'Leave education to people who know what they're doing'

Education bodies such as SQA and Education Scotland need more independence from government to serve schools best, says headteacher Rod Grant

Rod Grant

SQA assessment 2021: Leave education to people who know what they're doing, says headteacher Rod Grant

I have remained silent for much of this term, not wishing to undermine public bodies in what is clearly a difficult context in which to operate.

With the appointment of a new cabinet secretary for education, Shirley-Anne Somerville, it is incumbent on all of us to give that person the time and space to develop their brief and to initiate change where that may be required.

In recent months, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) has come under increasingly negative scrutiny over this year’s assessment processes, and little wonder. In the month of April alone, it managed to send out nine newsletters containing copious information to teachers across the country.

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The result of that avalanche of information is, as expected, an inconsistency across subjects, an inconsistency in advice and an examination body that is struggling to adapt to a new way of working.

SQA assessment 2021: Suffocating, centralised control

Having said that, the organisation deserves some sympathy. It is trying to formulate assessment policy on the hoof, and that is exactly what it feels like at the sharp end in schools up and down the country. Let’s face it, teachers have never had to carry out the function of the SQA before, so we are all in uncharted territory and, to be honest, it’s a bit of a mess.

It is all very well criticising the SQA or government, but criticism is only valid when it comes with alternative solutions.

For what it’s worth, here is my take on the issues within Scottish education and the parlous state in which it currently resides.

Apart from the government, there are four main players on the stage. The first of these is the SQA, which is a government agency, acting on behalf of the government in determining the qualification processes for the country.

Education Scotland is also a government agency, tasked with developing educational policies across the country.

The HMIE inspectorate has been part of Education Scotland since the merger with Learning and Teaching Scotland in 2011 and, therefore, is no longer an independent body. Instead, it is a government agency, inspecting schools based on the priorities set out by the Scottish government.

The General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) is the world’s oldest professional teacher registration body but has faced the threat of losing its independent status, to be reimagined into the creatively entitled Educational Workforce Council for Scotland. It would then become a government agency.

Anyone spotting a pattern here?

The most significant problem in Scotland’s educational landscape is the fact that there is no independent scrutiny of its processes. The Scottish government seems intent on a suffocating, centralised control.

The problem with that centralisation is that there are precious few people in government with any level of pedagogical experience or knowledge, aptly demonstrated by the woeful lack of understanding shown during a parliamentary debate a couple of years back on Primary 1 testing. The level of understanding displayed that day in Holyrood was shameful, and that’s me being polite.

It will be fascinating to read the long-awaited Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development report into Scotland’s education system. I suspect it may prove difficult reading, hence John Swinney’s departure and Ms Somerville’s appearance. Suddenly, the government can now change tone and tell us that it will listen carefully to what has been said and seek to initiate reform.

There is a really simple answer here: give all of these government agencies independent status and leave education in the hands of people who actually know what they are doing.

But that, of course, would imply that the Scottish government has been a calamitous guardian of our once-proud education heritage. I'd say, however, that it's actually a statement of fact.

Rod Grant is headteacher at Clifton Hall School in Edinburgh. This is a version of an article originally published as a blog post

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