Regional Improvement Collaboratives: a new strengthened middle in Scottish education?

The recent and long-awaited publication of the Scottish Government’s review of governance (http://www.gov.scot/Resource/0052/00521075.pdf) is, in many respects, a welcome development. The practical steps outlined in this review have the potential to transform the ongoing development of Curriculum for Excellence by explicitly addressing some of the weaknesses in the curriculum development process to date. In particular, the establishment of Regional Improvement Collaboratives provides a constructive response to the OECD’s call for Scotland to ‘strengthen the middle’; to establish a meso-level infrastructure that will (to quote the review) ‘mean that hands on advice, support and guidance can flow directly to schools to support improvement’ (p.7). This in turn will facilitate more meaningful engagement in schools with the core principles of CfE, to address, in the words of the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher, the need for Scotland to move from an ‘intended curriculum to an implemented curriculum’ ( BBC news on 6 December 2016).

In this context, the newly proposed Collaboratives look promising. According to the review:

New Regional Improvement Collaboratives […] will provide teams of professionals who have the singular focus of helping teachers to improve their practice. These teams will include sector and curriculum area specialists as well as additional support for learning experts such as educational psychologists (p.23).

This regional approach will involve decentralising some Education Scotland resources to support improvement closer to schools. It will also involve local authorities sharing resource at a regional level to ensure an enhanced improvement capability (p30).

This ‘national vision or framework to support collaboration’ (p.21) is supported by reference to the much cited McKinsey and co. report (https://tinyurl.com/ycl7jsdr), which states:

As the school systems we studied have progressed on their improvement journey, they seem to have increasingly come to rely on a “mediating layer” that acts between the centre and the schools. This mediating layer sustains improvement by providing three things of importance to the system: targeted hands-on support to schools, a buffer between the school and the centre, and a channel to share and integrate improvements across schools. (p. 6)

Readers of this blog will know that I have long argued for the development of a strong meso-level for supporting curriculum development (as opposed to meso-level structures that focus on audit and documentation; e.g. see https://tinyurl.com/y9eadhvy). I therefore very much welcome the general direction signalled by this review. Nevertheless, we should be aware of a number of potentially problematic issues as we take forward the recommendations of the review.

First, handing responsibility to teachers (both within the new Collaboratives and in schools) also means enhancing teachers’ agency (see https://tinyurl.com/y9vcccf4). This requires more than just rhetoric about autonomy. It requires establishing professional trust and developing contexts where teachers can exercise professional judgments, free from risk, and supported by access to cognitive, relational and material resources. A key issue here relates to the focus of the Collaboratives. Will they focus primarily on audit or on support? If they simply become beefed up local authorities focusing mainly on auditing performance against KPIs, rather than hands on leadership of curriculum development, then the new structures will not achieve their purpose.

Second, we need to take a nuanced look at how insights from other systems work in Scotland. International cherry-picking of other people’s policy is now a well-established international phenomenon. The governance review makes reference to how we might learn from other systems, for example: ‘countries such as Finland and Canada display strong overall performance and, equally important, show that a disadvantaged socioeconomic background does not necessarily result in poor performance at school’ (p.15). The important insight here is that we should be looking beyond copying the structures of these countries, and instead seek to emulate the processes that lead to improvement – in the case of Finland this includes a lack of inspections (which reduces the risk of performativity in the system), clear processes for sense-making in relation to changed policy, and leadership for reform/innovation. It can be argued that Finland’s social practices of curriculum-making shape its success as a system, as much as the ways in which its policies are framed.

Third, eyebrows will have been raised at the continued, and enhanced, role of Education Scotland in leading the development of the curriculum. The separation of the inspection and development functions of Education Scotland was widely predicted, and the fact that this has not happened will create some challenges for the system as it adapts to the new structures. I know, from my numerous conversations with teachers, that many will question putting the organisation responsible for the current state of affairs in CfE in charge of remedying its perceived ills. Of course views about the success (or otherwise) of CfE to date are contested, but regardless of where on stands on this question, it is clear that Education Scotland will face considerable challenges as it provides leadership within the new structures. A number of issues will need to be addressed, if the new structures are to be successful in the stated aim of developing improved practices across Scotland’s schools.

There is a need, in my view, to develop expertise – capacity – in curriculum development. We should be mindful of the observation by Lawrence Stenhouse (40 years ago) that there can be no curriculum development without teacher development – and that such insights apply to organisations leading curriculum development nationally/regionally as much as they apply to schools. We need to develop alternative methodologies for curriculum development. The evolution of CfE has been shaped to a large extent by the predominance of inspection/audit methodologies for curriculum development (in schools, in local authorities, and within Education Scotland). Such methodologies tend to focus on the evaluation of outputs, rather than considering the quality of inputs and processes; and I reiterate here that the success of Finland has been in a large part due to its focus on the latter. Linked to this is the issue of research literacy. A notable feature of organisations such as the SLO curriculum development agency in the Netherlands, or Ireland’s National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, is that their personnel are research literate: they engage with educational research in a way that often seems absent in Scotland; and in many cases they undertake their own research, for example through doctoral study. Engagement with research is essential if we are to break beyond the bounds of what is habitual and familiar, and to explore alternative repertoires for educational practice. Finally, we need a culture, in our new governance structures, that is focused on future improvement, rather than one that is wedded to maintaining the sacred cows presented by past structures, methods and guidance. As my colleague Walter Humes has pointed out in TESS this week, changing structures is, on its own, insufficient; we also need to address the cultures that frame educational practice in Scotland.

 

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