Transforming Scottish Education Needs More Than Structural Reform

Gordon Hector | Twitter

Yesterday the OECD published the long-awaited review of Scotland’s education system. It’s politely-written but damning, and as a result the Scottish Qualifications Authority is going to be axed and inspection split out of Education Scotland. 

On one level, it’s refreshing to see a respected organisation say there are problems, and the Scottish Government say: yep, ok, we will respond. It’s a huge vindication of anyone who raised their head above the parapet over the past few years.

The OECD are the unoffficial high nabobs of neoliberalism, too – so their blessing gives cover to do things that might otherwise be politically impossible.

But there’s a niggle.

It's Not Just Hardware - Changing the Software of a System is What Matters

The lesson of almost every public service reform, ever, is that designing structures is often the easy bit. It’s the policy lever that lies most firmly in a politician’s grasp, and it broadcasts action and purpose. Politically, it buys you 5 years: 1 year to design a structure, 2 years to implement it, 2 years to spend saying ‘well, it’s early days for our new structure.’

It’s not the same thing as actually improving services, though.

Clearly the hardware of a system matters. Creating an independent inspectorate and a revamped qualifications body was already the consensus position of pretty much everyone bar the Scottish Government.

But it’s often software that really makes the difference: the more ephemeral workings of leadership, staffing, culture change, and long-term funding patterns. These things are as influential, or more, as structures. The joke in the NHS is that it doesn’t need a Chief Executive Officer, but a Chief Anthropologist. Something similar holds true in most public services. It’s partly how Scottish education got into such a mess – ministers failing to appreciate that introducing a new curriculum was always going to be shaped more by organisational behaviour than policy. A process, not an event, you could say.

The risk is that we fall back into press-a-button reform. We could now spend the next 5 years executing a big structural change, while other important things go unchallenged.

Time to Face Up to the Failed Reality of Curriculum for Excellence

Top of the rest of the to-do list is teacher recruitment and retention – arguably the single most important thing government needs to preserve bandwidth to do. Some bright civil servant needs to have that as their one and only job, with a lot of cash to help them, and kept well away from redrawing the SQA while they concentrate.

But politically, the big risk is that while we merrily rearrange the quangos, CfE itself chunters on as before, chewing up every child in its path. The line will go that while the SQA and Education Scotland are being rewired, it would be daft to start tinkering with the curriculum too. And that is where the Scottish Government is already going: its headline was ‘OECD school review backs curriculum’.

CfE, in this version, has been redeemed.

Except the OECD were not asked to review CfE itself – but its implementation. All of Scotland’s parties have carefully maintained this distinction over time: the SNP because it’s largely their curriculum, Labour and Lib Dem because it began on their watch, and Greens and Tories through a combination of genuine commitment to the original thinking and concern that they will look too radical in proposing changes. All have managed to find a way of saying the concept of CfE is fine, it’s the implementation that’s the problem. Collectively, we have grown wary of changing reality, lest we upset our ideas.

Try this formula the next time your child gets a terrible report at school, because Scotland’s politicians have grown very comfortable with it.

Scotland Can Do Both

So yes, the OECD have indeed given their blessing to the idea of CfE and endorsed its international reputation: they have also given a massive kicking to its reality. Given they suggest changes to the vision, design, implementation, accountability for and implementation of CfE, the idea is just about all that’s left.

So as we embark on a series of changes to the agency landscape, it’s just as important to sort out the core problems with the curriculum which the OECD picks up: its lack of clarity, its baffling documentation and processes, its lack of a clear role for knowledge in learning.

The politics of education cannot now coalesce around changing the SQA and Education Scotland, while completely neglecting CfE. We can do both. We have to.

Otherwise, in 5 years time, we will just have to invite the OECD back again, and ask why nothing changed. Next time, they might not be so polite.

Gordon Hector is a policy consultant and former Director of Policy and Strategy for the Scottish Conservatives.


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