Over the past few months I have worked to support local authorities and schools in exploring ways to improve attainment in broad general education. In the course of this work, I have met teams with duties to improve schools in all 32 local authorities, including all six regional collaborative leads. I have also led a team that provided workshops for more than 900 headteachers and teachers in 15 local authorities.
In short, I have seen first-hand how the education system in Scotland is processing change – and have emerged from the experience with considerably more optimism than I expected to.
It wasn’t that I was particularly pessimistic before I started, but the system has undergone much change in the past few years and I just wasn’t sure how everyone would react to what I had to talk about, which was improving outcomes from education as envisaged in the National Improvement Plan.
The work was commissioned as part of the government’s Delivering Excellence and Equity in Scottish Education plan, which was itself based on a recommendation in the 2015 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development review of Scottish education.
The changes I have observed include data being used more effectively to inform improvement and work around the Pupil Equity Fund helping to focus planning in schools. I have seen a system emerging in which there are more autonomous heads operating with vigour on achieving outcomes.
I have also seen how local authority systems are shifting to reflect these priorities. I recognise that this shift is partly driven by the resource context in which we all now operate. However, I would contend that there is significant recognition due to practitioners across the country who have, in a time of austerity, improved outcomes for young people. Especially since more young people are achieving more qualifications as a result of educational reforms and fewer leave school with no qualifications than in the past, with the biggest gains taking place in the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation groups 1-3 – students from the most-deprived areas.
All of this is in a context of the economic outcomes from education seemingly improving as well, as more young people enter and sustain positive destinations on leaving school.
While there is considerable scope for further improvement, practitioners in schools, local authorities and in national agencies who have conscientiously worked to implement Curriculum for Excellence have a lot to be proud of. There are also multiple stories of successful engagement of academics and other partners in improvement planning.
‘Equity and excellence’
I cannot say I always felt that the people I engaged with over the past few months were 100 per cent certain about how they were managing complex change – but much more often than not, they were. I have been inspired by the energy and conviction of colleagues I have met on many occasions.
It is clear to me that a serious effort is being made by teachers, headteachers and local authority staff to match the political intention to deliver both excellence and equity in Scottish education. The systems are aligning to the political challenge in the context of the resources that are available to them. There are also a number of positive examples emerging of practice being improved through the activities of the regional collaboratives.
I have three points to make about the systems I have observed.
First, after working with heads, it seems to me that outcomes are positive when young people experience an exciting curriculum for all, which features high-quality learning but also provides a clear focus on improving the fundamentals that the National Improvement Plan emphasises. This means an equal emphasis on skills, knowledge and wellbeing.
Second, outcomes for the most vulnerable remain a challenge, especially for looked-after children. There are some fantastic examples of how improvements can be more effectively planned for such children and young people, but these are not systematic enough as yet.
Lastly, the attainment gap is ultimately an economic gap. So, from much earlier, we need to be planning pathways with young people to raise their aspirations and open up a world of possibilities. We need to value learning for its own sake but also to appreciate its economic consequence for those who experience it.
The most poignant moment for me was hearing the virtual headteacher for looked-after children in Aberdeen describe the challenges she faces in making the system work for “her kids”. The funniest was when a head from the rural north-west told me that, from her previous experience in the Central Belt, teachers there were more “gallus” about assessment. The most inspiring was seeing how many heads took the poverty-related attainment gap for children with additional support needs as a personal affront.
In Scotland, our task is to grasp the opportunity presented by the Pupil Equity Fund and the Scottish Attainment Challenge to put an emphasis on radical, local solutions for helping children and families in poverty to achieve.
We have an opportunity in Scotland to do something unique, and this entails a challenge for us collectively. We have worked for years to embrace a child-centred, progressive approach to supporting young people, to get it right for them in their education – this is what Curriculum for Excellence and Getting it Right for Every Child are about – but outcomes must improve. Hence the importance of the outcomes approach in the National Improvement Framework, which focuses on the wellbeing, attainment and employability of all our young people.
Bringing together that progressive, inclusive ethos, along with an outcomes approach, is a challenge – but it is also a clear moral purpose. In managing change both now and in future, we are playing for high stakes. It is important that people across the country continue to align with that challenge.
Derek Brown is head of education, youth and communities at North Lanarkshire Council. He is writing in a private capacity