Education Reform: Expert Panel meeting minutes: 3 November 2021

Minutes from the meeting of the group on 3 November 2021.

Attendees and apologies


  • Professor Ken Muir (Chair), Independent Advisor to Scottish Government
  • Billy Burke, Head Teacher, Renfrew High School
  • Professor Graham Donaldson, University of Glasgow
  • Professor Louise Hayward, University of Glasgow
  • Professor Walter Humes, University of Stirling
  • Professor Anne Looney, Dublin City University
  • Khadija Mohammed, Scottish Association of Minority Ethnic Educators
  • Cathy McCulloch, Children’s Parliament
  • Dr Naomi Stanford, Organization Design author and consultant
  • Shirley Anderson, Secretariat
  • Sian Balfour, Secretariat
  • Fearghal Kelly, Secretariat
  • Gabi Gibson, Secretariat 


  • None

Items and actions

Structure and purpose of the day

Ken welcomed Panel members and thanked them for dedicating a full day to this meeting. He stressed the importance the meeting in his progress towards producing a report. 

Ken outlined the structure of the day with the morning focusing on a discussion session with representatives of Local Government and the afternoon allocated to a workshop session for panel members. 

Minutes of previous EP meetings

There were no proposed changes to the minutes of the previous meetings. 


  • secretariat to finalise and publish minutes of previous meetings

Ken shared some of the key themes arising from the engagement activity to date. These included:

  • the sense that many see this as an opportunity for change to address some of the issues affecting the education system in Scotland
  • some have highlighted the risk that real change is not achieved through this process
  • there are implications of this work beyond the school sector
  • the focus of many on issues related to assessment as highlighted in the Stobart report, which is for the next stage in the reform programme as recently announced by the Cabinet Secretary

Graham highlighted the importance of the National Care Service consultation paper and suggested panel members read this document. 

Naomi shared that a key theme coming through the engagement was the complexity of the system and there is a need to be able to visualise this. Professor Muir drew attention to the draft national bodies landscape document which could be further developed.


  • secretariat to arrange a separate meeting with Naomi to explore the development of a system map

Billy highlighted the impact the previous reform agenda had had on the system and Professor Muir drew attention to the forthcoming report on the review of the Regional Improvement Collaboratives (RICs). 

Discussion with local government – COSLA/ADES/SOLACE 

The following Local Government colleagues joined the meeting to discuss the reform agenda with the panel:

  • Matthew Sweeney, Policy Manager, COSLA
  • Dr Grace Vickers, SOLACE Scotland
  • Douglas Hutchison, ADES President

Ken welcomed local government colleagues to the meeting. He thanked them for submitting the paper in advance of the meeting and agreed with them that the session would take the form of an open discussion. Ken began the discussion by asking about the tensions which exist in the system at present, how these might be resolved and the work which is already underway to develop the RICs. 

Matthew responded by highlighting that the RICs were still at an early stage having only been created in 2018 and that the pandemic had interrupted their development. He gave an overview of the work which is ongoing in relation to the RICs which is taking place through the joint agreement. This includes the jointly commissioned research which is due be published soon and the joint work between RIC leads and the regional teams at Education Scotland. This work is focusing on some of the practical issues facing the RICs such as the existing funding mechanisms. He concluded by sharing that there has been an increasing acceptance of the role of RICs as a collaborative space for local authorities. 

Douglas agreed that the RICs have evolved in a become a less contested space than they were at the time of their creation. He stressed the importance of viewing the wider policy landscape such as the current consultation on the National Care Service which takes a centralising approach. He shared that there are still questions around the role of Education Scotland’s Regional Improvement Teams which are a significant resource but are not subject to the same level of scrutiny as the RICs. He questioned the logic of each LA being allocated an Attainment Advisor and asked what the impact was of this resource. 

Grace shared feedback from fellow Chief Executives that there was a need to focus on a place-based holistic approach if we’re to address inequalities. 

Ken asked about the extent to which Education Scotland teams are working with the local authorities and RICs to support this place-based perspective. He shared that he was hearing through the engagement process that teachers are less interested in where the support comes from as long as it is available to them where and when they need it. 

Billy asked if there was sufficient support in the system currently to support collaboration between teachers. 

Naomi asked if there had been any work down to establish which functions in the system are best centralised and which should be decentralised.

Graham asked if the removal of the scrutiny function from Education Scotland would assist collaboration between the RICs and Education Scotland. He also highlighted that a theme arising from the engagement activity has been the existing variability in the system. He pointed out that empowerment will inevitably lead to variability but asked about the extent to which there is inequity in terms of what young people get from the system and if this is an issue, and what might be put in place to address this? 

In relation to the question from Naomi, Grace stressed the need for a one size fits one approach which meets the needs of all young people. She would welcome an independent inspectorate but that it needs to reach practitioners. Grace highlighted the need for more support for networks of pedagogues and that we are currently missing the pervious subject leads networks. She stressed the need for more support for pedagogy on the ground and that while some of the RICs has impacted at classroom level, some have more to do still. 

Douglas stated that there is an assumption that all issues will be solved by centralising, whereas we know from experience that this is not the case. He shared that there are other tensions in the system also, for example budgets. He highlighted the reduction in funding to LAs and that some were better at protecting education budgets than others and to some extent this was the nature of democracy. Elected members get to make choices which will result in variability across the country. Douglas shared that it would helpful if there was a consensus about what should be done locally and nationally. 

In terms of variability, Douglas raised questions regarding the influence of the Audit Scotland report over the system. He warned against a performative view of education and suggested the need for a more sophisticated approach. He acknowledged that some LAs are adding value to a greater extent than others, but that we need better measures to understand why this is. He made reference to articles which relate to this issue which Ken asked him to share links to. Douglas posted these in the chat window as follows: 

In terms of centralisation, Matthew drew attention to the variation which exists in the NHS despite it being run nationally. He suggested that there was variation between schools within a LA and that focusing on the variation at LA level was a crude measure and that there needed to be a better definition of what we mean by variation. 

Matthew stated that we need to have a conversation around budgets. He highlighted that funding for national education bodies has increased or remained broadly flat in recent years during which time there has been a reduction in funding to the LAs which in effect led to movement of resource from the local to national level. He pointed out that many Scandinavian countries have much more decentralised systems than the UK and Scotland and they also achieve better outcomes. 

Matthew also asked how we better match up what our priorities are. He suggested looking at a co-sponsorship model such as Public Health Scotland. This approach has allowed SG and COSLA to get behind a common set of priorities. He suggested that this work presented an opportunity to consider a co-sponsorship approach which clarifies roles and responsibilities in the system and ensures that all parties working in partnership towards an agreed goal. 

Walter highlighted that one of the messages arising from the engagement with stakeholders is the importance of cultural issues in the system. He asked about the culture in LAs currently and if they are all empowering their schools. He stated that LAs have to be part of the solution, but asked if they are also part of the problem. 

Grace stressed the importance of not generalising based on some comments. She stated the need to share more of the practice which works well between LAs and that she would like to see empowerment going much further down in the system. She highlighted the role of elected members in the system and that LA officers need to take an evidence based approach to any proposals for change. 

Walter asked about the role of Quality Improvement Officers in the system and stated that headteachers have told him that these have often developed into a second layer of inspection and are not as supportive as previous advisors. 

Ken highlighted the issue of accountability coming through the engagement, both in terms of levels and degree.  

Douglas stressed the importance of culture and the need for LA officers to have discussions with their headteachers and come to a collective decision. He pointed out the supportive role LAs can provide headteachers, for example around employment law. Douglas stated that there is a culture of compliance and respect in Scottish education generally, not just in LAs. 

Matthew stated that there has been real, evidence-based, improvements in terms of the approaches LAs take to supporting their schools. He highlighted the need to continue improve the diversity at elected member level. COSLA are doing some work on this, but some of the barriers are beyond the control of local government. In relation to empowerment, Matthew said that we had started on a journey towards empowerment but that the pandemic had interrupted this. We need to work out how to at least get back to where we were pre-pandemic in terms of empowerment. 

Louise asked how we might collect better kinds of evidence to inform policy and practice and highlighted the lack of variety of references in many policy documents. 

Ken shared that an outcome from the engagement has been the issue of policy coherence and asked about the role LA officers find themselves having in terms of interpreting policy for schools. 

Grace agreed for the need for more intelligent accountability and that too often reports were being used inappropriately to evaluate performance. She also agreed that often policies are conflicting. She suggested the need for an increased role for Universities and practitioners in policy development. 

Graham shared the need to consider where the functions of the system should reside, and where they currently reside for historical reasons. He asked about the need for national bodies to be at arm’s length from Ministers. 

Ken shared that this relates to a theme arising from the engagement activity around the need to depoliticise education. Graham shared some reflections from his work in Wales in relation to this. 

Khadija highlighted the inequity which exists in the system and stressed the need for bespoke support. She stressed the need to be accountable to children and that national improvement support needs to be able to respond to local needs. Khadija shared that there is a lack of diversity in the education workforce and that we’re not hearing the lived experiences of diverse communities. She agreed that PEF has worked well in some areas, but not all. She shared the need to interpret the system through a wide range of lenses and reflect on who has got a seat around the table. 

In reference to Graham’s point, Grace agreed that there was a need to consider the historical perspective. She stated that there are often unintended consequences of policy decisions and questioned the extent to which the Senior Civil Service is able to challenge Ministers on these. Grace stressed the need for the day-to-day accountability for children and young people to sit locally. 

Naomi shared that there are subtle reinforcing mechanisms in the system which allow or disallow accountability. She stated that it is possible to take or be assigned accountability and empowerment. She asked what are the existing reinforcers and enablers of this un the system. 

Cathy stated that the incorporation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) has huge implications for accountability and empowerment. She suggested that the biggest reform to the system would come from putting the views of children and young people at the heart of the system. 

Douglas stated that we need better ways for those who are marginalised to be listened to and that this needs to be done in a genuine way. In terms of policy documents, Douglas shared that whilst we welcome the OECD report, he felt that it was under-referenced. He agreed that there is scope for a greater role for Universities but asked about the extent to which the work of universities is determined by the needs of the system. 

In response to Douglas, Walter agreed that the university sector could do more to link with what’s happening in schools and local authorities but that many academics are under pressure from their institutions. He highlighted examples of when academics have worked in close collaboration with schools but that it isn’t always easy to achieve in the current system. 

Louise pointed out that there are opportunities in the system, for example universities are now asked for case studies which demonstrate how their work impacts on the system. She also highlighted the importance of working from an evidence base to inform change. 

Ken concluded the session by asking Grace, Matthew and Douglas to share one thing which they would like to see coming out of his work. 

Grace stressed the need to depoliticise education and ensure that policy and practice is research driven. 

Matthew asked for a move away from the top down model and to explore the co-sponsorship idea with the possibility for shared services and individual responsibilities. 

Douglas asked for greater clarity and a shared understanding of roles. He also stated that genuinely independent inspection will be key as this can play a pivotal role in the system, particularly if working more closely with LAs.

Ken and the panel thanked Grace, Douglas and Mathew for their time and such a stimulating discussion. 

Reflections and discussion

Ken briefly discussed some of the themes arising from the discussion with local government colleagues with panel members. These included:

  • the proposed co-sponsorship model to national bodies
  • the potential of the incorporation of the UNCRC to change cultures
  • the overlapping roles at local, regional and national levels
  • potential learning from the Consortia approach in Wales

Session 2 introduction and scenario 

Ken shared a slide outlining the key themes and messages arising from the engagement and discussions he’s had to date. 

Based on this Ken presented a potential scenario to the panel members, highlighting that the report will major on the reforms to SQA and Education Scotland but also starting to look at an agenda for longer term reform.

Ken shared that the Panel was going to move into two breakout groups to discuss possible ways forward for these reforms. It was agreed that the first discussion would focus on where change be needed before focusing in on the SQA and Education Scotland. 

Breakout groups discussions

The panel split into two groups and discussed areas of potential improvement in the system. 

Group discussion

The breakout groups came together to share and discuss the themes arising from their discussions. These included: 

  • the need for shared vision and ownership of that vision by all
  • learner, place-based focus to be at the heart of reform
  • importance of voice of children and young people
  • need for cycles of review within the education system to give greater certainty around schedules of reform
  • need for a greater focus on wider achievement and not just attainment
  • focus needs to be given to the rights of children and young people under the UNCRC and incoming Human Rights Bill
  • the need to review and improve current roles and functions, including creation of an innovation lab to push future horizons in order that schools remain relevant
  • importance of clarifying language such as “empowerment”
  • the need for different types of support for the system, including bringing expertise in closer to focus on the child/young person and their needs
  • the potential for considering partnership governance models
  • scope for headteachers to draw from outside expertise relevant to the school’s needs
  • the need to map support, challenge and decision-making from the perspective of learners, teachers and schools outwards
  • the need for a continued national offer of professional learning, particularly for leadership
  • academic/vocational divide still to be addressed by SQA
  • greater use and clarity of use of SCQF offer potential for recognising achievement
  • importance of having a qualifications/awards offer that allows all learners to progress in their learning and follow a seamless learner journey
  • need to meet local bespoke needs balanced by the need for a national offer. Need to consider balance of funding across these two levels
  • the potential for considering the regulation of qualifications as a separate entity from awarding qualifications
  • importance of a world-class workforce, high standards, high quality professional learning to strengthen the quality of teaching
  • need for schools to have more autonomy on where they can access professional learning
  • strengths noted in leadership programmes and using local networks for professional learning but more needed on curriculum and subject expertise, possibly accessing subject/curriculum association expertise
  • clarity required around the future status of RICs and how schools and teachers can be supported at the local level
  • the need for a broader view of monitoring improvement
  • need for an independent, re-envisioned inspectorate, reporting directly to Ministers, with a focus on stopping things going wrong and providing “truth to power”

Draft agenda for PSAG2 

Ken asked panel members to review this paper and suggest any improvements. He encouraged panel members to attend this meeting and the upcoming PSAG subgroup meetings if possible. 

Arrangements for EP5 (date, format and location)

Ken shared the intention for this event to be as a face-to-face meeting. A venue has been confirmed and the date was agreed as 1 December. Further detail to be provided as soon as possible.

Future meetings and final engagement opportunities

Ken drew attention to the remaining meetings he is holding with stakeholders and encouraged Panel members to join as many of them as possible.

Any other business


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