“Of all the small nations of this earth, perhaps only the ancient Greeks surpass the Scots in their contribution to mankind.”
I am fairly certain that when Churchill spoke those words he had in mind the many Scots whose ideas, creativity and drive contributed to the invention of the modern world (for a fascinating analysis of this phenomenon I would recommend The Scottish Enlightenment by Arthur Herman), but I wonder whether the Scots who will shape the future world will do so as a result of their formal education, or in spite of it. In my previous post I made comment on a short video animation which attempted – quite neatly I thought – to examine the rationale behind the last major review of the school curriculum in Scotland, and to summarise the progress, or otherwise, of its implementation since. What I didn’t realise at the time was that it was related to a fairly weighty report, By Diverse Means: Improving Scottish Education, published earlier this week by the Commission on School Reform. It should be pointed out at this stage that the report was commissioned by the Centre for Scottish Public Policy (‘Scotland’s only independent cross-party think-tank’) and Reform Scotland, (an ‘independent think-tank’ headed up by two former Scottish Conservative party advisers).
The report begins by asserting that Scottish Education still enjoys a decent reputation, both at home and abroad, while emphasising that there is no room for complacency, and suggests that while our schools are improving, they are improving at a slower rate than those of many of our economic competitors. At its heart, and standing out among its 37 recommendations for consideration by the Scottish Government and others, is the principle that schools should have greater autonomy, which, the report’s authors argue, will in turn lead to greater diversity. It is particularly strong in its analysis of the reasons why change is slow to happen in Scotland, a feature of the report which will immediately antagonise those – and there are many – with a vested interest in the status quo. This 129-page report is challenging, not bland, and deserves a wide readership. It raises a great number of questions of the current system, while calling repeatedly for structural and organisational change. It endorses the principles, purposes and values of Curriculum for Excellence as a mission statement for education, and suggests some of the changes which are necessary to bring it to fruition. Each of the recommendations is worthy of a longer debate in itself, and I will return to some of them in due course, but for now I would simply add one key question to those I raised in my previous post, and invite you all to join the discussion.
“Scotland does not lack good ideas. It has policies such as Curriculum for Excellence and Teaching Scotland’s Future that are forward-looking and have the capacity to bring about real improvement. However, the experience of other major policy initiatives over the past half-century indicates that Scotland often fails to extract the maximum benefit from good policies.
In short, processes of change in Scottish education fall short of what is required.
To a large extent this is because the system is too uniform. It lacks the diversity that is a vital element of any learning organisation. The Commission sees the promotion of increased variety in the system as a crucially important prerequisite of future improvement.
The best way of achieving this objective is to increase the autonomy of individual schools. Every school should have as much control over its resources as is practicable. They should be encouraged to innovate and take well-considered risks.
At present, however, schools are reluctant to take the initiative. This is because the culture of the system as a whole is disempowering. The structure is hierarchical with an ethos of each layer being subordinate to the one above it. There is too little communication or sense that constructive criticism is welcomed. Above all, the Commission considers it essential to develop a sense of common endeavour where everybody involved feels able to contribute on equal terms.
At present the responsibilities of different tiers of management are ill-defined. The strategic leadership role of government is obscured by a strong tendency to become involved in detail. The freedom of action of schools is too circumscribed. The Commission takes the view that headteachers should be seen as the chief executives of largely autonomous bodies. At the same time, it is imperative that a collegiate culture should exist within schools.”
By Diverse Means: Improving Scottish Education The Commission on School Reform Final Report March 2013
The last two sentences of that extract will be particularly contentious. The Scottish consensus has traditionally been egalitarian in nature, the idea of the all-powerful headteacher a relic of some dark bygone era. The business analogy of chief executive will not play well with many. Others will immediately have a vision of Michael Gove and the mess of ‘free schools’ and Academies currently proliferating in England, and wonder whether that is a route we want to take. Whatever way you read it, there are substantial implications for the role of local authorities, an issue which was raised in the comments on my previous post, and which is dealt with in more detail in the report.
Key Question: Is it possible for a collegiate culture to exist in schools if the headteacher is effectively the chief executive of a largely autonomous organisation?