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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4 thoughts on “Regional Improvement Collaboratives: a new strengthened middle in Scottish education?

  1. How disappointing. In your experience and from your research what are the notable successes in curriculum development at local authority and school level in Scotland? In the governance paper no attention is given to successes here such as North Lanarkshire’s collaborative learning or schools developing personalised tailored programmes in the Senior Phase. You seem to be regretting that a new LTS isn’t being set up and promising that teacher agency (Stenhouse’s teacher as developer) will be achieved by RICs led by super-Directors. Change in classroom practices, in organisation and resourcing (OECD 2007) require, not super-Diectors but support in class something like an enhanced curriculum development role now focused towards inclusion and equity and building on the Support for Learning practitioner (EPSEN 1994) – on the ground and in the class focused on children and young people.

    1. You seem to be reading too much into my analysis. . I never mentioned super-directors or RCTs. Nor am I advocating the re-establishment of LTS in any form. I am simply suggesting that the new regional arrangements offer the potential for locally-led activity to support curriculum development (as is already emerging in south Wales, for example). This is surely better than the current vacuum. I am aware of the successes of some local authorities, often those like Fife and Glasgow with large infrastructure – however, the fact remains that many local authorities (through no fault of their own) lack that infrastructure by dint of being too small. Add to that the recent focus on evaluation/audit, the bureaucracy and the lack of decent support methodologies across the system, and you have a recipe for schools floundering, reinventing the wheel etc.

  2. Hear hear to most of that Mark – there is potential for the kinds of support you mention, but there are also potential risks in the new model. I can see lots of meetings for HTs at both local authority and RIC.. and this being replicated throughout the profession. There will be confused mixed messages from political players in local authorities/ES, playing for influence in the new system. There is a real danger of CEO ES, directly accountable to CabSecy for Education, running the system by setting the key narratives and the terms of inspection from the centre.
    On the whole I would have preferred to see a re-linking of College/school education with social work and health in new mid-level authorities (with a democratic oversight through revamped ‘regions’ – health and colleges already organised in 13/14 areas so makes sense for education to have similar boundaries given the amount of collaborative work in place already). These bigger authorities would act as a useful counterweight to the centralised power of SG/ES and also have sufficient capacity (which many current authorities lack) to support professional collaboration across professions and professional development across professions. Putting the new RICs under the control of the Inspectorate suggests there will be a lot of pressure for conformity to a handed-down ‘best practice’ model. Of course decentralising political power to larger local authorities (back to the previous two-tier system) , and the reorganisation involved, would distract from the larger political project of the current government and so was always off the table.
    I hope we don’t end up with a muddle.

    1. Thanks for this Danny. I would certainly share your concerns about centralisation. For me, the exercise is pointless if the rhetoric about regional/local collaboration us not matched by oeactice

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