Means To An End: The Future of Scottish Education

“Of all the small nations of this earth, perhaps only the ancient Greeks surpass the Scots in their contribution to mankind.”

Winston Churchill

diverseI 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?


15 thoughts on “Means To An End: The Future of Scottish Education

  1. We really need to embrace true collaboration, co-operation and partnerships. Headteachers do not have all the answers and they need to acknowledge this and develop all the relationships and partnerships necessary to meet the developing needs of their pupils. All partners need to understand the requirements needed for deep and sustained learning and change to take place. Too many different agendas and egos involved at the moment to really allow this to happen.

    • Hi George,
      Not sure whether that is an argument for more autonomy for headteachers, or not. I suppose the concern, certainly on the part of some teachers, is that a more powerful headteacher could pursue an agenda which not all staff had bought in to. On the other hand, it may be that the more able and more enlightened headteachers will be a beacon for others to follow. I don’t think there’s any doubt though that we are reaching the point where more risks have to be taken in order to progress.

  2. I agree risks need to be taken and innovation encouraged. Real innovation and change can only flourish within a culture and ethos that makes it safe to do so, and which accepts mistakes will happen. Staff need to be encouraged and supported to develop their practice. This cannot be imposed and sustained. Has to come from within, they need to see what they can do to move forward. This is why I support practitioner enquiry as the way forward. People really interrogating their own practice and its impact. Headteacher can create the conditions to allow such approaches to flourish, or vice versa. I do worry how some might use more autonomy, but there have been plenty of occasions where I have wished for more!

  3. Bill, the Commission was jointly sponsored by Reform Scotland and the Centre for Scottish Public Policy. The idea of that was to avoid there being any dominant political philosophy and that was reflected in the membership, which covered the political spectrum pretty well.
    However, the answer to your question is “yes”. There are examples right across England from Cramlington, Huntington High School in York, the schools led by those represented on the Heads’ Round Table, those involved in the Whole Education movement…… the list is considerable and England is not the only source for such evidence. It is also true that such autonomy does not guarantee good practice.
    George is right that governance arrangements are not the key factors on driving greater success in any education system, but they can create greater openness for improvement. We have a curriculum which is supposed to deliver personalisation and choice. It is supposed to allow schools to match better what they offer to the characteristics and needs of the communities that they serve. Autonomy is part of the philosophy of Curriculum for Excellence, I am less sure that it is part of its reality

    • Hi David,
      Thanks for the correction on the joint sponsorship of the report. You will find it has been amended. In terms of the governance arrangements, I tend to agree with you – if I understand you correctly – that it’s vital to get that right in order to create the conditions for innovation and excellence to thrive. There will always be a risk when according greater autonomy to schools, that it MAY result simply in greater autonomy for the headteacher, unless he or she has exceptional skills, and as you know it has been increasingly difficult to fill HT posts in recent years, such are the demands of the job. Having said that, I would commend the report for its recommendations on training and retaining leaders of the highest quality in the profession.
      From the point of view of the classroom teacher, you highlight an important issue, and I would like to hear from some of them whether they think that greater autonomy would make this more or less of a problem. That is in Part Two of the report, on the ‘Processes of Change’:-
      ‘Currently, there are few effective channels for bringing classroom concerns to the attention of either central or local government. In a few instances – literacy is a good recent example – issues of importance to classroom teachers do become the focus of national initiatives. In some other instances, such as ‘Assessment is for Learning’ a development gains widespread grassroots support after beginning as an initiative by a national agency. Attempts are often made by influential figures such as ministers to keep in touch with classroom opinion but it is not clear that this has real impact on national policy priorities. For the most part upwards communication is insufficient and, indeed, some teachers believe that their real concerns are often accorded little priority.’
      PS I don’t know whether you have the answer to this question, but the reference to literacy as a good example of ‘an issue of importance to classroom teachers becoming the focus of national initiatives’ intrigued me. I can’t think what that might have been and I don’t see any reference to its origin in Appendix 2.

  4. In my opinion there is a trade off in the strength of local authority involvement in Scottish Education. Whilst there is probably some truth on the idea that LA’s can be a dead hand on innovation, they also provide a degree of consistency in the system. As a result the perception, and probably the reality, is the vast majority of our schools are good, few are excellent and few are unsatisfactory. I suspect that if we increased the autonomy of our schools we may well get more excellent schools, but we might get more unsatisfactory schools as well.

    From the classroom teacher’s perspective, I certainly think that greater autonomy in schools would allow more innovation in the classroom. If the SMT is able to respond more flexibly to the needs and thoughts of the students, parents and staff we are bound to have more innovative schools. Some people think that innovating classroom practice is about tinkering your practice in your standardised box, in your standardised time-slot with your standardised kit. However some of us want to go much further than this but the size of the system and the distance of the decision-makers makes this nigh-on impossible to achieve. I also don’t think it’s healthy for Scottish HTs to be able to blame anonymous people higher up for unwelcome decisions. This helps create a culture of disempowerment and helplessness amongst staff in Scottish schools in my opinion.

    I do think that dumping this autonomy on all schools could be a disaster. I think that a certain status should be created which schools can opt into to get more autonomy. To achieve it the SMT would need to demonstrate competence and have buy-in from students, parents and staff. This could then be tied into the new college for school leadership with programmes for school leaders to successfully take their schools into this new autonomous status. Perhaps this might help reduce the risk of the potential increase in unsatisfactory schools.

    • Thanks Fearghal,
      Some very interesting comments. Your ‘I don’t think it’s healthy for Scottish HTs to be able to blame anonymous people higher up for unwelcome decisions’ will strike a chord with many, I’m sure.

  5. The ‘autonomous’ college has been in existence since post incorporation and, until recently, has remained unchallenged. What colleges have experienced, however, has been a perpetual state of flux…that is a failure to universally agree on a structure that effectively serves the needs of our learners and the resultant cyclical ‘re-structures’ have done little but push us toward the abyss. As I mentioned in my tweet to Bill, autonomy would only be a systemic shift that would need to be followed up by more profound cultural change. Effective leadership and resourcing will always be pre-requisites in the quest for change, however, as Fearghal asserts, ‘some of us want to go much further’, and here, I would suggest, is where the catalyst for change lies. The visionary teachers of today must be allowed to be the empowered and unencumbered leaders of tomorrow.

    • Hi Kenneth,
      Have you just hit the nail on the head – that even after institutions have been given greater freedom, they still look for ‘universal agreement’ on how they should structure their organisations? Isn’t the point that they should be structured to suit the needs of their own learners and communities? I like your last sentence, though I wonder whether some teachers, no matter how visionary, might baulk at the idea of ‘unencumbered leaders’?

      • I also agree with this. I have been arguing for some time that we need a coalition of the creative and committed and the powerful, but allowing the creative and committed to become the powerful would be even better!

        Much of this discussion also reminds me of Neil Winton’s blog on about using the Es and Os where he talks about the need to learn to take advantage of freedoms. It is a great blog anyway and well worth a read.

        Undoubtedly we need to change cultures rather than structures, but changing structures might help to change those cultures. The worry is that if we don’t open up the possibility for innovation, flexibility and responsiveness, cot urial change might be too slow to come

  6. Clearly I have become terminally embarrassed at sharing my name with the PM and have sub-consciously adopted the “Camerob” alias

  7. Hi Bill,

    Added some more ‘from my experience’

    Much can be made of “By Diverse Means: Improving Scottish Education”, published earlier this week by the Commission on School Reform, however, one thing’s for sure….it will not be widely read! A bold statement, you may claim, but one I genuinely believe to be true. The more salient question I suppose is, does this lack of engagement in such research matter? I believe it does.

    My rationale stems from a believe that, while reports such as these are far reaching in their examination of our education system (there are 37 recommendations!), the average practitioner’s thoughts on such a system will rarely extend beyond their experiential boundaries. Lack of support, time and resources are generally the major criticisms that emanate from the profession, alongside the perennial ‘non-specific’ concerns surrounding ‘lack of effective leadership’. Leadership has become something of a panacea for the education system and, if executed effectively, it can go a long way to creating the right conditions for change. One of the simplest but undoubtedly neglected realities of our time is that managers administer and maintain, whilst leaders innovate and develop. It is exactly this lack of focus on innovation and development that leads teachers into their insular habits. Moreover, if the conditions do not exist to empower leaders, those with the qualities required to be effective will either become victims of perpetual dissonance or will sadly leave the profession.

    Bill’s key question was: Is it possible for a collegiate culture to exist in schools if the head teacher is effectively the chief executive of a largely autonomous organisation? My answer is yes, so long as the conditions for collegiality are in place.

    Recommendation 27 is a heartening one, in that the Scottish College for
    Educational Leadership should be established. Hopefully, such an institution will inspire trust and focus on people, and that they will truly succeed in navigating teachers away from the recurring theme of inertia toward a more sustainable future for learners and professionals alike.

  8. Hi Bill,

    I think you pose a really interesting question and the discussion surrounding it has been really engaging.

    For me, the report throws up a couple of essential considerations.

    Firstly, I think it rightly points out that the implementation of CfE does not end with the formulation of the the new qualifications. I think there is a risk, at the highest political level, of it being ‘job done’ once the NQs are sat at the end of the next school year. CfE is more than the political football it has become, it’s a huge shift in mindset and supposed to signal a move to a different concept of education and learning. The NQs are only one part of it.

    In terms of your question Bill, I think that in principle schools (or at least a secondary and it’s feeder primaries) should indeed have a greater level of autonomy. I think the reality for many Head teachers is that they exist in a state of flux between two competing concerns, those of their staff and those of the Local Authority. The Local Authority is, at it’s fundamental root, a political organisation with political priorities – chief of which in the current climate is the cutting of deficits. This policy, I’m sure everyone will agree, does not always click seamlessly with educational priorities. Within local authorities too there can be a diverse difference between schools. This can depend on factors such as the social and economic realties of the community around the school. With these two reasons alone, I think there can be a compelling case for greater autonomy for Head teachers.

    I suppose my worry is with the idea of a Head Teacher as a ‘chief executive’. I’d rather they were simply a ‘Head Teacher’. I think the role of a chief executive of a company and that of a head teacher are different. A school is not a business with the goal of profit, but an establishment with the goal of achieving the best educational outcomes for all. I am always dubious, if not concerned, by the promotion of business/corporate culture in educational management.

    • Hi Stu,
      Thanks for the contribution. Like you, I think the future role of local authorities is central to the whole discussion, and as far as I can see, there are great discrepancies in the way they operate across the country, meaning that for many schools, and therefore teachers, kids and parents, the educational experience they have is already something of a lottery. I couldn’t agree more with your point about headteachers, and the danger of using the business analogy. I was saying as much in an article in TESS more than ten years ago :-

      “Every good teacher is a good manager, although the converse is not necessarily true. The word “management” has come to be surrounded by negative connotations, most of them related to industry, where poor management has often meant the exploitation of the weak by the strong. In the weakest of our schools today, some senior managers are still regarded (and in the very worst of cases regard themselves) as a privileged elite who have to a great extent escaped the rigours of classroom teaching.”

      You can read the full article here

      Thanks again.

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