Education Reform: Expert Panel meeting minutes: 9 September 2021

Minutes from the meeting of the group on 9 September 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
  • Gabi Gibson, Secretariat
  • David Roy, Secretariat


  • none

Items and actions


Ken Muir welcomed panel members and referred to the large number of papers that had been received from the SQA and the likelihood of further papers for sharing with the panel and sought their views on the Secretariat arranging electronic access through ERDM connect or a similar system. Members agreed this would be a good idea.

Action: Secretariat to arrange members gaining access to papers electronically.

Note of expert panel one for agreement

The note of the first Expert Panel meeting held on 24 August was reviewed and agreed by members with an update on the actions from the note provided:

  • calendar of Key Dates to be issued.
  • for the PSAG ½ days Ken sought members’ views about identifying facilitators. It was agreed that the Secretariat would approach a PSAG member from each of the 4 groups. Ken reiterated that members were welcome to attend any of the PSAG ½ day events and outlined some of the arrangements
  • members were asked to identify stakeholders who they thought it would be useful to hear from at future EP meetings
  • draft Consultation (revised) – covered as agenda item
  • invitation to both the CEO of the SQA and ES – both invited and will attend today

Actions: facilitators to be identify for PSAG ½ day events – Secretariat.

Action: members to consider stakeholders for future attendance at EP meetings.

Action: note of the meeting on 24 August to be uploaded to the website – Secretariat.

Purpose statement

The revised Purpose Statement was discussed. Comments included that Ken’s work can’t look at ES and SQA in isolation therefore the first bullet tries to give a sense of the breadth of the reform programme. It needs to be clear that the best interests of supporting children and young people for their life journey is the focus. The purpose should be framed in those terms. Ken agreed to revise.

Action: purpose to be revised and another version circulated – Ken

Expert panel and PSAG – response to consultation on terms of reference

Ken indicated that 28 responses had been received and these had been reviewed taking account of critical comments within the additional papers issued to members yesterday. Both sets of Terms of Reference will be published and members were asked if they were content with the tracked changes.

During discussion it was suggested that clarification was required that the report to be written was Ken’s report and not a joint report prepared by the Expert Panel which would support the purpose of the members as advisors to Ken in a similar vein to PSAG members.

Action: the suggested adjustment will be made and shared with Members – Ken.

Action: expert panel and PSAG final versions of Terms of Reference to by uploaded to the website.

Key points arising from Stobart Report

Ken invited Graham to provide his reflections on the Stobart Report.

Graham said this is a good thorough and helpful report that we can relate to. The starting point being the acceptance and affirmation of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) and its international standing. The exams system post BGE has struggled to reflect original intentions of CfE. There is a useful overview of what happens internationally. In comparing against other qualification systems across the world the Scottish system is heavy. It was commented that the social and political perceived investment in exams is extremely difficult to move away from as it commanded confidence. The report rehearses the important things that are required to change. More young people are staying on and the nature of traditional exams versus accountability. Exams have very high stakes for young people and schools as they command public confidence and seen as fair which is more apparent than real as there are in built inequalities of the system.

Graham suggests it outlines a number of options for the way forward – are National 5s necessary, shifting internal/external balance on how grade is determined, greater use of technology, what students think about how they should be assessed – should be given greater consideration, relationships between vocational and academic qualifications. Governance and engagement with the examination system is more important, rather than the replacement of a body which is the challenge for Ken. Reflecting on the impact of COVID the body will require to be externally resilient to cope with disruptions in future with the ability of the system to respond.

Members agreed it was a good report to consider. Other general comments included a need to consider what the examination system measures and what matters for young people in terms of curriculum and in terms of their future. How do we get to a stage we can look at curriculum and assessment in the round? Do we have exams or not is not the right place to start. Learner at the centre, rather than talking about the process. 

Anne talked about the role of students in making a big change in assessment policy during Covid through a survey, resulted in student’s being given a choice. Good example of where direct engagement with young people produced a different solution i.e. the option to do both. Be interesting to see where it goes though. Reference was also made to Mark Priestley blog as interesting.

Action: Anne has a number of papers to share with members – Anne

Acton: Circulate link to Mark Priestley’s blog - Secretariat

Draft plans for two half-day meetings of Practitioner and Stakeholder Advisory Group

The draft agenda had been shared with members and Ken asked if they were content with the structure of the questions to generate wider discussion.

It was suggested there should be a good read across to the consultation questions to allow for analysing. Maybe reduce the introduction sections to allow more time for PSAG members to engage in conversation. Or possibly look at a starter question during context setting. Ken said he would have another look at the agenda for the sessions and if members had any other suggestions they could let him know.

Action: Review the times in the agenda – Ken

Action: Further suggestions for ½ day plans – All members

Draft consultation document

A further iteration of the draft consultation had been shared with members for thoughts noting that it had moved away from multiple choice questions with more space for free text. It was suggested that the text should encourage not only individual but group responses, the evidence base and how the responses will be analysed. More broadly PSAG members will be encouraged to engage with their members and the use of social media. Work is required to ensure accessibility for all, especially BAME parents. Panel members are all well networked and can tweet to help people understand how valuable their contribution to the bigger picture is.

Education Scotland (ES) CEO Gayle Gorman and Gillian Hamilton, Depute CEO

Gayle and Gillian joined the meeting for this item only and Ken introduced them to members.

Gayle and Gillian had been invited to discuss the following themes:

  • ownership of CfE
  • current support structures for teachers and schools on curriculum, assessment and leadership: issues / gaps / overlaps and how these might change
  • implications for the decision to remove the inspectorate from Education Scotland
  • relationship between the work of Education Scotland, Regional Improvement Collaboratives and other organisations and bodies providing support

Gayle talked about the challenges of shared ownership of CfE as schools often perceive that ‘ownership’ of the curriculum sits with ES but it is the Scottish Government that set the policy for CfE, working in partnership with ES and others, through the Curriculum and Assessment Board (CAB). ES have been working in partnership with other stakeholders to support the delivery and co-constructing curriculum support, including professional learning with school leaders as part of a commitment to a collegiate approach.

Gayle provided the Panel with background information regarding the re-organisation of ES which had taken place around nine months before the pandemic hit. The purpose of the re-structure had been to clarify roles and support structures. The restructure enabled a move towards greater regional working, clarified the separation and independence of scrutiny (with a focus on ‘one person, one job’) and built on the strong work of the Scottish College for Educational Leadership (which had joined ES in 2018) enhancing professional learning and leadership support for teachers – recognising that this is one of the factors that make the biggest difference for teachers. The regional teams were created to work more closely alongside staff in local authorities and Regional Improvement Collaboratives (RICs), working with schools, school leaders and practitioners. 

Whilst COVID-19 resulted in some work and activity being paused, it also accelerated other activity – for example, the move to virtual professional learning resulting in professional learning programmes and events reaching a wider audience and increased networking across local authority boundaries. Regional teams and inspectors were also able to provide targeted support at the request of RIC leads and Directors of Education. 

Gayle and Gillian both commented that we need to build on these approaches to maximise teacher agency, co-production and empowering our teachers. This would help reduce the tension with teachers around system readiness and their role in system improvement.

ES described their shifting focus during the pandemic by using 2 organisers ‘people’ and ‘place’. The ‘people’ aspect this included the direct support through EsGoil, a partnership approach to support remote learning professional learning programmes and events, including a specific focus on supporting headteachers who were having to change their ways of working and lead change through challenging and uncertain times. ES also corralled direct support for the workforce as a co-chair of the COVID-19 Education Recovery Group (CERG) Workstream 6 – Workforce Support. The ‘place’ aspect provided direct, targeted support to schools through direct requests from local authorities, RICS and schools themselves.

In addition to the re-structure that had taken place prior to the pandemic, Gillian also updated the panel on further internal activity which has been focused on developing ES as a great place to work through capacity and confidence building of internal teams. She also highlighted that ES staff see reform as a significant opportunity for change to continue support for educators and young people, and that staff are engaging positively in the process, even though this will be a period of significant uncertainty for them.

Gayle discussed relationships with RICs, recognising that these were chequered at the outset, with some local authorities more up for change than others. Working relationships are now stronger, with co-badging and RIC leads referencing co-construction. Relationships were further strengthened during COVID-19, with ES staff working alongside local authority staff to support schools. ES offered to provide some case studies around local authority and regional working. Gayle also highlighted strong relationships with other agencies such as SQA, GTCS, and the Teacher Unions.

Gayle referred to the decision regarding removal of the Inspectorate from ES, commenting that this is challenging and disappointing, given that so much work had already been done to really clarify the role of inspection and to ensure separation from other ES responsibilities and functions. She noted her concern about separating, given the interconnectedness with other aspects of ES work. She reiterated the importance of independence of the Inspectorate, and highlighted that it should include consideration of the role of Government and Ministers.

Ken opened up the discussion, providing members with the opportunity to ask questions. These included matters relating the relationship and governance between ES and Scottish Ministers and the confusion around the ownership of CfE. Gayle provided examples of shared governance between ES and SG, with ES working in partnership to deliver policy where it is shared – such as with the Scottish Attainment Challenge. Members also asked about the de-politicising of education and the independence of the inspectorate, including the dual role of the Chief Inspector and the Chief Executive, and whether this had become an enforcer of development rather than reporting independently. Gayle reiterated that processes are already in place regarding independence and separation, but recognised that perception is what matters. The ES Framework document, which sets out the relationship between ES and Scottish Government was referenced and members asked if this could be shared.

Other matters for discussion included ES success in working with Universities and in encouraging RICS to work more closely with Universities. Gayle gave some examples of ES work with Universities, including shared development and delivery of the Into Headship programme, and said that a number of RICs were working in partnership with Universities. There was also a discussion around ES staff experience and expertise that enables them to provide support and challenge to local authorities. Gillian spoke about the recruitment processes that were in place, as well as continued staff development, including programmes such as Evolving Systems Thinking and Leading Systems Change, where ES and LA staff come together to learn. Gayle and Gillian agreed with panel members that credibility in these roles is crucial to provide that support.

Members asked how ES know that their plans are making the difference to the profession, and to young people? Areas discussed included the use of key performance indicators, the role of the Corporate Performance Team, and developing approaches to look at longer term impact, including logic modelling. During the pandemic, ES reduced evaluation requests to the profession, in order to reduce pressures to a profession facing significant challenges. ES has robust governance processes, including an – oversight board, audit and risk committee, advisory board (includes non-executive Board members) and Audit Scotland. There was a request to see examples of some of the evaluation reports.

Members enquired about the balance of governance, influence and power sit in the system, as well as the issue of variability and asked if we have the right balance? Gayle reinforced the importance of empowerment and teacher agency, and that support needs to get as close to the learner as possible. One of the biggest challenges is local delivery and variation. – She repeated the role of ES staff in supporting local authority/RICs in a bespoke way. ES is actively trying to level the playing field with equity of provision, recognising that empowerment of headteachers/leaders varies across local authorities. There is an entitlement for young people to have good quality learning, no matter where they live in Scotland Importantly, RICs were never established as organisations but a means of collaboration across LAs/schools, and the pandemic may have provided opportunities for a shared commitment to empowerment to be re-established.

Members were interested in the design aspect of the changes that ES had gone through and Gillian offered to share information around the transformation programme.

Engagement with children and young people was also raised, with ES having done a range of work with Young Scot and the Children’s Parliament to ensure that voices of young people are heard, and can influence ES work. However, more needs to be done to address the needs of our diverse pupil population, including increased diversity within ES, including the Inspectorate. ES working with its HR team to support recruitment of a more diverse workforce. Young people need to see themselves in the workforce that leads and supports them.

Ken thanked Gayle and Gillian for their attendance and input. Both left the meeting.


  • ES offered to provide case studies around LA support
  • framework document
  • performance evaluation reports
  • transformation programme documentation

SQA CEO Fiona Robertson

Ken introduced Fiona, who had joined the meeting for this item only, to members.

The Expert Panel had asked Fiona to attend the meeting to discuss:

  • how we achieve improved alignment between our examination and assessment system with CfE
  • how we might transition to that and the risks
  • SQA’s response to the findings and proposals in Professor Stobart’s Report

Fiona talked about the first reform of national qualifications being closely aligned with CfE. However, system-wide implementation was challenging and the decision by Scottish Ministers to remove units (internal assessment) had weakened this alignment. However, exams remained only one part of the assessment approach and she also highlighted the wider range of SQA awards beyond National Qualifications which recognise the broader achievements of learners. The four capacities of CfE were therefore strongly reflected in Scotland’s qualifications offer, but the curriculum offer in schools and colleges – and the choices learners make - play in here too. The SQA’s submission to the OECD Review provides more information on the development of National Qualifications in recent years. 

Enhancements could also be made to improve progression between the broad general education (BGE) and the senior phase. As we re-consider alignment and further reform, we need to think about the culture and capacity of the system, as well as issues of structure, to ensure further change is supported and successfully implemented.

In terms of any transition, clarity of roles and responsibilities across the education system was important and that extended beyond the roles and functions of national organisations. There were merits in bringing together responsibilities on curriculum and assessment, but organisational re-structure would not be sufficient on its own to drive change. There were choices about the way in which reform took place, and consideration of a more evolutionary approach, involving young people. Fiona highlighted the agile approach to the next generation of HN qualifications as an example of this. It was particularly important to consider further integration of the curriculum offer across NQ and HNVQ where possible, including digital integration. This needed to include a greater focus on the transition from BGE to the Senior Phase as part of a 3-18 curriculum. There was an important discussion to be had about the benefits of flexibility and choice – and the greater consistency on the things we consider important. 

The appetite for change needs considered very carefully and all parts of the system need to buy-in to any further reforms. Further investment was needed in policy implementation. Fiona highlighted concerns about the polarisation of the debate – and the need to maintain the credibility of qualifications in Scotland.

Finally, any reform would need to be considered alongside existing delivery, so capacity issues and risks for SQA (and its successor body) and the wider system would need careful management, including during this period of review and the transition to a new organisation. 

Fiona welcomed the Stobart report as part of the debate on assessment and qualifications and talked through the recommendations. 

Ken invited questions from members. There was a discussion of the experience of the last few years and the comments that have been made in Parliament about the national organisations supporting Scottish Education. Fiona highlighted that SQA did not sit apart from the education system, it was part of it, with its work involving the teaching profession very closely, through thousands of appointees and NQ subject teams. However, SQA had a specific set of functions, as set out in statute, and difficult decisions needed to be made. There were always a range of views to balance and consider.

Fiona was asked about the year ahead and she highlighted the decisions of Ministers on the exam diet and the focus on fairness to learners. She acknowledged that a positive narrative around the opportunities of reform was important and that SQA’s response to the consultation would consider these issues in greater detail – she had not been asked to discuss that today. In response to a question about the SQA Board, Fiona highlighted that Board members were appointed by Scottish Ministers. The Expert Panel may wish to meet with the Board. 

Finally, Fiona wished to highlight to the Expert Panel that while National Qualifications were very important, there was significant breadth to SQA’s functions which benefitted the wider skills and training system. This was sometimes lost in the debate, but it was a very important part of its work.

Fiona indicated that she was happy to provide further evidence to the Review and was keen to see further engagement between the Review and SQA colleagues. 

Ken thanked Fiona for her time and said the EP would look to have her back.


  • SQA have done some work on a paper looking at opportunities and Fiona will look at sharing
  • Fiona offered to provide further information on governance
  • commission work from SQA to support evidence gathering


Members discussed timescale of the work and the need to reflect on what has been heard today. It was agreed that a date for an additional EP meeting should be arranged for w/b 20 September. 

Action: additional EP meeting to be arranged – Secretariat

Action: members were invited to send in any questions for the agencies – EP members 

Date of next meeting

4 October, 2pm to 5pm – MS Teams.

Members were asked to consider if there were any other significant stakeholders they would like to invite to future meetings initial suggestions included COSLA, ADES, Youth Parliament.

Secretariat to the Independent Advisor

September 2021

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