Our educational system is far too resistant to change

CfE is the latest example of the problems that arise when turning national policy into local reality

Bruce Robertson

Back in 2002, during the education debate led by Peter Peacock, the education community in Scotland agreed that fundamental change was necessary in the curriculum. Curriculum for Excellence has been in gestation since 2004, one year's delay has already been included in the programme, our teachers have had a range of documentation and a raft of in-service days that will continue, the examination authorities have been preparing for a start that is 18 months away - yet still we get the calls for more time or even to scrap it altogether.

Why is it so difficult to effect change in education in Scotland? While Curriculum for Excellence is the example this time round, it is but one of a number that have occurred while taking the rhetoric of national policy into local reality.

We are rightly proud of the consensus that has historically been a hallmark of Scottish education policy development, but one wonders if, in every case, it leads to the best outcomes for children. If we agreed that the current national curriculum planning and associated examination systems were in need of review, why has it taken 10 years to get here? Do we really still think that the old system, essentially based on 1960s approaches, is fit for purpose for children and young people in 2012?

Michael Russell is not the first education minister or cabinet secretary to have been frustrated with attempts to deliver education policy across our small nation. The stark reality is that the holder of this post in government has much of the responsibility, only some of the authority and little of the resources needed to implement national policy. In contrast to colleagues in cabinet, the education portfolio-holder does not have control of the budgets or the people that really deliver locally. Witness the current Curriculum for Excellence debate playing out or think back to his Labour predecessors trying to ensure teacher numbers were maintained or being held responsible for SQA meltdown.

The concordat with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities was an attempt to get the correct relationship between Scottish and local government and one that, on the face of it, has had some success in the last five years. The outcome of the May elections will almost certainly be fundamental for the ongoing relationship between the two levels of government, with a relatively young but aspirational parliament flexing its muscles - not to mention the referendum.

One common factor that will transcend all of this fascinating landscape, of course, is the very tight financial position that we will continue to experience for years to come. The recent TESS round-up of council budgets (24 February) suggested that there would be more pain to come in 2013, something that education undoubtedly will feel. Add in McCormac and teachers' pensions, and we have quite a potent recipe and one that will make consensus very difficult and create tensions across the system.

But are these the only reasons why it is so difficult to effect change in Scotland? While they are all relevant, they are not the full picture. Is there a culture of inherent conservatism in the system and, dare I say, a comfort zone in some quarters that is a tad unhealthy?

I marvel on a Friday when I see the round-up of some fantastic practice on www.pedagoo.org. Inspirational educators across the country working in different fields, outside their comfort zones, sharing practice and celebrating success. Scotland undoubtedly has a sound system, but could it be better?

If we are to believe international comparisons and indeed the Scots-born head of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development statistical division, we should give ourselves a wee wake-up call. Curriculum for Excellence was introduced with a number of purposes in mind, but essentially as a modern curriculum, vesting ownership in teachers and inspiring young learners. All of these should improve outcomes, including attainment.

The Donaldson Review asked teachers to take ownership of their professional destiny and we have a cabinet secretary ready to give us that responsibility. And therein lies the challenge for the leaders of our schools, authorities and the wider education community.

This has been perhaps the most disappointing factor recently and it is why I feel change is so difficult to effect. The calls we have heard for status quo and arguments about 2+2+2 or 3+3 models are a distraction from the real issues and challenges. What is it about secondary schools that allows the timetable to dictate practice? And I've been there and got the T-shirt.

Some of the public statements made in the media recently have exposed a fundamental lack of knowledge and understanding in some quarters about Curriculum for Excellence and the associated examination framework. This is a collective challenge and responsibility for all leaders in Scottish education. Above all, it is our combined and distributed leadership that will take it forward and realise our ambitions for Scotland.

It is ironic and something intrinsically Scottish when respected international commentators such as Steve Munby, chief executive of the National College for School Leadership in England, wax lyrical about Curriculum for Excellence, but we engage in a skirmish over it. Who was it that said "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory" was a Scottish phenomenon?

Bruce Robertson, Education policy consultant, was director of education in Highland and Aberdeenshire from 1998-2010 and is currently working on an ADES commission.

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Bruce Robertson

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