International Council of Education Advisers: report 2016-2018

This is the first formal report of the International Council of Education Advisers (ICEA) following the initial two-year period of their appointment.

Policy Context And Developments

20. Scotland was one of the first countries across the world to adopt a new approach to describing the aims of the school curriculum. Previously, it had adopted a conventional approach to describing the curriculum in terms of subjects or curriculum areas to be covered by pupils within a stage or period of schooling. The curriculum, although non-statutory, was followed by schools throughout Scotland.

21. Following the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, a national debate was launched to guide future education policy. The conclusions of that debate led to a major rethink about the aims and purposes of the school curriculum including a significant move away from a curriculum based on coverage of defined subjects or areas, to one which sought to describe what young people should become as a result of their learning.

22. The new Curriculum for Excellence ( CfE) contained the aspiration for all children and for every young person that they should be successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens, and effective contributors. This fresh approach to describing the aims or purposes of the curriculum is also reflected in thinking about the curriculum internationally. The Melbourne Declaration in Australia, the aims of the curriculum in Singapore and aspects of the OECD’s 2030 project, for example, reflect similar long-term aims.

23. These long-term aims of education in Scotland were also reflected in a clear statement of the values that young people should develop in school. Wisdom, justice, compassion and integrity, the words which are inscribed on the mace of the Scottish Parliament, were defined as being important aims for the personal development of all young people.

24. The long-term aims underpin the CfE. The recent OECD report on progress with CfE reaffirmed the ambitious nature of these aims and they remain as the stated policy of the Scottish Government. As noted earlier, the ICEA welcomes the continuing commitment of the Government to CfE, and will continue to consider its progress as a Council.

25. The ICEA recommends that the Scottish Government consider how the current policies aimed at improving the education system, and those in the future, support the full aspirations of CfE so that young people in Scotland can continue to fulfil their potential.

The National Improvement Framework ( NIF)

26. Education policy and practice must inevitably respond to short-term pressures while continuing to pursue long-term aims for the country’s young people. Reconciling the short and the long-term is one of the most difficult challenges facing governments. The Scottish Government has set out its vision for Scottish education in the NIF. The NIF focuses on excellence and equity as the key drivers of policy and sets out four priorities for action:

  • Improvement in attainment, particularly in literacy and numeracy;
  • Closing the attainment gap between the most and least disadvantaged children and young people;
  • Improvement in children and young people’s health and wellbeing;
  • Improvement in employability skills and sustained, positive school-leaver destinations for all young people.

27. Scottish Ministers have a statutory duty to review the NIF each year, and to publish an annual plan setting out the action they will take to close the poverty-related attainment gap. The most recent of these, the NIF and Improvement Plan for 2018, was published in December 2017 .

28. A range of measures have been developed and are set out in the 2018 NIF and Improvement Plan, to gauge progress towards these goals. The ICEA endorses the current aims for Scottish education and concurs that they are vital aspects of a short to medium-term improvement programme for Scottish education.

29. As the NIF becomes embedded in schools, the ICEA offers a caution that there is a risk that the original ambitious aims of CfE will assume lesser visibility and importance. The ICEA proposes that that there is no inherent conflict between the 4 capacities of the CfE and the Government’s excellence and equity agenda.

30. The ICEA notes, however, that it will be important for both policy and practice in Scotland to maintain a focus on the 4 capacities and the values of CfE, as the specific measures in the NIF are concurrently pursued. The ICEA recommends, therefore, that the skills and attributes of the 4 capacities of CfE – successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens, effective contributors - should be developed and pursued alongside the important NIF priorities. This issue was also highlighted by the OECD report on progress with the CfE.

31. Part of the rationale for the introduction of the NIF was the lack of detailed data about the performance of the Scottish education system. As part of the NIF, a wide-range of additional information and data is now gathered and reported upon, and which can be used to support improvement. In terms of children and young people’s progress from ages 4-15, the key outcome indicator is whether they have achieved the expected CfE level by the end of P1, P4, P7 and S3. This is based upon the professional judgement of teachers – a judgement that is based on the full range of evidence available to them. From the 2017/18 school year, this has included evidence provided by the Scottish National Standardised Assessments ( SNSA).

32. SNSA give teachers a single, nationally developed, consistent set of standardised assessments, designed to reflect the way Scotland delivers education in Scotland through CfE, and to provide an objective and comparable measure of children's progress in aspects of reading, writing and numeracy.

33. The ICEA initially expressed reservations about the introduction of these assessments and shared their views with the Scottish Government. The ICEA notes, however, that the assessments are not "high-stakes tests", and the results do not determine any key future outcomes for young people, such as which school they go to, or whether they can progress to the next level. There is no pass or fail, and the ICEA notes that this approach to assessment and its central interpretation can be of formative use.

34. The ICEA notes that these assessments should not be used in isolation and should not be viewed as a replacement for the ongoing assessment of children’s progress which is central to CfE. The ICEA notes the clarification over the holistic nature of these new assessments, as the ICEA has some reservations about national testing in the form of high-stakes testing, particularly for younger children.

The National Improvement Framework evidence report

35. The NIF evidence report is published annually and gives an overview of Scottish education and the context in which children and young people learn. It brings together available current evidence on achievement, attainment, health and wellbeing, and the wider education system, with a specific focus on differences between children living in the most deprived and least deprived areas. It aims to present an objective picture of Scottish education, based on a wide range of sources. The most recent report was published in December 2017. The ICEA welcomes the provision of a greater range of data that can be used for diagnostic purposes and future planning purposes.

36. The ICEA recommends that the Scottish Government consider exactly how improvement in the health and wellbeing of young people is defined, gauged, and evaluated so that any progress can be clearly established and validated, with any negative effects being avoided.

The Scottish Attainment Challenge

37. The Scottish Attainment Challenge was launched by the First Minister in February 2015. It introduced the Attainment Scotland Fund, providing additional resources for certain local authorities and schools to prioritise improvements in literacy, numeracy, and health and wellbeing for those children adversely affected by the poverty-related attainment gap in Scotland's primary and secondary schools.

38. In 2017, Pupil Equity Funding was introduced to provide funding directly to schools, for headteachers to use at their discretion for additional staffing or resources that they consider will help close the poverty-related attainment gap. 95% of schools in Scotland have been allocated funding for pupils in P1-S3 based on those known to be eligible for free school meals. Schools now have their plans in place for using their funding and will be implementing those plans.

39. The ICEA notes the interim evaluation report on the progress and impact of the Attainment Scotland Fund published on 16 March 2018. The ICEA notes the importance of this funding and the progress being made with the Scottish Attainment Challenge.

40. The ICEA recommends that this work is continued and sustained within the system. It suggests that the Scottish Government capture examples of how it is being used most effectively, within schools in different settings, to share as important additional guidance.

Scottish Educational Improvement Programme
41. The ICEA welcomed the opportunity to discuss Ministers’ emerging plans for improving education at its initial meeting in August/September 2016. These plans were formally launched as the Education Governance Review on 13 September 2016. The Review commenced with a clear view that decisions about individual young people’s learning and school life should be taken at the school level.

42. At subsequent meetings, the ICEA spoke to both the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister about the Government’s proposed reforms, and a number of important themes emerged including:

  • The importance of leadership, and the strong message from teachers and headteachers that they want to be leaders of learning, together with differing views on what was needed to enable them to fulfil that role;
  • A high level of variability within the current system;
  • The importance of professional development and support;
  • A variability in the level of parental engagement and support;
  • A desire for flexibility but a concern about variation;
  • A focus on collaboration and on the barriers that could make partnership working difficult; and
  • A desire for clarity and coherence.

43. The current improvement programme aims to contribute to the achievement of excellence and equity in the Scottish education system by developing a school and teacher led education system which will empower the workforce, parents, pupils and their communities. The ICEA recommends that the Scottish Government, through its current and forthcoming education policies, should continue to focus on the linkage between equity and excellence, and take more systematic steps to strengthen fairness, inclusion and equity through ongoing investments in excellence.

44. The ICEA notes that the language around the current educational improvement programme tends to be largely aspirational. While the ICEA supports the aspirations and the core components of the improvement programme, in time the ICEA would want to see a detailed implementation plan for furthering educational improvement with co-ownership and engagement across the system, that would ensure that each of these components could be sufficiently embedded and sustained for the benefit of future generations. The ICEA also suggests that for the future the terminology should switch from ‘reform’ to ‘improvement’.

Figure 1: Improving the Scottish education system

Figure 1: Improving the Scottish education system

45. The ICEA invites the Scottish Government to think about three aspects of its current educational improvement programme:

  • Firstly, how far are the current policies and related improvement efforts, and those in the future, sufficiently contextually nuanced and contextually embedded?
  • Secondly, is there an explicit theory of change that underpins and supports the current strategies and approaches to educational improvement, which will help identify the conditions that need to be in place for the aims of the educational improvement programme to be achieved?
  • Thirdly, could the educational improvement programme, together with CfE, provide the conditions necessary to move towards an empowered and self-improving learning system?

46. The ICEA is mindful of its previous advice to the Scottish Government, that its improvement programme should establish a careful balance between changing culture, enhancing capacity, and developing structures. The ICEA, therefore, encourages the Scottish Government to actively consider the deepening of the implementation of its approaches to educational improvement, and how far this can be achieved by the collaborative approach that has achieved the progress to date, rather than pursuing a legislative approach.

47. The ICEA believes that a policy focus on leadership, pedagogy, and collaboration are significant strengths within the current education policy framework. With more emphasis placed on capacity building, the focus on leadership, pedagogy and collaboration should lead to real improvements at school and system level.

48. The ICEA suggests, therefore, that upcoming activity should focus on capacity building and deep cultural change . In large-scale educational changes, after a period of considerable pace and scale of transformation – as has been happening in Scotland – there is also a need for a subsequent period of consolidation to go deeper on ensuring and supporting high quality implementation. The structural changes that were required to secure and sustain change are now in place, or underway, so the ICEA recommends that there should be a shift in focus to capacity building that will contribute to deep and lasting cultural and practical change within the system, building on the work done on structural reform thus far.

49. To make this shift effectively, the ICEA proposes three key policy imperatives for the next phase of the improvement programme that will help to create a self-improving system. These are: professional empowerment, responsibility, and ownership.

50. Professional empowerment: While initial large-scale educational reforms for a whole country often require clear direction from the centre from national government, to move to sustainable high-quality implementation requires a shift to professionally-led educational improvements within and across classrooms, schools and local authorities.

51. Responsiveness: Empowered education professionals and policy-makers are also highly alert, adaptive, and responsive to local needs, priorities, changes and challenges.

52. Ownership: Putting the above together – empowerment of all involved and responsiveness to professional judgement and evidence – is vital to developing the co-ownership that is essential to realise the ambitions of excellence and equity for all learners, and the priority to close the historical and persisting poverty-related attainment gap in Scotland. It is important that Scotland’s education system is both world-leading and uniquely and appropriately Scottish.

53. The ICEA believes that these three imperatives will deepen and consolidate the move towards a self-improving education system in Scotland. These three aspects are mentioned throughout the report as part of the ICEA’s reflections on how the Scottish education system can reach that goal.

Regional Improvement Collaboratives

54. A commitment to establish Regional Improvement Collaboratives ( RICs) was announced as part of the original governance review proposals. The ICEA notes the work that the Scottish Government has done in partnership with local government and Education Scotland to develop and to take forward arrangements for their establishment.

55. There are six RICs, the Northern Alliance, the Tayside Collaborative, the South West Collaborative, the South East Collaborative, the West Partnership, and the Forth Valley and West Lothian Collaborative. Each Collaborative is led by a Regional Improvement Lead, employed by one of the local authorities in the region. The RICs are intended to bring a collective focus to driving continuous and systematic improvement, particularly in relation to closing the attainment gap. It is anticipated that they will demonstrate, strengthen and support collaborative working, innovation and the sharing of best practice within schools, between schools and across the education system.

56. The ICEA recognises the potential of the development of the Collaboratives for capacity building, and as a source of lasting cultural change within the system. It notes, however, that the work of the RICs is still in the early stages and that evidence of their impact on learners should be sought as they become established.

Collaborating nationally to lead improvement

57. The Scottish Government’s educational improvement programme has provided the opportunity to review and rationalise the existing structures and governance arrangements. One consequence has been the establishment of the Scottish Education Council ( SEC) as the key forum for oversight of improvement in education in Scotland, as defined by the NIF.

58. The SEC is chaired by the Deputy First Minister and brings together young people, education leaders and representatives from local authorities and the teaching profession. The role of the SEC is to work collaboratively to ensure that there is a system-wide focus on improvement, and to agree priorities for improvement activity and delivery.

59. The establishment of the SEC meant the disbanding of the CfE Management Board and its supporting structures i.e. the CfE Implementation Group and the Assessment and National Qualifications Group, as well as the National Improvement Framework Strategic Group and the Scottish Attainment Challenge Advisory Group. In their place, the tier beneath the SEC now comprises the new Curriculum and Assessment Board, and the existing Strategic Board for Teacher Education.

60. The ICEA welcomes this new development and looks forward to meeting SEC members in due course. The ICEA notes, however, that it is important not to over clutter the middle tier and to ensure that the responsibilities for action, for each of the new bodies, remain clear and do not overlap.


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