2. Overarching priorities
This chapter presents the prevalent themes in responses to the National Discussion; views, ideas, experiences or suggestions typically mentioned by several participants at many or most questions. These themes, and the various strands of discussion within each, are presented from most to least frequently mentioned. Most common were comments about the curriculum, followed by calls for more teachers and the importance of pastoral care and wellbeing. Different approaches to learning, workforce development, and better support for children and young people with additional support needs were also highlighted. Participants repeatedly called for funding and resources to achieve these priorities.
Comments on Scotland's curriculum was the most common theme across responses to the National Discussion. Within this strand, various views were evident, and many aspects of the curriculum were considered. Some supported Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) and a Broad General Education (BGE), while others called for a more thorough review or overhaul of the curriculum. As well as focusing on literacy and numeracy, several participants recommended subjects to include within the curriculum to make future success a reality for Scotland's children and young people.
Literacy and numeracy
There were frequent calls for a sustained focus on literacy and numeracy, particularly in primary schools. Reading, writing, spelling and maths were described as fundamental for learners' success during and after formal education. A small number advocated for keeping access to libraries, physical books and paper-based activities to support literacy.
"English lessons can make you more prepared for your future career because most jobs include writing emails, being on the phone and reading out menus or prices to the elderly." – Learner
"English and Maths. These are core skills, in particular an emphasis on communicating, debating, presenting. Students should be able to articulate their position. Scotland needs confidence and that comes from the ground up." - Parent
Other subject-specific suggestions
A need to maintain or prioritise specific subjects was frequently mentioned, and this was often the focus of learners' comments. However, there was no consensus that any subjects were more important than others, with most noting overall support or opposition for a subject, with little detail about why they held this view.
Arts and music, including drama and craft-related subjects, were commonly mentioned. The value of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM subjects) was also highlighted, and there were specific calls for the practical aspects of STEM learning, such as laboratory work, to be maintained. A few participants highlighted the need to keep languages, but there was no consistent view on the most useful language, and there were comments both for and against teaching Gaelic. Other subjects commonly stressed as important included: history and social subjects, including a comprehensive and contextualised approach to history; home economics; Personal and Social Education (PSE); and Religious and Moral Education (RME). Views on RME were more mixed, with some learners keen to stop studying RME. A small number either advocated for or against sex education.
Many suggested prioritising skills-based learning, spanning life skills, practical skills and hands-on learning, and skills for life-long learning, as addressed in the life skills section.
Support for a broad and flexible curriculum
Participants often expressed support for maintaining a broad curriculum, emphasising the value of access to a wide variety of subjects during the BGE phase and then a depth of learning through specialising in chosen subjects in the senior years of high school. Many called for teachers and schools to have the flexibility to adapt the curriculum to meet pupils' needs and offer the curriculum through varied learning pathways.
Reform of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE)
Requests to change, overhaul or end CfE were commonly mentioned. Some participants argued the curriculum is too full, cluttered, crowded or congested, particularly in primary, and should be reduced or streamlined and clearer, more focused, easier to follow and more realistic to teach. A small number felt the number of Experiences and Outcomes was excessive, asking for more standardisation and direction, standard resources, and consistency in the curriculum. While some felt CfE should be dismantled, others wanted the Scottish Government to create a curriculum and stick with it, and support and empower teachers and schools to create resources for its successful implementation.
"A much more structured curriculum. Curriculum for Excellence was well meaning in its desire to hand back professional judgement to the teaching profession but was vague and open to a huge degree of interpretation by practitioners about what the outcomes actually mean." – Teacher
"Teachers across the country spend so much time reinventing the wheel. One consistent programme for literacy, numeracy, reading and writing would save so much time - giving teachers more energy and motivation to meet their children's individual needs" – Teacher
Other mixed views on curriculum structure were expressed. Some preferred a more traditional approach that builds on established educational models, while others advocated an innovative, contemporary education that responds to future needs. There was also support for a joined-up approach between different educational phases and smoother transitions throughout the learner journey. Group discussions echoed these themes and also considered the role of interdisciplinary learning and cross-curricular design.
Some participants noted a specific interest in the curriculum review process, calling for further research, expert involvement, and support for implementing the recommendations of previous reports, such as the Muir Report and the OECD reports.
"Decluttered curriculum with children prepared for life, children having wider experiences and an understanding of their interconnectedness in the world." – Teacher group
"Whilst the four capacities of the Curriculum for Excellence are still relevant and provide a good skeletal framework for teaching, it needs to be updated in line with recent advances in the field of learning and education in the digital age." – Kirkhill Primary School Parent Council (Parents group)
There were advocates for CfE and its four capacities, particularly at Q4: What should stay? These were seen as positive foundations for education, providing structure and offering teachers flexibility and autonomy.
"The four capacities capture the intention of realising the human right to education and preparing young people for democratic citizenship. It is critical that these are retained, but with the added clarity that the capacities co-exist in equal measure to one another." – EIS
More teachers, support staff and specialist teachers
The second most frequently recurring theme across responses to the National Discussion was for more teachers. Common arguments were that more teachers would lead to reduced class sizes and provide capacity for more one-to-one time with pupils.
Participants also frequently highlighted the need for more pupil support staff. Participants expressed a clear view that more classroom assistants, learning assistants and pupil support staff are required to help with many aspects of the daily running of the classroom.
While typically mentioned by a small proportion, there were also recurring calls for more specialist teachers. These included specialist art and music teachers in primary schools and specialist PE teachers and sports coaches in both primary and secondary.
"More staff so we have time to sit and chat and get to know children better so that we can guide them in the best way we can." - Teacher
"Increase staffing from teaching staff, support staff and curricular experts e.g. art specialist needs to come back along with other areas of specialism to ensure pupils are getting the input they need." – Parent
"We need a radical overhaul of the way we recruit, treat and train Pupil Support Assistance. They do the core business with the children; schools rely on them, they're struggling day to day. This could be sorted with sustained investment. This PSA problem has been in the system for a long time and is deeply troubling." – Children's Parliament, as part of children's organisations focus group
Pastoral care and wellbeing
A wide range of both general points and specific suggestions on how education could support pastoral care and wellbeing, particularly in relation to mental health, were raised throughout responses. Participants broadly supported a focus on health and wellbeing in schools and for it to continue to be one of the core areas of CfE. A few noted how this aligns with children's rights, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and Getting It Right For Every Child (GIRFEC).
Many of the comments on wellbeing covered various points about pastoral care in school. These included the need to: offer a safe and secure learning environment; have a positive and supportive ethos; build positive relationships between teachers and pupils; provide support through more and better pastoral care teams and guidance teachers, as well as counsellors and mentors; and involve youth work. Nurture was mentioned repeatedly, with advocates for whole-school approaches to nurture, nurture bases and nurture groups to ensure schools are safe, caring and compassionate environments.
"An emphasis on wellbeing and a nurture approach that isn't wishy washy. A nurture approach that is instilled with rights, responsibility, love, boundaries, consequences, understanding, opportunities. Children's cultural capital should be considered and understood." – Individual
"Specialist support for wellbeing in EVERY school. Someone known by the children who is available in school at all times who the children feel comfortable enough to go to at any time." – Education practitioner
"Ask a parent what you want for their child, they'll say "to do well". But of course "to do well" doesn't often mean pass exams. It's about a wellbeing, a wholeness, an ability to make relationships and your ability to find a place within the class and to have your gifts nurtured. It's not always about academic success. It's about forming your relationships and to find your niche." – Church of Scotland, as part of children's organisations focus group
Mental health and wellbeing
Comments about mental health and wellbeing were made in responses to several questions and across group discussions, usually by a small proportion of participants. The most prevalent theme was for more funding and better access to specialist or professional mental health support in schools. Participants raised several options, including mental health nurses; counsellors and therapists; educational psychologists; mental health first aiders or ambassadors; support groups and support hubs with trained and dedicated staff.
"Have someone within the local authority who can be based within schools that children can talk to and bounce off, almost like a live-in counsellor" – Teacher
"Have a school counsellor to help with students' problems" – Learner
"More access to confidential, drop-in style advice and support from trained professionals." – Parent
"Nurture clubs, Worry box, Destress zone, A point in the day for mindfulness colouring and calm music just to relax, Therapy animals" - P6/7 Currie Primary (Young people group)
Some argued for a reduction in the stress and pressure experienced by young people. Their suggestions included: fewer tests and exams; helping young people be adequately prepared for the experience of exams; less focus on academic attainment; not rushing children through learning; maintaining a healthy school and home life balance with less or no homework; and reducing feelings of pressure or overload.
Alternative teaching and learning approaches
There were multiple comments on teaching and learning methods, spanning outdoor learning, out-of-classroom learning and extra-curricular activities, play-based learning and the need for fun, creative and innovative approaches.
"Make the vision more than just about education being in school. If not, you will already lose young people to education." - Muirhouse Youth Development Group
Outdoor learning opportunities
Participants repeatedly highlighted the importance of outdoor learning opportunities. Being outside and exploring nature was felt to help young people have a better understanding of their world, improve health and wellbeing, and to help with skills such as assessing risk.
"Access to outdoor education opportunities for all children needs not only to be maintained but expanded on. Outdoor education activities foster problem solving, individual resilience and team building – the key transferrable skills we require in our young people as they face the future." – Shawlands Academy
"Children all thought there should be a bigger focus on outdoor learning and less time spent in a classroom. They felt that schools in the future should take into account different ways to learn and not put such a heavy emphasis on writing in jotters. Learning should be more about doing." – Anonymous children and young people group
Out-of-classroom learning and extra-curricular activities
Separate from responses about outdoor learning, most questions generated comments about learning outside of the classroom. These included extra-curricular clubs, such as breakfast clubs, after-school clubs or sporting activities, and trips to either explore the local community or to visit museums, galleries or other venues. Alternative settings were felt to support learning about the wider world. Equalities considerations were also raised, with repeated calls to ensure that these opportunities are available to all at no additional cost.
"Have more fun activities rather than sitting in the same place every day doing the same work over and over again." – Learner
"Aspirations for CfE was about learning where it happens. Increasingly we have been focussed on the school building. We've become fixated on teachers being the only people to deliver learning. Can we look at where learners can learn, other locations etc. Who else can build an enhanced richness to the learning?" – Anonymous group
Various comments advocated for play-based learning. In these, participants noted that play is vital to early years education, arguing that play should continue at least into primary school and sometimes throughout formal education. It was felt that the fun and creative approaches at the heart of play-based learning are effective because they encourage children to express themselves, learn through discovery and investigation, develop their imagination, encourage socialisation and develop at their own pace. Opposition to play-based learning was expressed by a small proportion of participants who typically favoured traditional, formal teaching approaches.
Creative, innovative and flexible approaches
The need for creative, active, engaging, challenging and fun methods of teaching and to think outside the box was highlighted by some participants. They highlighted the value of methods such as group work, topic work and larger projects, as well as outcome-orientated approaches, such as learning through mistakes or storytelling, to build empathy. Some described the need for greater flexibility in teaching methods, allowing adaptations to ensure children are taught and learn in ways that suit them. There were also calls for varied teaching methods to allow neurodiverse children to learn in their preferred way.
"More creativity in the curriculum, more space for creative expression, an emphasis on problem-solving, team working. Learning skills but also not being precious about a 'right' or 'wrong' way of doing things but valuing curiosity and process over results." – Parent
Teacher training, standards, recruitment and retention
Workforce development was another overarching theme in the National Discussion. This centred on three main areas: teacher training, high teaching standards, and recruitment and retention. While most comments were about teachers, the same issues were raised in relation to pupil support and early years staff.
Several participants called for more and better training of teaching staff at all levels to ensure high standards of education. Participants felt teachers should be skilled, well-educated, qualified, experienced, and have time for ongoing training and professional development. Various suggestions were shared about training methods and topics. These covered improved Initial Teacher Education (ITE) and probationary periods, ongoing staff training with more online training, and class cover or protected time for Continuous Professional Development (CPD). Participants in group discussions also noted the value of sharing good practices and the need for subject-specific professional learning, particularly in sciences.
Calls for further training about pupil support and wellbeing were common, including greater awareness and understanding of neurodiversity, dyslexia, disabilities and additional support needs; being able to identify mental health or behavioural issues early and use preventative approaches; training in trauma-informed approaches; being more able to make young people feel at ease, comfortable and willing to share their feelings; ensuring there is equal focus on physical and mental health; and more training in outdoor learning. Participants called for teachers to have sufficient real-world experience, be well-trained and knowledgeable about world issues and current affairs and have guidance about how to discuss sensitive subjects with pupils. Suggested topics for training include: sustainability, social media and LGBTI+ issues. There were also calls to set time aside for training through CPD or sabbaticals.
"Teachers need considerable support if they are to change their practice. Currently, Scotland's teachers have some of the highest contact hours in the world - there is no space for professional development, curriculum innovation and greater internal assessment." - Education practitioner
"A teaching profession is needed with outstanding [Career Long Professional Learning] programmes that share their good practice both within specialist areas and across sectors. Student teachers need an outstanding experience of [Initial Teacher Education], perhaps within identified training schools." – Science Department, Kingussie High School
The need for high-quality, motivated, enthusiastic, creative, engaging and inspiring teachers was noted. Within these comments, some participants stressed the passion, dedication and commitment evident among existing teaching staff. A small number felt that more rigid teaching standards could improve the quality of teaching, arguing for higher minimum teacher qualifications such as post-graduate degrees, regular reviews and assessments, and enforced retirements.
"Employ the right people for the right job. The teachers for the future of our children need to interact, connect, inspire, be a role model and engage with children." – Parent
"Teachers who excel in their role should be recognised, their skills identified and shared, we all know particular teachers who have an ability to capture the attention and engage with pupils who in another class doesn't, use these teachers as the gold standard and try to determine how we encourage all staff to achieve this." - Anonymous parents group
Recruitment and retention
Some participants noted the importance of consistent teaching staff in improving student outcomes. They described a need for clear career paths, flexible training options, better salaries and benefits, and reduced administrative responsibilities to improve teacher recruitment. While acknowledging the value of the current workforce, some suggested that more is required to maintain their enthusiasm and encourage them to stay in the profession. Proposed methods to enhance staff retention included offering more permanent contracts and better pay. A small number of participants called for less reliance on probationary teachers and the recruitment of a more diverse teaching workforce.
"Invest in training quality staff. Stop filling gaps with freshly trained teachers - provide permanent jobs and a career path to make teaching the vocation it once was." – Parent
"Keep the good teachers! There is so much talent in education, and it is so sad to see great teachers worn down by poor pay, poor conditions, insecure and short-term posts (why do Highland council only offer 1 year contracts? This is madness!!)." – Parent
Resources and funding
Calls for more funding, investment and resources were common. While some participants simply stated that more funding is required, comments usually described specific gaps to address, particularly staffing and resources.
"Funding constraints should not stop a pupil from studying the subject they want to or need to study, it should not stop them from having the experience they would benefit from, it should not get in the way of providing an environment conducive to learning for all pupils at all levels." – The Royal Scottish Geographical Society
"It is all down to more staff and more money. This is where everything is falling down at the moment. I cannot stress the word resources enough." – Parent
"Need for participatory budgeting with informed decision-making. You cannot have a champagne service with an Irn Bru budget." - Breakout Room Discussions from the GTCS hosted event
Additional Support Needs (ASN) and Inclusion
Inclusion and the requirements of children and young people with ASN in mainstream schools were prevalent themes in responses to the National Discussion. These comments centred on three areas: ensuring a greater understanding of the range of additional support needs, suggesting how those needs can be met, and the challenges of delivering inclusive approaches and ensuring education in Scotland works for all young people.
Understanding Additional Support Needs
Several participants called for greater training in and improved knowledge and understanding of a wide range of support needs. Most prevalent were comments about understanding autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and other forms of neurodiversity. There were also comments about needs such as dyslexia and physical disabilities, particularly hearing impairment.
More, better or specialist support
Several participants made requests for improved ASN support in mainstream schools. They called for support or adaptations to teaching styles or environments for pupils with disabilities or long-term conditions, for neurodiverse young people or pupils with dyslexia or other learning difficulties. Respondents suggested that better trained teachers could deliver this support or specialist staff.
A need for better assessments was mentioned by some, who suggested children should be regularly assessed from a young age to ensure any additional support needs are identified. These participants felt this approach would allow early intervention and create better outcomes, with adaptations or support for learning being implemented sooner.
A small proportion of participants advocated for alternative provisions for pupils with ASN. This included calls for specialised ASN units within mainstream settings or separate specialist schools which are better equipped and staffed to meet support needs.
"In my class of 30, 4 have ASD (one also has ADHD and depression), 3 have long-standing separation anxiety difficulties (CCH/CAMHS involved), one has been adopted, one has a difficult home life and experiencing a form of trauma, one is a young carer, 2 others have severe learning difficulties (not including the 8 with 'normal' behind-track difficulties). There is only one of me - I can't give those 12 children enough of my attention to support their wellbeing, never mind their and the other 18 children's learning needs... We have got to have smaller class sizes to have a hope of meeting the children's basic rights/needs and to then also help them to progress in their learning. I know exactly what support each child needs but can't split myself 30 ways to give them the individual attention they all need to be able to thrive." – Individual
"Primary schools should focus on finding methods to support individuals with learning difficulty and anyone who needs support, so they don't have to spend a lot of the first half of secondary finding out what support you need." – Learner
Ensuring inclusion works for all
While several participants suggested ways to make inclusion work effectively, some raised concerns about inclusion, usually expressing one of two arguments. Inclusion was viewed, by some, as failing those with ASN as it does not provide sufficient additional support for full integration into mainstream settings and successful learning. Conversely, some felt the social and behavioural needs of those with ASN can negatively impact other children. They suggested that learning for children without ASN can be hindered if teachers spend a disproportionate amount of time supporting those with ASN or, in some cases, dealing with disruptive or dangerous behaviour. A few suggested there should be alternatives to mainstream education in some instances to provide better support to those who need it.
Related to both inclusion and equity, a less common theme was that Scottish education should encourage and support all young people to fulfil their potential. These comments argued that schools must not only assist those who need additional support, but also provide academic opportunities to challenge high achievers, and appropriate pathways to stretch those in the middle who might otherwise go unnoticed.
"Inclusion must be discussed and looked at for the future of our children and teachers. Inclusion seems to exclude more than it includes at the moment. Inclusion for one child is NOT a 32 person classroom at National 5 as not all learners flourish in this environment… This is not GIRFEC. Specialist provisions should remain and be celebrated." - Breakout Room Discussions from the GTCS hosted event
"Making sure every child is included not just the top achievers or those with challenging behaviours, all children and young people deserve this from us" – Parent
"Make sure their voices are heard in ways that are meaningful. There are many hard-working, motivated young people whose voices are lost in schools and classrooms because of behaviour that takes away time that could be spent on them. These pupils aren't getting enough attention." - Teacher
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