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by Cameron Wyllie
22 November 2022
Scottish education reform: A lesson in doing nothing

Scottish education reform: A lesson in doing nothing

As you may know, education in Scotland, which is not in its finest historical period, is going to be “reformed”. These will be big reforms, according to the Scottish Government, sweeping away Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority, and once again making independent the Inspectorate of Schools presumably so that it can, in fact, inspect education in Scotland, independently.

Now, let me suggest something to you. Let us imagine the Scottish Government took it upon itself to reform the practice of dentistry – or the manufacture of cheese. For the former, one imagines the reform team would consist of some NHS managers, some academics, some patients and a shedload of dentists. For cheese, I would suggest retail professionals, health and safety officials, consumers, buses full of dairy farmers, and, for completion’s sake, a couple of cows. There’s the cheese committee in one room at Holyrood, and the dentists in another, consulting with their patients and some politicians about the best way forward for the national teeth. And then in the next room, there’s education where….

Where what, exactly?  In the very big room accommodating the Education Review Board and its three (rather optimistically titled) “delivery boards” there are 59 people. And only three of them are teachers. In fact, these three are all headteachers. So, the central board and its three committees do not, among them, have a single actual current classroom practitioner. But there are 22 civil servants, a host of trade union officials and, in the Qualification Body Delivery Board, six officials from the Scottish Qualifications Authority – already imaginatively renamed Qualifications Scotland – that is, six people from a body thought so poorly of that it’s deemed necessary to replace it. And all this despite the plea by Professor Mel Ainscow in the last report by the education committee of the Scottish Parliament that “teaching should be given back to teachers”.

And while we’re at it, no patients, there to describe their actual experience of dental work in Scotland, and no cows, there to moo about pay and conditions. For among these 59 individuals there are no service users at all. No students, no schoolchildren. This is despite the fact that the review carried out by Professor Ken Muir, which started the whole shenanigans, is called Putting Learners at the Centre. No teachers, no young people and, of course, no parental representatives, because everybody knows that parents don’t have any interest in education!

Of course, there is something going on called the National Discussion, and everybody can contribute to that. We can fill in a survey, host discussion groups, and write and write and write. Then someone, appointed by the big committee, will tell the big committee about this and the civil servants and Scottish Government officials and trade union officials will pick and choose among the ideas and views presented and lo and behold we are all involved! 

No one in their right mind wants to be a headteacher

Look, teachers are quitting in record numbers. They are off with stress in their hundreds. The fabric of school buildings is falling apart. No one in their right mind wants to be a headteacher. The OECD says that Curriculum for Excellent is great in theory (well, maybe) but isn’t working in practice because no practitioners have had time to think about it. Education in Scotland is leaderless and rudderless and the Scottish Government promised – the First Minister pledged seven years ago – that it would be its number one priority. And now, at this promised moment of real change, the same old souls are being rolled out of local and national government, from the office of Education Scotland and the SQA and the EIS and various other quangos no teacher has ever actually dealt with or maybe even heard of, to carry out the review process. It is, in essence, an insult to a beleaguered profession and the process will result in no significant changes at all. I just hope that the first thing Professor Muir does is object to its membership, and plead to get some practitioners on it. Or else at least demand that every one of those 59 people should chair a focus group of teachers and ask them how we can build an education service in Scotland worthy of our young people and their teachers. 

But that would require a vision and strategy for some radical change, and an owning up to lots of costly mistakes. I don’t really see the Scottish Government having an appetite for any of that, and so, ten years down the line, things will be much the same and likely a little worse.

A version of this article originally appeared in The Scotsman. Cameron Wyllie’s book, Is There A Pigeon in the Room? My Life in Schools, is published by Birlinn.

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