The head of Scotland’s inspection and curriculum body – which is soon to undergo major reform – has warned that it is “easy to reform the wrong things” and that change can have “unintended consequences”.
Gayle Gorman, chief executive of Education Scotland and Scotland’s chief inspector of education, made her comments this morning as she officially opened the annual Scottish Learning Festival (SLF), which this year is taking place online after being cancelled as a result of Covid in 2020.
In June – following the publication of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) review of Curriculum for Excellence – the Scottish government announced its intention to remove inspection from the remit of Education Scotland, as well as to “substantially” reform the body with a view to creating a specialist curriculum and assessment agency instead.
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However, in her SLF address today, Ms Gorman said there had been 39 recommendations for Scottish education made in recent reports, including the OECD review but also the recent Audit Scotland report on improving outcomes for young people and Angela Morgan’s review of addition support for learning.
She said that recommendations often led to change and “sometimes the change is positive but sometimes it can have a negative long-term impact on the system” and “unintended consequences”.
Ms Gorman said: “One of the biggest problems with change is it can cause you to lose your focus and an unintended consequence is you stop doing the things that were working well.
“We mustn’t do that in Scotland. Put simply, it’s really easy to reform the wrong things, so my plea, as we enter the next phase of reform, is that we really think deeply about the things that are working – things that are working well across the system – and the things that are working well in some parts of Scotland but need a little bit more work to have reach, and be consistent across the whole of Scotland, and to have that impact.”
Ms Gorman highlighted Curriculum for Excellence as “one of the system’s strengths”.
In her address, Ms Gorman also hit out at the negative language often used to describe the pupils caught up in the pandemic. She argued they are “the golden generation”, and not “the lost generation” as they were often portrayed in the media and in political debate.
She said: “I am very confident that the children from the Covid generation are far from lost. While, during the pandemic, it was inevitably hard for our young people, and particularly for our more vulnerable young people, it has also given many the opportunity to gain a really important range of skills, such as resilience, ingenuity, creatively, confidence and responsibility. All of these core skills are central to being an effective adult.”
Later, she added: “The ‘lost generation’ is actually the golden generation – we have an awful lot to learn from them.”
She also said that the innovation in education brought about by Covid went “deeper” than digital learning – although she acknowledged great strides had been made there – and included collaboration, community building, partnership working and pace of change.
Ms Gorman said that change at the height of the Covid pandemic had been “exhausting” and “probably unsustainable”, before adding: “But, for many of us, it was highly motivating – some would say liberating – so we have got to learn from that.
“In this unique moment in time ahead of us now, we must make sure we don’t go back to doing what we were doing before just because it was comfortable. Comfortable is not a good place to be if you want to improve, if we want to challenge ourselves and get the best out of our young people.
“We must combine what was working well before Covid and what has worked well during Covid to build new models and ways of working to create a stronger, more innovative and more equitable system that we all aspire to.”
However, there were accusations that Education Scotland itself had done just that and reverted to the old way of doing things when, last week, it announced that inspection would be making a come back this school year after being suspended since March 2020.
The EIS teaching union described the move as “a retrograde step” and said it showed the government and Education Scotland to be “deeply out of touch” with the reality that schools were facing, amid record levels of pupil and teacher Covid-related absence.
The union’s general secretary, Larry Flanagan, said rather than inspecting schools, Education Scotland should be “supporting schools as they continue to respond to the Covid crisis”.
The Scottish Learning Festival runs for three days this year, and includes more than 100 sessions and four keynote addresses.
This evening, education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville will address teachers. On Thursday, Stuart Lawrence, the younger brother of Stephen Lawrence – who was murdered in a racially motivated attack in 1993 – will deliver the closing keynote address.