Delivering excellence and equity – some commentary on Scotland’s national education plan

The post-election period in 2016 has heralded a flurry of activity from the re-elected SNP and the appointment of a new Cabinet Secretary for Education. The next year or two will see policy development that puts education at the forefront of the nation’s priorities, all underpinned by the stated goal of closing the ‘attainment gap’ between those who have traditionally achieved well in education, and those who have not. The publication of Delivering Excellence and Equity in Scottish Education: a Delivery Plan for Scotland, coming as it does on the heels of the OECD review of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), marks an important turning point in Scottish education policy. There is much to be welcomed in this plan, but in my view there are also tensions and ambiguities in the document that will need acknowledging and addressing as the plan is implemented.

The positives

It is clear that there the plan contains some positive and constructive ideas to improve Scottish Education, including in places an acknowledgement that some of the developments associated with CfE have been unhelpful. Positive aspects include the following points.

  • A new emphasis on the importance of research in informing and underpinning the development of educational policy and practice. The forthcoming development of a national research strategy is well overdue, and it is to be hoped that this will provide a clear picture of how existing research can be utilised and applied, where the gaps lie, and how practitioners and policymakers might engage more constructively with research.
  • A restated commitment to root out overly bureaucratic practices around the new curriculum. There are strong statements here about the importance of not using the Experiences & Outcomes for assessment purposes ‘or in a tick-box way’ (p8) – although intriguingly a cryptic statement that ‘this is the exclusive role of the Significant Aspects of Learning’ (p.7); care will be needed to ensure that these do not simply replace the Es & Os as the audit tool for curriculum development, as seems to be the case already in some schools I have visited.
  • A decluttering of the curriculum. This has become a real problem for many schools, despite the clear aspiration in the early days of CfE to declutter (a sense of déjà vu here!). I note here that while this is a worthy aspiration, it is likely to not occur unless we develop systematic approaches for deriving content from curricular purposes (see https://mrpriestley.wordpress.com/2012/06/13/curriculum-for-excellence-and-the-question-of-knowledge/).
  • A rewriting of key policy guidance, and a recognition that there has been a proliferation of documentation associated with CfE. This new narrative will, I am sure, be welcomed by teachers, provided that it is clear and coherent.
  • The establishment of expert groups, including a panel of teachers to advise on workload issues. I am heartened here that the government is seeking to listen to those who bring specific expertise, whether of research or the day-to-day lived realities of working in schools. None of these perspectives provide a full picture on their own, but in combination they might allow for a better understanding of how policy is enacted, and the system dynamics that shape its enactment.
  • A review of governance. Presumably this has been announced with a view to creating the infrastructure for curriculum development – the strengthening of the middle that the OECD view called for. It has long been my view that the existing middle – the meso-level constituted by Education Scotland the local authorities – has focused on the wrong sort of leadership for developing the curriculum. I hope that the review will identify that what is required is not the large scale proliferation of guidance, nor the strengthening of micro-management of schools through accountability mechanisms – as has tended to be the case in recent years. Instead, I hope to see a recognition that the development of expertise – particularly the capacity to lead curriculum development – is badly needed. In a conversation with the celebrated American educationist Michael Apple this week, he described curriculum development as a lost art. He is right, and we need to rediscover it. The proposal in the plan to establish local networks of champions (presumably teachers with suitable experience and higher degrees in education) is a welcome part of this.

Tensions and ambiguities

Despite these positive messages, I also see some problems (and potentially some bear traps) in the plan. The document is an odd mixture of the vague and the highly specific; it fails to set out processes for some of its aspirational goals, but states, for example, that ‘in the first round of Read, Write, Count gift bags will be gifted to families of P2 and P3 children in November 2016’ (p.18). In particular, I would like to see more details on the following issues.

  • While the new focus on the importance of research is to be welcomed, I would like to have seen some detail about how new research might be generated, and how it might be used subsequently. To be fair, this may well be articulated more clearly in the forthcoming research strategy, but it would have been good to see some recognition of these issues at this stage. Related to this, the document does what many policy documents have done in recent years – it makes large claims without citing the supporting research evidence. It is important that future policy states clearly which research is being used to underpin developments (and also which research is not being used in some cases, where contradictory evidence exists). Without this reference to evidence, it can be difficult to separate out claims which are genuinely rooted in evidence, and those which are more spurious – and this document contains a few of the latter in my view, including the bold (and unevidenced) claim that ‘Scotland’s children and young people are now much more confident, resilient and motivated to learn’ (p.7) as a result of CfE.
  • The document shows little understanding that curriculum is a multi-layered field with different practices in each layer (see https://mrpriestley.wordpress.com/2015/11/22/mind-the-gap-curriculum-development-through-critical-collaborative-professional-enquiry-part-one/). This is compounded by the continual use of the metaphor ‘delivery’ (see https://mrpriestley.wordpress.com/2013/04/15/milkmen-or-educators-cfe-and-the-language-of-delivery/). In my view an awareness of this sort of language is important, as language frames our understanding of issues, and subsequently shapes our responses. Education is not a product (I fail to see how we can deliver digital literacy [p.6]); it is instead a process, and we need to get into the habit of thinking about how we structure pedagogic relations to develop people’s capacities. As I have written elsewhere in my blog, curriculum making in schools should be about the development of practices that are fit-for-purpose to realise the aims of the curriculum; it should not be a process of product placement or box-ticking. This document seems to recognise this, but persists with language that runs the risk of undermining its aspirations. To counter this we need to move from an outcomes approach to a process approach for developing the curriculum (see https://mrpriestley.wordpress.com/2014/11/17/approaches-to-school-based-curriculum-development/).
  • More serious is a major tension between the stated desire to increase school/teacher autonomy and an apparent tightening of accountability procedures (inspection, use of attainment data etc.). While I recognise the need to make intelligent use of data to inform decision-making, this document does not seem to recognise the well-documented dangers of performativity in the system. We know that accountability systems tend to produce perverse incentives, which can in turn lead to bureaucracy, intensification of workload, practices that can be difficult to justify in educational terms, and a disabling of teacher’s agency (for an analysis of these tensions, see http://hdl.handle.net/1893/20761). I hope that I am wrong, but my fear is that the apparently single-minded focus on attainment, which has emerged from the attainment challenge and the National Improvement Framework, will prove to be self-defeating, undermining some of the worthy aspirations in this document.

I conclude with reference to an issue, which while seemingly trivial, caused me some irritation when reading the plan. This is the repeated assertion that ‘the OECD has applauded the boldness of our approach’ (p.7). In fact, while the OECD mentioned a couple of times that Scotland has bold aspirations, their explicit emphasis was more about Scotland’s need to adopt bold[er] approaches. I may be splitting hairs here; however, my concern is that, historically, such self-congratulatory rhetoric has tended to stand in the way of reform by obscuring the need for change (many will remember the repeated assertion in the early years of CfE that it was just good practice, already in evidence in most schools).

Nevertheless, let us end on a positive note. This document has much to commend it; it contains many useful and constructive ideas for improving Scottish education; and provided we are cognisant of the pitfalls and tensions, it offers ample scope for addressing many of the concerns with current practices.

Note

The delivery plan can be found at http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2016/06/3853/downloads