The long-awaited publication of Ken Muir’s report on the agencies that govern Scottish education comes at a time of turmoil in the system, as schools continue to struggle with the impact of the pandemic. Added to the wider set of recommendations for reform stemming from last year’s OECD reports, and the likelihood of significant change to qualifications that will follow the publication of Louise Hayward’s review in December 2022, one has to ask: ‘How on earth will such a stretched system cope with this magnitude of change?’.
However, according to many respondents contributing to the Muir review, the time is ripe for change, and many in the system welcome it. This is a conclusion shared by many of the participants in our ongoing Nuffield-funded research study on curriculum making, and one which I would heartily concur with. I am convinced that change is eminently possible, but that the window for enacting it is limited, and will rapidly close if we do not seize the moment.
The report offers a useful and fairly comprehensive analysis, and should be taken seriously by the government, and by the system more broadly. Recommendations include: the establishment of a new national debate on education, to develop a strong vision for renewing the curriculum; the abolition of SQA; separation of the current accreditation and awarding functions of SQA (the replacement agency would lose the former to avoid potential conflicts of interest); the establishment of a new national agency with oversight of curriculum and assessment to replace (or reform) Education Scotland; and the establishment of an independent inspection body.
The report has elicited a range of responses, from outright cynicism to unbridled enthusiasm. Exponents of the former suggest that the system will readily assimilate the report, leading to at best only cosmetic changes; and to be fair to them, the Scottish Government has a mixed record in this respect. For example, the various initiatives that stemmed from the 2015 OECD review have tended to be piecemeal and fairly superficial, failing to address some of the fundamental issues that continue to impede the development of Curriculum for Excellence (more about these in due course). I share some of these concerns that the reform agenda will focus on maintaining the status quo, driven by the interests of the system; or to cite Ken Muir, simply rearrange the deckchairs. The somewhat muted response of the government, with reservations about, for example, ceding control over curriculum policy to a new agency, only serves to reinforce these sentiments. More is needed if we are to address some of the long-term policy clutter and incoherence which shapes curriculum making in schools.
Muir’s report offers an insightful view of the current system with its various strengths and considerable weaknesses. While affirming the professionalism and expertise that reside in the system, it paints a vivid picture of an over-complex landscape of multiple, often conflicting agencies and policies, combined with poor support for curriculum making; these render the enactment of CfE very difficult for many schools. There are some shocking testimonies about the educational experiences of many young people, which relate not just to contradictions in official curriculum policy and its enactment in schools, but also to the hidden curriculum – the often-unspoken assumptions about what really matters in schools.
The Muir Report suggests that a new agency should encompass not just curriculum and assessment but also learning and teaching. This suggests the perpetuation of a rather dated and narrow view of curriculum as content (or perhaps limited to the official curriculum documents), which has been endemic to practice in Scotland, and which artificially separates out content from other curricular practices such as pedagogy, assessment and provision. I agree with Muir that the new agency needs to be concerned with all of these, but believe that it will remain ineffective and fragmented unless we develop more holistic ways of understanding curriculum. For example, we develop in our recent book the idea of curriculum as the social practices through which education is planned, designed, developed and enacted in schools – content selection, assessment, pedagogy, support infrastructure, provision, etc. This approach allows us to think more systemically about curricular practices in different sites, from policy making, through support and guidance and to curriculum planning and enactment in schools and classrooms. It also allows us to analyze how different policies might act in tension with one another, for example how accountability practices might undermine curriculum aims. This is something identified by Muir in his report.
The report neatly conveys the idea that changing the structures, while necessary, should only be a starting point for more wholesale cultural change. I strongly agree. A rebranding exercise will not fix the endemic problems that exist in the system, but structural change will provide the mechanisms, potentially, to address them, including decluttering the crowded and often incoherent landscape for curriculum making in Scotland.
I note here that the proposed national agency will have a very broad scope, creating the potential for yet another monolithic organization, with rigid hierarchies, demarcations and communication issues. If this happens, then we will have wasted our time.
There is an urgent need to tackle issues of hierarchy, bureaucracy, lack of trust, control from the centre, and the crude accountability and data mechanisms that are associated with current structures and systems. Simply changing the structures will not on its own address these issues. Muir acknowledges this, calling for:
‘a redistribution of power, influence, and resource within Scottish education to one that reflects the principles of subsidiarity, genuinely empowers teachers and practitioners and where learners’ voices, experiences, perspectives and rights are central to decision making.’ (p.15)
We also need to consider how the RICs might articulate with these new structures. Moreover, what sort of expertise is needed in this agency? Yes, there needs to be a strong practitioner voice, but wider expertise is also needed in my view, for example in educational research and theory. This combination of experience and expertise is manifestly limited in existing agencies, including (as noted by Muir) key government departments:
‘Ultimately, it is Scottish Government and Ministers who are responsible for all aspects of education policy. However, how those policies are arrived at and what they should contain are felt by many in the system to be something that is closed off to them, lying almost exclusively in the domain of civil servants, many of whom have little or no direct experience of education.’ (p.55)
Muir also notes the revolving door between senior agency and government roles, that can act as an impediment to new thinking.
Building capacity is a key issue – in agencies, in the newly independent inspectorate and across the system more widely. Master’s-level study in Education generally, and curriculum studies specifically, needs to be a key component here, for practitioners and agency staff, expanding expertise and interrupting taken for granted assumptions about education.
A simple question, one which should perhaps be more prominent in underpinning the structural reforms is: ‘To what extent will they enable the development of purposeful educational practice – for example pedagogy – in schools and other settings?’. If we take the view that the important curriculum is that experienced in classrooms and other educational spaces, then we should also take the view that the role of the system is to support this (with particular attention to professional learning), and the agency of staff and children. Too often, the inverse seems to be the case, with activity in schools being organized to support system goals, for example boosting attainment statistics. What matters are the knowledge, skills and attributes we wish to develop through education (purposes), how that is achieved in practice in classrooms, and how the system can best support this. This means being clear about what matters (i.e., the proposed national conversation about purposes and a clear expression of these – a new version of the Four Capacities – in any future curriculum framework). It also means being clear about process (i.e., how purposes are enacted into practice).
We live in interesting times, and pressures on schools are significant at present. Nevertheless, the Muir Report offers an opportunity to break the mould in Scottish education, and we should work to achieve that goal – the result could be a system more grounded in educational purposes and principles, and one that genuinely serves the interests of children and young people.