Education and Skills Reform: Education Secretary statement

Statement to the Scottish Parliament by Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, Jenny Gilruth.

Presiding Officer,

I am grateful for the opportunity to update Parliament today on the next steps for Education & Skills reform.

Members may recall that, in June, I paused the legislative programme, originally scheduled for this year.

I did this for good reason.

My engagements with the profession over the last eight months have cemented my view that our Education system has fundamentally changed, post-Covid.

Rushing to legislate won’t change that.

Reform must mean better outcomes for our young people and our adult learners.

Reform also has to take teachers with us – I can’t change systems without their skills and knowledge. And, importantly, without their buy-in.

Our education and skills system needs to work as a single system which is easy to navigate, with collective responsibility to deliver excellence for all.

Back in 2021, the Scottish Government accepted all the recommendations in the OECD’s report, which independently reviewed and endorsed Curriculum for Excellence.

This was followed by Professor Ken Muir’s report, the National Discussion on Education, the review of qualifications and assessment, and our initial response to James Withers’ Review in the Purpose and Principles for Post-School Education, Research and Skills.

I want to thank the reviewers for their reports.

We all accept the need to move on from these reports - with tangible action – setting out the steps which are right for our young people and adult learners.

To that end, whilst today’s statement is largely focused on school reform, I can confirm to the chamber today that the Minister for Higher Education intends to update Parliament, subject to agreement, later this year on our response to James Withers’ review on post-school education.

Presiding Officer, reform must be more than the sum of its parts.

And reform cannot exist in a vacuum.

The pandemic changed us all, and the impacts of Covid were arguably the hardest for our youngest citizens.

We know that the number of young children in Scotland experiencing speech and language delays has increased since the pandemic.

At 27-30 months, the proportion of children with a developmental concern is more than double between children living in our richest and our poorest areas.

Speak to any Primary teacher today and they will tell you the difference in the young people they teach since 2020.

The impact is layered of course on top of an attainment gap, during a cost of living crisis, which has delivered the biggest fall in living standards since Scottish records began.

That context has fundamentally changed the type of learning and teaching in our schools.  

It means teachers are accommodating vastly different needs than those which existed only four years ago. 

I know that teachers are doing this already – it’s what they do. But reform needs to recognise this shift and better support how the profession responds.

Because if reform doesn’t recognise the changes in our classrooms– whether they be developmental delays, changed behaviour, communication or even on attendance - then it will not carry credibility.

This is not, therefore, about re-badging organisations.

Reform has to be about systemic, cultural change which improves outcomes for our young people and which better supports the professionals we entrust in their care. 

To that end, I will confirm to Parliament today some changes to the Governance processes which I hope will bring greater purpose, whilst supporting a more holistic approach across the Portfolio to reform.

I will chair a ministerial group which will advise on the totality of Education and Skills reform – recognising this is one system. 

This will better reflect the totality of reports published this year, pulling together the opportunity for a joined up system.

We will also establish an Education and Skills Reform Chief Executive Forum, ensuring all bodies impacted by reform can engage collectively and directly with Government, supporting our ambitions.

Finally, I have been very clear that teachers and educators must be directly involved in the governance - to help deliver the change required in these new bodies, and to ensure the expertise from the profession drives improvement.

Presiding Officer, reform provides us with a unique opportunity to better support the teaching profession – and in so doing our children and young people.

Members will recall in June I announced a review into the impact of the Regional Improvement Collaboratives.

I want to thank all of those who have contributed, including members of the RICs.

Since their inception back in 2017, the RICs have increased the improvement and leadership support they provide.

Indeed, the most recent evidence suggests around 17,500 practitioners and leaders across early years, primary and secondary settings have been engaged in regional activities in the last year.

However, while their support was never intended to be universal, the number of staff and also the establishments receiving RIC support over the school year remains a minority.

I am clear that we must deliver a system which provides greater equity in access to improvement and professional learning support for teachers.

Regional collaboration is important and the RICs have helped to embed that culture in our Local Authorities.

However, future Scottish Government investment will now be directed to initiatives advancing excellence in teaching in our classrooms, whilst looking to local authorities to build on those collaborative approaches.

To that end, I can confirm that for the next academic year, the Scottish Government will taper funding from the RICs, repurposing this funding to better support teachers in our classrooms.

I have asked Education Scotland to review their regional structure, recognising the importance of strengthening the curriculum and professional learning.

Presiding Officer, I am also clear that we have real strengths in Scotland’s education system. So for example, a subject close to my own heart are the subject specialisms we have in our schools - that should be celebrated and better supported nationally.

It is a unique attribute of Scottish Education that we should be proud of. In our secondary schools, we have that cohort of teachers who are passionate about teaching their subject.

So, our national support should build on the expertise we already have in our classrooms – using that passion to instil the ‘joy of learning’ that the National Discussion spoke to.  

Presiding Officer, there is no greater a strength in our education system than excellent learning and teaching.

It is crucial to closing the poverty related attainment gap.

And I want all of Scotland’s teachers to have the space, time and support they need to develop their practice.

I am particularly mindful of the cohort of teachers who learned how to become a teacher during the pandemic. It cannot have been easy.

Now we know that excellent teaching is already happening in schools across Scotland. Children and young people are achieving, the attainment gap is narrowing, but more must be done to support the profession.  

And being a teacher is a valuable profession.

The new Centre for Teaching Excellence will, therefore, fill an important gap in our national approach to education.

It will help us to remain at the cutting edge of teaching practice, by distilling research and evidence into practical support for teachers in our classrooms.

Now, I anticipate the Centre will be hosted by a University, learning from the successful model of the Centre for Excellence for Children’s Care and Protection better known as CELCIS.

Working closely with the Scottish Council of Deans of Education and being hosted by a University, the Centre will link the school sector with the university sector at national level. 

Presiding Officer, it is also worth pointing to another strength in Scottish Education – the independent General Teaching Council for Scotland, who oversee the professional standards which are required to become a teacher.

By championing these standards, the new centre will strengthen support for the profession.  

But crucially, the Centre must be designed with our teachers.

Indeed, the centre needs to help school leaders and teachers to grow professionally throughout their careers.

It will provide an opportunity to clarify roles and responsibilities within the system, including those of the new education agency.

I recently met with teaching unions and professional associations to discuss more around the Centre for Excellence and that helped to generate some useful initial insights.

Those have also been emphasised in the third report from the First Minister’s International Council of Education Advisers, which I am pleased to confirm will publish today.

The Council states we must invest in education professionals’ learning to address the changing needs of young people.

Now, establishing the Centre for Teaching Excellence directly meets that recommendation. 

The third report from the International Council provides a strong focus on improving teaching and pedagogy.

The report also helpfully synthesises the recent reviews that we’ve heard about. Recognising there are significant commonalities and that now is a time for implementation, improvement and reform.

The International Council’s report further supports that focus on improving teaching, professional development, collaboration, and innovation.

Presiding Officer, today also marks the launch of the consultation on the Education Reform Bill.

Building on engagement to date, the consultation sets out proposals to establish a new qualifications body, including the need for greater involvement of pupils, teachers, and wider stakeholders in decision-making. 

It also sets out ways to maximise the positive impact of inspection.

I would encourage everyone to share the consultation, which is available on the Scottish Government’s website, as widely as possible, to support that engagement.

But of course, changing the organisations that deliver qualifications, support and inspection is only part of reform.

Indeed, since the conclusion of the Hayward Review back in June, I have been seeking views on the recommendations pertaining to the National Qualifications.

We undertook a survey with teachers and lecturers on the report which received over 2,000 responses.

And whilst agreement on the need for change was clear, there are varying views on next steps – and on the perceived appetite for radical reform.

I cannot, in this context, ignore the challenges our schools are currently responding to. So I must balance that reality with any reform of our qualifications system.

With that in mind, I propose, subject to Parliamentary agreement, to return to the Chamber in the new year to fully debate these proposals.

Meantime I will engage with Opposition spokespeople on the next steps to ensure we use any Parliamentary debate to greater support political consensus.

Presiding Officer, I am conscious of time and I want to record on the record my thanks to staff at Education Scotland and also at SQA, and recognise the uncertainty that change brings. The Government has of course provided a commitment to no-compulsory redundancies within the Reform agenda; and I commit to continue fully engaging with both organisations – and their respective Trade Unions as I have already done so.  

Presiding Officer, to coin an expression, reform is a Process, not an event.

For every ardent supporter of ‘radical reform’ tomorrow, there are ten teachers telling me about the other challenges they face at the chalk face – challenges which Government needs to work with COSLA - and our Trade Union partners to resolve.

COVID turned our education system on its head. Overnight our children were educated behind their screens. The role of the teacher, in this shift, is often in my view, forgotten.

Professional standards, supported by a Centre for Excellence – joining Higher Education with our schools, delivering the improvements we need to see for our young people. And supporting the teachers in our school with the craft that they are trained in delivering.

I look forward to returning to the Chamber next year to fully debate our qualifications system.

And as I do so I will be guided by the most important principle of all –improved outcomes for our children and young people. That is the prize reform offers us and getting it right is absolutely essential.

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