Scotland’s review of educational governance: where should it take us?

The recent publication of the document Empowering teachers, parents and communities to achieve excellence and equity in education: A Governance Review (http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2016/09/1251) is potentially the most significant watershed moment in the history of Curriculum for Excellence (and we seem to have had a few of these recently!). Despite the usual self-congratulatory rhetoric1, this publication represents a significant recognition that things need to change. For the first time, the government is seriously posing the question about what is required to successfully enact the curriculum, as opposed to simply shoehorning the new curriculum into existing structures. Radical change to Scotland’s educational governance could be on the cards. But, what does it all mean? And where should we be heading if we are serious about supporting genuine change in schooling in Scotland?

While reading the document, I was struck by the following, paraphrased from an OECD publication Governing Education in a Complex World (https://www.oecd.org/edu/governing-education-in-a-complex-world-9789264255364-en.htm)

Successful systems, however, are those where governance and accountability are inclusive, adaptable and flexible. Roles and responsibilities across the system must be clear and aligned; teachers, practitioners, schools, early learning and childcare settings and system leaders should collaborate across effective networks to improve outcomes; parents and communities require to be engaged; and funding and decision making should be transparent. (p.4)

These seem to be admirable principles. I offer some thoughts here about issues that should be taken into account if we are indeed serious about updating the current governance system to meet the needs of a modern system of school education.

  • Form should follow function. It is good to see mention of new structures (for example regional support organisations), rather than an acceptance that existing structures (e.g. local authorities and Education Scotland) will simply take on new functions. We should be clear by now that prevailing cultural norms in organisations can preclude them from buying into radically new ways of thinking about education – and after all, CfE was supposed to be exactly that. It is therefore vital that the review should first and foremost consider what the function of the new strengthened ‘middle’ tier of the system (or meso-level – see https://tinyurl.com/h5kr5tk) should be. In my view, it should not be about producing reams of additional guidance, as has largely been the function of Education Scotland’s curriculum development endeavours. Nor should it be about mirroring the inspection process, as has largely been the case within local authority quality improvement procedures – we have an inspectorate to do that. Instead we need to develop a view of the middle as being about support – expert advice and hands-on leadership – for curriculum development. This in turn will allow us to develop the structures to achieve these goals. The review document talks about regional organisations and local clusters. These seem to be logical developments, but will not reach their potential if: 1] existing organisations (with their agendas and power structures) are left in place; and 2] if there continues to be a lack of clarity about the proper function of meso-level structures. Thus, clarity of function must precede reform of governance.
  • Autonomy is not the same as agency. I partly welcome the calls to devolve decision-making to schools. Subsidiarity is a worthy goal; however, it comes with many dangers. We should avoid simplistic talk about empowering schools. Research (e.g. http://rms.stir.ac.uk/converis-stirling/publication/18567) suggests that simply granting autonomy to schools is problematic. Schools do not necessarily have the expertise to develop the curriculum. Autonomy can easily lead to the reproduction of habitual forms of practice – going with the flow, recycling old solutions, etc. – rather than genuine innovation. As we have argued in our recent book, teacher agency is important, and this requires a number of conditions:
    1. Skilled and knowledgeable teachers who have a wide repertoire of responses, upon which to draw, and who are able to work from foundational educational principles.
    2. Genuinely different future imaginaries about what is possible. We have found that the role of external agents to stimulate new thinking is vital here (e.g. see http://hdl.handle.net/1893/24179).
    3. Access to resources to support curriculum development. Time is a key issue here, but cognitive resources (e.g. from research) are crucial. Here, again, the role of external agents is important – especially to facilitate access to new ways of thinking and doing, but also to act as leaders of a curriculum development process.
    4. A comprehensive understanding of the system features that enable and constrain curriculum development

The key point here is that schools and teachers may lack the capacity to work in this way. Local clusters of schools working together are helpful, but there still needs to be an infrastructure to support such working. Regional structures can provide this, for example offering the availability of leaders for curriculum development processes. We need, therefore, as part of this process to think about not only establishing the structure, but also about building system capacity – a cadre of expert teachers, for instance, who can work in their own schools and spend part of the week supporting colleagues in other schools. The large numbers of teacher currently undertaking funded Master’s programmes are an obvious pool for this.

  • Accountability should serve rather than drive curriculum development. All too often, we have seen curriculum development derailed by subservience to accountability processes. This can take the form of risk aversion (as a barrier to innovation), strategic compliance with new policy, or worse still game playing (see https://tinyurl.com/hprbyll). The governance review poses some questions about accountability. Scotland should heed the message currently being disseminated in Wales, by Graham Donaldson amongst others – ‘let’s get the curriculum right, then worry about accountability’. Nevertheless, there are some principles that can be considered now, as we develop new forms of governance. One is that, as stated above, we need to be absolutely clear about the function of the ‘middle’. If it is reduced to accountability, it will continue to shape school practices in unhelpful ways, as we have seen in recent years. We need to be clear about what attainment data can (and should not be) used for. And we need to think carefully about the ways in which accountability mechanisms impact on school practices. How are self-evaluation frameworks like HGIOS being used in schools; instrumentally (in a tick box fashion, or developmentally). And should we be moving away from the notion of an external inspection, as putatively an ‘objective’ process, towards inspections that accept the contextual nature of schools, and which involve teachers much more as peer and self-assessors in the inspection process. Apart from anything else, this is excellent professional development for teachers.

Finally, John Swinney states in the foreword to the review document that “This governance review offers an opportunity to build on the best of Scottish education and to take part in a positive and open debate”. All teachers should be contributing to this debate.

Footnote

  1. For example, the unnecessary statement on page 5 that “Delivering Excellence and Equity in Scottish Education, builds on an impressive track record of improvements and reforms which have been driven forward across education and children’s services in recent years.”

 

 

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