Governing and Leading Education System Change and Improvement
The pandemic has become a test for national health care, political leadership, and education systems of their ability to navigate through external shocks and catastrophe. Those nations that had strong public health care and education systems working in concert with one another, and credible as well as collaborative political and professional leadership to encourage everyone to do their best to keep their communities safe, have been able to manage the crisis with less harm to their children, citizens and economies. Reports from around the world indicate that, within Western cultures at least, self-organizing communities keep people safe in the age of coronavirus pandemic fare better than those that act to conform or just comply with external orders. Valuing and developing leadership, partnership, and collaboration throughout the education system is paramount.
System Leadership, Partnership and Collaboration for a Networked Learning System
There may be a silver lining in the COVID-19 crisis in terms of a chance to rearrange and reset schools, reimagine learning, and rethink education on more inclusive, responsive, agile, and collaborative lines in ways that would entail bold and brave shifts in policy and leadership mindsets.
The challenge of central government is to balance necessary consistency of purpose with local energy, innovation and ownership. The roles of national and local government and of intermediate agencies need to be clearly understood with an emphasis on inclusiveness, responsiveness, agility, and collaboration within a framework of common purpose. The principle of subsidiarity whereby local agency is valued and protected should be part of such a longer-term approach to governance.
Within a framework of national expectations and support, many local authorities and schools have indeed shown flexibility and speed of response during the pandemic. At the same time, however, the need for fast action has also relied upon and reinforced some existing hierarchies. This may have the effect of 'tightening' the system back up and weakening the horizontal networks that have developed under various initiatives, including the development of Regional Improvement Collaboratives.
The flexibility and speed of response shown by services during the pandemic suggests that there is an opportunity to move beyond some of the more bureaucratic and inflexible pre-pandemic practices. In terms of system change and system leadership, this would require:
- a shift from one-size-for-all prescriptions for teaching and learning to flexible, diverse, creative and self-directed approaches;
- a transition from conformity and compliance as schools' theories of action to creativity, flexibility, horizontal challenge and support, and resiliency;
- a move from traditional divisions between education and health, sport and social care, to school as a central place for the education, health and wellbeing of each and every child.
Our 2018 report presented a framework for analysing the features of four contrasting cultures and associated types of public service organisations (Figure 1).
The report interpreted the findings of the 2015 OECD review and the Scottish Government's response, as a positive attempt to shift the system towards quadrant D, an egalitarian culture associated with a self-improving system. It suggested 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 higher levels of flexibility, agility and innovation.' It also suggested that '…systematically built trust in what teachers and schools do… is an essential part of the journey towards a networked and self-improving education system in Scotland'.
In light of the pandemic, ICEA now recommends that Scotland should move still further beyond what has become known as a self-improving system – a term that is perhaps overly rooted in the idea of creating coherence and improvement in more fragmented and market-competitive educational systems - to become a Networked Learning System (NLS). An NLS is:
- connected through networks across physical, professional and virtual boundaries; and
- driven by design-based research and collaborative inquiry to innovate, test and refine practice and build leadership capacity through practice-based professional learning.
The purpose of NLS is to support the development of more equitable education systems that improve outcomes for all learners. In NLS, educators are collaboratively inquiring professionals who are empowered to lead improvement in their own and others' professional settings. Equally, young people are self-directed and collaboratively inquiring learners who are empowered to lead their own and each other's learning. Increased professional agency and constantly improving professional judgment are based on subsidiarity, professional learning, collaborative inquiry, and horizontal accountability. In other words, NLSs are systems that adapt and improve continuously in conditions where everyone's expertise and learning is valued and drives improvement.
Drawing on these principles of an NLS, we recommend that the Scottish education system should focus on building collective agency and efficacy, mutual challenge and continued shift in the ownership of change and responsibility for making judgments about change towards people who are closest to the practice. This is the essential principle of subsidiarity:
- Collective agency and efficacy is where people believe they can make a difference to all young people's learning and wellbeing. Collective agency and efficacy within and across networks is a key ingredient for building an inclusive, responsive, agile and collaborative system that can continually adapt and improve while advancing its core values and purposes.
- Mutual, horizontal challenge is a feature of a mature educational system that is comfortable in its own skin and that has the confidence and capability to question and challenge assumptions about effective ways of working and about practice at all levels. There should be less emphasis on meeting externally set expectations and more on the horizontal challenge of pursuing high-quality education for all young people. Challenge is a dynamic force within a system; not simply external pressure on that system. Scotland has avoided many of the negative high-stakes effects of excessive and inappropriate forms of top-down challenge that characterize a number of other systems. But the need for greater dynamism and challenge within the Scottish system remains. Many recent initiatives in Scotland such as the appointment of Challenge Advisors to support, stretch and strengthen Regional Improvement Collaboratives have the potential to realise this necessary dynamism, but they may require still further strengthening.
- Shifting the ownership of change closer to the learning and wellbeing of young people will allow policy to be co-created. Teachers are important policymakers who make important judgments and decisions that affect the educational experiences and futures of children and adolescents.
COVID-19 has changed the context of the Scottish education system. This report offers a vision of what an NLS might look like in practice in this changed landscape.
A lesson from this crisis is the need to rely less on policy-driven education reforms, and more on practical and powerful ideas with track records of proven success across sectors to improve learning, wellbeing and health in different educational settings. Collaboration, not just coordination between education and health, and networked improvement of children's lives (through learning and health) will be more successful than the imposition of independently mandated reforms by authorities in different sectors. In short, the respective roles of national and local government and of intermediate agencies need to be reviewed after the pandemic to ensure they enhance inclusion, responsiveness, agility and collaboration in an effective post-pandemic system that benefits all young people in Scotland. This is not just a statement of philosophy, or a plea for additional resources and initiatives. It calls for a shift in resource allocation from central government and agencies to regional and community-based authorities.
Leading School Improvement and Continued Professional Learning
The ICEA recognises there are many education workers involved in Scotland's education system. All education workers have been directly impacted by the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic for changes within schools and shifts in approaches to leading, teaching, learning, equity and well-being. Education workers have been on the front-line of leading the way through the pandemic for students. International evidence is clear that combinations of remote learning, online learning, hybrid learning, in-person learning, and the health and safety protocols and procedures associated with COVID-19 have resulted in increased workload, work intensification, and challenges of work-life balance for educators and support staff. While the main focus has been on students' well-being; the adults who work in schools and education's own well-being has been impacted too. We discuss factors relating to school leadership and the teaching profession below.
Leadership is a fundamental driver of education reform within Scotland, as in most education systems. The previous ICEA report underlined its importance:
The ICEA believes that a policy focus on leadership, pedagogy, and collaboration are significant strengths within the current education policy framework. If there is also more emphasis placed on capacity building, the focus on leadership, pedagogy and collaboration should lead to real improvements at school and system level.
The ICEA has consistently underlined how a focus on cultural change, capacity building, and structural change were key elements in securing sustained improvements in Scotland's education system. Developing effective leadership and a robust culture of collaborative professionalism are critical components of such an approach. The previous report noted that capacity building measures were clearly moving in the right direction. It also suggested that Scottish Government needed to consider how its education system would ensure that the right leaders were in the right places in the right numbers at the right time.
Since our previous report, COVID-19 has disrupted the routine practices of schools, colleges, and universities. Leadership has pivotally changed - potentially, forever. Leaders have had to adjust very quickly to the practical, pedagogical, and financial implications of the pandemic, often without clear guidance or direction, as the pace has been too fast, the multiple changes required have been too great, and the pressure has been relentless.
Educational leaders in Scotland (and elsewhere) struggled to adhere to their core principles, values and practices, and sometimes, just simply to keep going. The emotional, mental, and physical toll upon school (and other) leaders is very real, almost unimaginable, and utterly unsustainable (as it is for other educators too). Presently, school leaders are barely holding the front line of the system together, as each day brings new challenges, stresses, and heartbreak, as families in the poorest communities are battered by the storm of COVID-19.
COVID-19 is waging a war on all of society. This is particularly true in the most disadvantaged communities of Scotland. The pandemic reinforces the issue of equity as the defining agenda of our time. Leaders in schools serving the most disadvantaged and most vulnerable populations are putting themselves, their resources, their staff and their own emotional well-being on the line, every day. Inevitably, there will eventually be a breaking point. Continuing to routinely deliver high quality blended and on-line learning amidst unpredictable absences among children, young people and staff, is a nightmare scenario that will overwhelm these school leaders in the long term without proper intervention.
The Scottish Government has produced a wealth of helpful and informative guidance during this COVID-19 period, but at the sharp end of educational leadership, far more can still be done. In an inclusive, responsive, agile and collaborative pandemic-proof system, the over reliance on one leader, and one senior leadership team, must shift. There needs to be more incentives and clear policy statements about the value of sharing and distributing leadership responsibilities. This means bringing in more leaders (middle leaders, curriculum leaders etc.) to help shoulder some of the responsibilities and duties that accompany the many additional COVID-19 tasks and procedures, including the demands of track and trace. It also means more networking and more collaboration among schools.
There must be a clear policy imperative to focus on the mental and emotional health of leaders throughout the Scottish education system. Caring for leaders' wellbeing and mental health, especially if the pandemic persists, is essential if the education system is to keep functioning. If leaders are unwell, eventually all those they support will suffer too.
All school leaders (and system leaders) should have a mentor, someone to talk to in confidence, and access to mental health support, when needed. In addition, horizontal support needs to be provided, possibly with heads or senior leadership teams working together within their local authorities, as well as through regional collaboratives, and networks, to reduce the isolation and offset some of the individual pressures leaders are experiencing. This should not be left to chance.
A significant re-deployment of resources at a national and a local level is needed to support all leaders. Providing mentors and developing horizontal networks of support are two of these key ways to protect and support leaders through and beyond the pandemic. The offer made by Education Scotland in November 2020 to provide mentoring for leaders who feel they need it, is therefore to be welcomed as a positive first step towards making this provision a universal and universally designed entitlement beyond the pandemic.
A further consideration is to reduce the external burdens on school leaders so they can focus on the core and critical work of enabling learners to be well and to progress. Many aspects of previous 'business as usual', should be paused, so educational leaders can find space with their colleagues to continue functioning on a day-to-day basis.
Much of the leadership development menu of the past applies to a world that no longer exists. Scottish government should therefore redeploy resources towards supporting and developing existing and future school leaders, through and then beyond the current pandemic, in an inclusive, responsive, agile and collaborative NLS of continuous adaptation and improvement.
The Teaching Profession
Scottish Government has had a strong focus on improving the professionalism and wellbeing of teachers. This has led to a much greater emphasis on professional learning as an ongoing feature of professional growth rather than on training for specific purposes. It has also encouraged greater involvement of universities in primary and secondary education with support for teachers to take Masters level qualifications; and it has recognised the need for novice teachers to be supported for the first few years in their positions.
Like society in general, the teaching profession has gone through periods of rapid change, expanding goals, and ever-increasing demands and expectations. There is sometimes the tendency to under-appreciate the rich knowledge and research base that the profession has acquired over the years and the important role it plays in educating the next generation. The need to redouble all efforts to assist the profession that replicates Scotland's democracy and serves as the gateway to a broader range of opportunities for an increasingly diverse student population is of paramount importance.
Teachers play a vital role in society's civility, success and prosperity. They influence the life chances and choices of young people and help them develop higher expectations for learning and attainment. It is not unusual for some teachers to describe the sense of exhilaration that they experience when they have a rewarding day of teaching, counselling or discussing future career options with their students and their parents. The education system needs to continue its emphasis on the professional learning experiences that teachers identify as a need to fulfil their mandate to close achievement gaps and address issues of health, wellbeing and teaching-related concerns.
However, as discussed for school leaders above, the demands on teachers have increased and expanded over the period of the pandemic. Teachers urgently need support with their own well-being, including physical and mental health that has been affected during the pandemic, and with having appropriate and safe working conditions. Issues of workload and work intensification continue to need to be addressed. We can do more to help teachers reaffirm their values, reclaim their sense of mission, redouble their efforts, and sustain their enthusiasm.
To do all this, the teaching profession must continue to be positioned as a highly trusted, respectable profession in the society. The recommendations in Teaching Scotland's Future that were accepted by the government now need to be revisited in the current context. In particular, it will be important to define teacher productivity more broadly so that professional learning and investment in collaborative professionalism, and in new competencies such as digitally enhanced pedagogy and teaching outdoors, to serve diverse and changing needs, are embodied in teachers' terms and conditions. Building on existing work to support students' wellbeing, further professional learning and resources to support wellbeing are even more important now.
This focus on capacity building at all levels within the teaching profession must continue to be the core of the Scottish improvement agenda and its desire to secure an enduring impact on the country's future prosperity. This is central to Scotland's resolve and determination to be a world-class education system committed to improvements in educational equity and excellence, and for student and staff well-being.
Navigating through the pandemic and designing the future of school improvement to support each and every student to develop and succeed will require continued development of capacity, leadership, collaboration, and professional judgement and expertise throughout the system. Valuing, respecting and supporting everyone who is involved is essential.