Is Scottish education 'stagnant and conformist'?

Reports of a failing schools system are 'overstated' but it is 'conformist and risk-averse', think tank finds

Tes Reporter

Scotland's schools: Is Scottish education 'stagnant and conformist'?

Scotland should create an “innovation fund” for schools as part of an effort to end the country’s “risk-averse” educational culture, a new report recommends.

Published jointly by the ScotlandCan campaign and the Social Market Foundation (SMF) think tank, the new paper concludes that Scotland’s schools system is “cautious, conformist, risk-averse and stuck in its ways – in a word, stagnant”.

The report argues that Scottish education is constrained by a middle-management layer that aims to avoid “rocking the boat”, and calls on the next Scottish government to encourage innovative approaches by asking schools to come up with new ideas suitable for their own students.

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These ideas could include interdisciplinary student projects such as engineering and software design, vocational options, inter-year classes or programmes that get parents and families more involved in school life.

Promoting innovation in Scotland's schools

The report also states that the Scottish government elected after the 6 May parliamentary election should:

  • Make innovation and experimentation an explicit part of the remit of educational bodies, especially the "regional improvement collaboratives" (RICs).
  • Diversify hiring and appointments to key roles in government and agencies.
  • Support forums for the exchange of ideas.
  • Invest in research and knowledge exchange.

Written by SMF chief economist Aveek Bhattacharya – who was educated at Cults Academy in Aberdeen and holds a PhD from the London School of Economics, for which he compared education policy in Scotland and England – the report is based on interviews with Scottish education experts and evidence from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and other sources.

Mr Bhattacharya says that claims Scottish education is failing are “overstated”, but the report backs the view of Professor Lindsay Paterson, of the University of Edinburgh, that it is “stagnating”.

Mr Bhattacharya concludes: “Though experts disagree about the state and direction of Scottish school education, there is a remarkable degree of consensus over its cultural malaise. The accounts of academics, journalists, activists and school leaders converge to present a picture of a system that is cautious, conformist, risk-averse and stuck in its ways – in a word, stagnant.

“This will not do if the country is to meet the social, educational and technological challenges of the years to come, not least in the wake of the current pandemic.”

The report concludes that a dedicated innovation fund could help to shift priorities and catalyse broader cultural change. It argues that schools that come up with the most effective initiatives should be able to apply for an “innovation prize”, perhaps presented by the first minister.

The report sets the most significant barriers to innovation in Scotland:

  • A culture of micromanagement that has led to teachers being overloaded with bureaucracy.
  • The role of the “middle layer” – the local authorities and the RICs – that sits between schools and national government, which are a “brake” on innovation.
  • Senior personnel in leading educational bodies who are too insular and defensive of the status quo.
  • The lack of time and resources – at lower-secondary level, 63 per cent of teachers’ time is in the classroom teaching, way above the OECD average of 43 per cent.
  • Too little opportunity for school innovators to compare and contrast new approaches.
  • An overly rigid inspection process that discourages “out of the box” thinking.
  • A lack of research and evaluation as to “what works”.

Eddie Barnes, project manager for ScotlandCan, said: “This important piece of research sets out some practical steps Scotland can take now to make our schools more dynamic and innovative. It’s now for all political parties, at the coming Holyrood election, to set out clear plans on how they intend not just to restore education, but to improve on what went before.”

The full report is available on the ScotlandCan website.

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