Crisis gave teachers power, but leadership is still unclear

12th August 2011 at 01:00
Scottish education's recovery from the exams disaster of 2000 is complete, but issues remain from those dark times

Ten years ago, the new Scottish governing system showed that it could deal effectively with a crisis. There was no repeat of the chaos of 2000, the new Higher Still system no longer threatened to destroy the credibility of Scottish education, and the new governing class - the coalition executive aided by a cross-party consensus in the Scottish Parliament - could reasonably claim that they had sorted out a mess that had been none of their making. That it cost at least pound;22m of special funding (the sum reported for 2000-2 alone) was barely noticed.

Looking back, the most striking thing about the series of events, from crisis to apparent resolution, was that teachers were judged to be the only group who understood what needed to be done. That perception has then shaped educational policy ever since. Whether it has been altogether for the good of Scottish education is a question that remains to be answered.

The achievement of 2001 and after was not just in getting the SQA computers to run properly, urgently necessary though that was (and despite the occasional aberration, they have worked ever since). The immediate problems of the previous year were so immense as to have brought into question the whole of Higher Still, but these new courses, once they were working, worked as intended.

It really is the case that opportunity has been extended, probably not in the sense that more people have been encouraged to stay on at school than would otherwise have done so, but rather that the experience of most students in fifth and sixth year was properly planned for the first time.

The credit for that goes to the Intermediate courses, which have provided a coherent series of steps from fourth year, whose previous absence for students of middling ability had been the main reason why reform was needed. These - and the new Highers - have worked because, on the whole, teachers' advice was followed on what constituted an appropriate level and mode of assessment.

That's not the only lesson that was learnt. Independence of professional judgment was seen to be paramount. That is why the inspectors were transferred out of government. It's also why the SQA itself survived, despite much rhetoric in 2000 questioning its existence. The Scottish Parliament came to accept that an examination system must be overseen by a body that is independent of politics.

The crisis thus induced political realism. Being compelled to take responsibility for dealing with the problems forced the Parliament to act as a national forum where an agreed solution had to be found. It is not entirely coincidental that, out of that morass, have come some of the most respected politicians of the past decade: in different ways, the debate included such notably influential people as Michael Russell, Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney, Jack McConnell, Annabel Goldie and Tavish Scott. Brian Monteith and Henry McLeish are exiled from parliamentary politics, but remain valuable goads to everyone else.

So teachers were left with their status strengthened. The McCrone settlement was developing according to its own timetable, but it became more plausible when teachers could point to what they had done to make the new system work. The parliamentary committee which examined the affair even said a few years later that all educational policy should be judged by whether it would help teachers "to develop professionally and increase their self-confidence and autonomy". The Donaldson report on teacher education continues in the same vein. Above all, out of all this came Curriculum for Excellence, with its rhetoric of teachers' being in charge.

But there's the rub. Teachers, it is claimed, ought not to be expected to lead in that way. This may seem ironic. Teachers who resented the fact that the previous reform had been imposed upon them, with the 2000 fiasco as a result, appear now to be complaining about the opposite. But the irony could be read the other way round. A leadership class has, it might be said, abdicated its responsibilities without appearing to understand that dispersed leadership is more expensive financially than central direction, and requires more widespread expertise among teachers than is currently available, especially in primary schools.

That will be resolved over time. Something will be taught, some new examinations will transpire (presumably without the chaos of last time), and some excellent examples of what the new curriculum tries to do will flourish because enough teachers are imaginative and resourceful enough to invent things despite the problems that policy makers leave.

More fundamental, though, is the question which the controversies about Curriculum for Excellence share with what was said about Higher Still: in the worthwhile interests of widening opportunity, are we diluting the very thing to which access is sought? Such concerns were raised in the 1990s, most notably by teachers of English. They have been raised again, repeatedly, in connection with the new curriculum's `experiences and outcomes'.

Then as now, these concerns are rejected as conservative or unimaginative or not in touch with the allegedly unprecedented flexibility of the new economy. Some of that may be true, but the striking similarity of the two periods of debate is that the advocates of the reform decline to engage in the truly searching discussion of principles that the critics seek. Whatever the undoubted achievements since 2001, that kind of frankness remains as elusive as ever.

Lindsay Paterson is professor of educational policy at the School of Education, University of Edinburgh.

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