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.

Reflections: Opportunities And Risks For The Scottish Education System

104. This report presents a synthesis of the ICEA’s observations on the current improvement programme and an analysis of its progress to date. This analysis has highlighted the importance of culture and collaboration as key levers in securing educational change and reform.

105. As the education system attempts to move to a more networked, self-improving system, where schools are empowered to lead the change, the ICEA observes that it is important that the system does not inadvertently erode some of the considerable strengths of the Scottish education system. Furthermore, the ICEA observes that it is important that the system is not seduced by some of the perceived advantages of other systems, or borrows strategies that would not sit easily with the core values and beliefs that underpin the Scottish education system and wider civic society. Moreover, the ICEA advocates that systematically built trust, in what teachers and schools do to accomplish all these system-related goals, is an essential part of the journey towards a networked and self-improving education system in Scotland.

106. To exemplify and further explain the opportunities and risks associated with educational reform, the ICEA draws on the work of Mary Douglas, Christopher Hood and others to frame educational reform on the dimensions of social cohesion and social regulation (see figure 2 below).

Figure 2: Socio-cultural perspectives on education reform

Figure 2: Socio-cultural perspectives on education reform

107. Where social cohesion and regulation are both high (quadrant A) hierarchical cultures prevail and public service organisations tend to reflect their culture as bureaucratic managed organisations. Put simply, these are the public service cultures and organisations associated with many traditional state education systems in the late 20 th and early 21 st centuries.

108. Where social cohesion is low, but regulation is high (quadrant B) ‘fatalistic’ cultures prevail. Within these cultures, public service organisations tend to be uncertain in nature, and unclear about what and when the next policy mandate or intervention is likely to involve or come from. Organisations operating in this culture often harp back to a ‘golden era’ when things worked so much better, and everyone knew ‘where they were and what they were doing’ because things were well managed and collaborative relationships were more positive across the system.

109. Where social cohesion and regulation are both low (quadrant C) ‘individualistic’ cultures come to the fore. Here the market is a key driver, and quasi-independent public service organisations funded by the state tend to lead the way, as is the case in the English education system with the Academies Programme, and in other parts of the world with various types of ‘Free Schools’ and Charter School type organisations.

110. Where social regulation is low but social cohesion is high (quadrant D) ‘egalitarian’ cultures tend to be the norm. Here mutualistic or ‘self-improving’ organisations work laterally across the system, providing mutual support for each other’s development in a networked system where those in the front line take responsibility and ownership for improvement, while others act as brokers and facilitators to connect schools and others, and create the conditions for improvement. These are the conditions necessary to underpin an authentic self-improving education system.

111. The ICEA interprets the findings of the OECD review, and the Scottish Government’s response to the review, as a positive attempt to shift the system towards an egalitarian culture associated with a self-improving system. In this type of system change, it is anticipated that high levels of social cohesion would be manifested through partnership, collaboration, and co-production between service providers (and the communities they serve), and low levels of social regulation would promote high levels of flexibility, agility and innovation.

112. The ICEA considers that the opportunities to transform the system and to take performance and outcomes to the next level, are a realistic proposition for Scottish education. The ICEA recognises that in order to achieve this, Scotland will need to maintain and build on the sense of shared purpose and collegiality that exists within the system along with a commitment to the tradition of ‘consensual’ policy making that is already in place, whilst empowering the workforce within an authorising environment with fewer rules and ascribed behaviours where risk-taking and innovation become the norm.

113. The ICEA also recognises there are risks associated with this agenda. For example, if social cohesion is undermined and a breakdown in trust and relationships occur, then Scotland is more likely to shift towards a fatalistic culture (quadrant A) with higher levels of social regulation. The ICEA is concerned that this may be triggered by, or lead to, unnecessarily high levels of mandated reforms and legislative interventions that might further undermine confidence and trust across the system. In turn, this may well exacerbate the sense of nostalgia or loss across the system and create further resistance to change.

114. Furthermore, the ICEA considers that any unintended shift or move towards a fatalistic culture may have the consequence of creating conditions where individualism begins to grow within the Scottish system. This is a particular concern if the empowering-schools agenda does not have the appropriate checks and balances in place to monitor quality effectively and to manage markets. The ICEA notes the scenarios outlined above and we suggest that these are a useful point of reference for Scottish Government.

115. For Scotland to move towards a more egalitarian culture with a self-improving system, the ICEA recommends that the key messages, within this report, relating to structures, cultures and capacity must be considered carefully by the Scottish Government. In particular, on the next phase of improvement there should be a focus on capacity building and cultural change.

116. The ICEA recognises that the Scottish education system is very good, with many strengths, not least in the quality and commitment of its teachers, but it has the potential to be even better. We suggest that a focus on professional empowerment, responsibility and ownership must now be a priority within Scottish education, if a self-improving system is to become a reality.

International Council of Education Advisers
June 2018


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