“Equity.” the word is repeated so often in Scottish educational circles that the danger is it washes over people – a lofty aspiration reduced to a platitude. A group of international experts, convened to scrutinise Scottish education, however, have seen beyond the buzzword to identify a defining feature of the country’s schooling system.
But they also warn in their newly published first full report that the vehicle that has the potential to spark a “once-in-a-generation” transformation of educational standards – the regional improvement collaborative (RIC) – has a long way to go before it proves its worth.
The International Council of Education Advisers (ICEA) – which counts well-known names such as Avis Glaze, Andy Hargeaves and Pasi Sahlberg among its number – was brought together by the Scottish government in 2016 to help shape reform of the nation’s educational provision. Peppered throughout the ICEA’s long-awaited report are positive references to both Scotland’s commitment to equity in education and to RICs – the six groupings of councils designed to encourage educators to work more closely with colleagues beyond their own school and their local authority.
The initial controversy around RICs – the idea that they were formed as a ruse to give the Scottish government more direct control over education by bypassing local authorities – has largely died down. But concerns are now more likely to arise over whether they will have much of an effect in the classroom (“Northern what? Alliance proves to be anonymous”, Tes Scotland, 16 February).
However, Steve Ross, headteacher of Craigroyston Community High in Edinburgh, tells Tes Scotland: “The potential of the RICs is massive, but will only be realised if the collaboration is happening at a level that directly impacts young people. For that to happen, we need our classroom teachers involved as much as, if not more than, the directors and headteachers.”
He says that those driving educational reform could learn from the business sector about how to encourage teachers to build professional networks, adding that courses run by the Scottish College for Educational Leadership are already doing this.
Ross adds: “One thing I’ve always loved observing in my career is getting a bunch of creative and positive teachers together, and just sitting back and watching the magic that happens. Don’t tell teachers what to do – give them the time and space to get together, and truly empower them to lead learning.”
Laurence Findlay, lead for the original RIC, the Northern Alliance, which paved the way for five others, says that a literacy project rolled out in half of the primary schools covered by the alliance – stretching across a huge swathe of Scotland, from Argyll and Bute to Shetland – showed that “you can affect significant change and improvement at scale”. He adds: “One teacher told me [the project] was her best professional development in 32 years of teaching. That’s the power of true regional collaboration for me and that’s what we need to keep striving for; not all individual authorities could do this alone.”
Rowena Arshad, head of the University of Edinburgh’s school of education, says that while concerns that RICs would add another layer of bureaucracy have largely abated, there is still “a lot of work to be done” to prove their worth. She believes RICs could have a big effect on classrooms by sharing good practice around Scotland and helping like-minded educators to find each other more easily. But for that to happen, Arshad cautions, teachers on the ground will have to feel that they are influencing the RICs, not being subjected to top-down edicts.
One of the international advisers, University of Glasgow professor Chris Chapman, says the “coherence and cohesion” that RICs promise to bring to the country’s schooling system “offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform Scottish education”.
However, the advisers caution that “the work of the RICs is still in the early stages”, and that evidence will need to be provided of their impact on learners. They found, in compiling their report, that several RICs “were still in the initial stages of building relationships and learning how to collaborate, and consequently had not yet achieved the level of school and teacher collaboration required for educational improvement”.
Overall, the advisers praise Scottish education for its “dual focus on excellence and equity”. They also welcome “encouraging evidence that outcomes for young people are improving year on year”, although the experts add: “There remains, however, a significant challenge to raise the overall level of performance for all young people.”
Education secretary John Swinney says: “We will now consider the recommendations in the report in full, using them to inform our national improvement plan, as we continue our ambitious journey of empowerment and devolution to drive improvement in Scottish education.”