication of the Donaldson report in January 2011

From the Tes Scotland archives: Donaldson's recommendations set to become reality

Donaldson goes to Wales: 'Scotland’s mistakes will shape Welsh education reform'


"Good progress has been made but much remains to be done," he said in a lecture organised by the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) to mark the tenth anniversary of his January 2011 report, which can be read here.

But, after a period in which Covid has led to serious questions being asked about the leadership of Scottish education, Professor Donaldson has set high standards for those in the sector's most influential roles.

Donaldson: Support and empower teachers in Scotland

"We will need visionary leadership at all levels that can inspire, support and empower teachers to give young people the kind of challenging and engaging education that they both need and deserve," he said.

Professor Donaldson also underlined that "our ambitions for young people will only be realised if we invest in our teachers and enable them to use their expertise to the full".

The Donaldson report – whose official title was Teaching Scotland's Future – made 50 recommendations, which broadly sought to free teachers from restrictive structures and practices by encouraging them all to become “co-creators” of the curriculum.

Professor Donaldson, in his lecture last week, made a partial defence of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), pointing to the "strong performance" of Scottish school students in a recent report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). 

But he added: "We should keep the curriculum under constant review, particularly in today's volatile environment."

With CfE now about 15 years old, Professor Donaldson  who played a big part in its early development   said it was right to evaluate how much it "continues to reflect the needs and aspirations of our young people", particularly in three key areas: digital technology; ethics and values; and assessment.

1. Digital technology 

The period of Covid has prompted some "quick and creative thinking" to ensure continuity in pupils' learning, and "at its best we've seen ways of enhancing home-school collaboration".

He pointed to the national extension of e-Sgoil and regional initiatives such as the West Partnership's online lesson bank, adding that "it seems probable that the profession's confidence and competence in using tech will have been significantly enhanced by the experience of the last 10 months".

However, "for too many young people, the gaps stemming from relative advantage have widened".

Research was needed to explore how digital technology could involve "more than making classroom lessons available at a distance".

2. Ethics and values

The past decade has "exposed underlying worldwide tensions about values and hitherto accepted societal norms", said Professor Donaldson, with the rise of "fake news" and the undermining of representative democracies.

Teaching of ethics and values in this context is a "complex and sensitive area for education but it's not one that we can ignore".

Schools had a duty to help pupils gain a deeper understanding of issues such as slavery and empire, he said.

3. Assessment

Scotland had made "important strides with assessment for learning" but there was still a "rather confused set of practices", especially an "undue focus on summative assessment for reporting and accountability".

There was a "need to avoid the negative effects of a real or perceived high-stakes culture", and the cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 exams as a result of Covid "opened up important fresh possibilities" to "increase the validity" of qualifications".

Professor Donaldson  who in recent years has led reform of the Welsh education system  described exams as "at best only a very limited way of measuring learning in all its complexity" and a "relatively poor predictor" of success at university.

But there was no guarantee of the alternatives being an improvement, as "there is a danger that continuous assessment can become continuous testing".

A 2015 OECD study had shown, said Professor Donaldson, that Scotland had  "risen to the challenge" of Teaching Scotland's Future thanks to a "significant shift in the culture of professional learning".

There remained in Scottish education, however, "the danger of groupthink or of the dominance of particular interests". While Scotland has not had the constraints of a statutory national curriculum, "it would probably be true to say that a variety of forces tended to promote fairly high degrees of uniformity and conformity".

Professor Donaldson called for a "broader definition of teacher professionalism and productivity" that went beyond time spent in front of classes and also included time well spent outside of the classroom.

The Donaldson report envisaged a bigger role for universities working with teachers, and the author said there had been "real progress in such collaboration" over the past decade. There are more "research-aware teachers" now Professor Donaldson pointed to the GTCS providing free online access to research journals  although he was a "little concerned" about misguided perceptions that there might be "a 'what works' recipe book to be followed by all teachers".

He also stressed the need to "nurture educational leadership right from the outset of a [teaching] career".

The GTCS' "refreshed and restructured Professional Standards 2021 were launched at Professor Donaldson's lecture.

Ken Muir, chief executive and registrar of the GTCS, said: "Much work has been done to address the findings and recommendations in Professor Donaldson’s report over the last decade. However, much has also changed in Scottish education, especially within the last year.

"Professor Donaldson’s review of the last decade since the report has offered much for the teaching profession and Scottish education sector to think about in this rapidly changing world."

John Swinney, deputy first minister and education secretary, said: "We know that we are going to be living in constantly changing times. Therefore, the profession needs to have the confidence and sense of professional capacity and capability to be able to exercise their role in shaping the education system.

"I would also like to congratulate the General Teaching Council for Scotland on the launch of the new suite of professional standards. The standards are vital in maintaining and enhancing teacher professionalism and I want to acknowledge the work required to develop such important documents."

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Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn is the news editor for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Henry_Hepburn

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