National discussion on education: consultation analysis

This report outlines the key findings from the ‘listening phase’ of the National Discussion on Scottish Education which took place between September and December 2022.

3. Recurring themes

The themes in this chapter were recurring but less frequently identified in responses to the National Discussion. Many comments focused on ensuring children and young people have a voice in their education, with access to opportunities that meet their needs, such as flexible and inclusive learning pathways, listening to children and young people, equity in provision and opportunities; and treating young people as individuals. Other recurring topics included: engaging with parents and families; life skills; exams and assessments; technology and digital skills; working with external agencies and local communities; and understanding and addressing the challenges faced by the teaching profession.

Working with parents and families

The importance of engaging with parents and families was raised in responses to most questions, and the discussion usually fell into at least one of two strands – for better communication with parents; and assistance for families who need more support. Some, however, stressed the importance of parental responsibility.

Better communication

There were frequent calls for schools to improve the level and quality of communication with parents, with effective two-way communication between home and school. Participants felt this would bring teaching staff more awareness and understanding of young people's needs and help parents to support learning at home, underpinned by knowledge of the learning strategies, the curriculum and qualifications, and what is being taught on a day-to-day basis. Some valued the use of apps such as SeeSaw for parent/teacher communication, but there were frequent calls for more feedback on pupil performance and more parents' evenings.

Ensuring schools listen to, and act on any concerns raised by families about their children was also seen as important, particularly in relation to their wellbeing or any additional support needs. Participants noted that understanding a young person involves getting to know their family and listening to any thoughts or concerns about their child's needs.

More generally, the need to engage and listen to the views of parents was emphasised. Several argued that parents' views should be gathered and considered through parent councils, for example. Other suggestions included giving parents a greater choice over school placements, involving families in both in-school and extra-curricular activities, and the value of more intergenerational learning involving older family members.

"Make use of parental ability to oversee their children's education via proper engagement. Getting buy in from parents via engagement is key to how kids will progress alongside the method and content of delivery and the enthusiasm of the teachers." – Parent

"By making sure that schools maintain deeper relationships with families, and not have the only point of access for a family just at parents evening once a year. Invest time in listening to parents and children to build deeper relationships and to bring actual change. This must come from the leadership of each school." - Midlothian Third Sector Children's Services Network (Practitioners group)

A point raised in social media activity but not in any other areas of the National Discussion was a repeated call from charity Give Them Time for parents to be able to hold local authorities to account for how they implement national guidance about education, to communicate and engage with parents about decisions made in education committee meetings, and to publish accurate education data in a timely manner.

Offering support

Another strand of comments focused on providing more support to families, enabling them to better help their children's educational progress and wellbeing. Suggestions included: encouraging positive parenting and offering parenting education workshops and classes, particularly for those who are struggling due to poverty, ill health or lack of confidence in their parenting skills; teaching parents how to support mental health at home; and being able to have open and honest conversations with parents. It was noted that this support might have to be delivered in partnership with external agencies.

Parental responsibility

A small number of participants stressed that a young person's development should not just be seen as the school or teacher's responsibility. Most felt parents should be either solely or at least partly responsible for ensuring their children's health and wellbeing and supporting them to fulfil their potential. In teaching young people about the changing world, some participants felt this was the sole responsibility of parents; others felt that parents should be supported to feel empowered to have relevant conversations with children and have real-world experiences outside school. Others felt parents should be open to hearing young people's views and could be included in learning as they may have their own experiences to share or prejudices to dispel.

Flexible and inclusive learning pathways

Participants often advocated for the education system to offer young people a range of clear, flexible and effective learning pathways depending on their needs, abilities and interests. They argued that a one-size-fits-all approach and focus on academic success is no longer appropriate and that children should be able to choose options and opportunities, ranging from existing academic routes to practical and vocational alternatives. It was also stressed that action is needed to ensure schools, parents, tertiary education, employers, and wider society view all pathways as equally valuable, with support for all types of learning and career options. The need to offer parity between accredited vocational training opportunities and academic qualifications was noted.

"We should make sure that everybody's voices are heard, and there are more vocational courses in schools" - Learner

"One size does not fit all… I have a son with suspected dyspraxia. He is very bright, loves to read and learn but currently struggles with the "core" subjects... I fear in high school he will get lost, but I know he would thrive in a practical environment, doing trade style courses, cooking, first aid. I just hope his high school can see his potential, even if not in core subjects and be able to provide him with what he needs." – Parent

"We have to provide those opportunities. Our curriculum is too focused on traditional academic subjects. Apprenticeships and training courses in vocational skills should be offered from S3 onwards." – Teacher

"There needs to be more learning streams, each of the streams and styles need to be valued in their own right. Scotland recognises individuals learning styles and we can provide a stream so you can reach the estuary." - Individual

"I wonder if there should be more choice about pathways earlier on. With everyone getting basic level of education by 16 but some being able to move at faster pace than others whilst others have more opportunity to find their passion and love in non-academic arenas." – Parent

"Bringing together the different elements of the educational landscape that young people experience to work in partnership to deliver effective learning, choice, and support. This recognises education as a shared responsibility. Harness the skills and expertise of youth work, and indeed of employers, alongside that of schools in supporting young people's learning, ensuring that the outcomes and achievements that young people gain through their totality of learning experiences are captured and celebrated." – Awards Network

Listening to children and young people

Involving young people in conversations and decisions about their education and wider changes to the system was raised in responses to most questions. Participants highlighted the importance of asking and listening to children to guide their learning and to understand any improvements to their schooling. Suggestions for how this could be done included pupil councils, apps and digital communication. A small number noted challenges around equity and access, specifically ensuring those from marginalised or disadvantaged backgrounds are supported to express their views and that discussions do not prioritise the loudest voices or high achievers.

Listening covered many aspects of the National Discussion, from initiative conversations about mental health to asking about what aspects of our changing world young people want to know more about. More specifically, listening to young people was often linked to the importance of focusing on rights, children's rights and rights-based approaches. A few specifically highlighted UNICEF's Rights Respecting Schools Award and Article 12 of the UNCRC, which calls for respect for the views of the child.

"Listen!! Come into schools and talk to young people" – Learner

"Children should speak up if they do not feel properly supported and should be checked in with regularly to make sure they are getting support tailored to their needs." – Learner

"Ask them. Let everyone have a voice and let them say what they need to about Scottish education as everyone has their own beliefs / opinions. Let students have their say! You ask them what they want." – Inverness High School (Children and young people group)

"We should be able to choose what we want to do so that we have a say in the things that we enjoy instead of being forced to do something that you do not enjoy." – Learner

"Teachers listen to our ideas and let us contribute to the learning and planning for the classroom and school. Pupil council - means that we have a voice and can give our opinions on important things in the school and community. Achieving our RRSA [Rights Respecting School Award] helps us make sure we know and receive all our children's rights every day." – Crosshill Primary Pupil Council (Children and young person group)

Skills for Life

Participants often championed the teaching of life skills in schools. Many of these calls were non-specific, but some identified key areas of focus. Financial education, covering bank accounts, interest rates, mortgages and budgeting, was frequently mentioned. Home economics was also commonly mentioned to ensure young people can cook and have a good diet and develop household management skills such as making and repairing clothes, living sustainably, and cleaning. Another core focus was skills for the world of work, including interview skills and social skills such as team working.

"[Education] needs to get our children ready for the world. I am 26. Left school with 5 Highers, all As & Bs. But I can't understand interest rates on my mortgage or understand my utility bill. School should equip you with life skills." – Parent

"There should be more opportunities to learn things like cooking, martial arts, art, social skills, and other different things that could be jobs in the future." – Learner

"More lessons on things that will affect us in the real world so we will be ready." – Learner

"Teachers should only teach us stuff that we need to know not stuff that isn't relevant" – Learner

"Subjects taught/curriculum choices need updated; some are still relevant, but some are irrelevant and much more life skills and technology is needed… more life skills-based focus on learning and assessments... money / life skills focussed." - All Saint's RC Secondary School Council

Equity and inclusion

Throughout the Discussion, some participants shared varied comments about the importance of ensuring education in Scotland is free, equitable and inclusive. General comments around equity, inclusion and diversity included the need for education to be accessible to all, including those from different backgrounds or protected characteristics, marginalised groups and those with additional support needs, and for education to reflect and promote the diversity of Scotland's population in the workforce and curriculum, and to accept and celebrate different perspectives. Participants stressed the need for the system to support all young people and give them the opportunity to learn and succeed and to have the funding and staff in place to support this.

"Every child in Scotland deserves the right to access a safe, well-informed and holistic education system by suitably trained and experienced teachers. The framework must allow for every child to begin their education on the 'same footing' but also has the ability to support pupils of all abilities: those who benefit from additional support and encouragement and those who develop at a faster rate than their peers. Essentially, the system must be equal, agile and ultimately aspirational. World leading! - Parent

"Maintain focus on equity but rather than simply about everyone being the same and achieving the same, focus on opportunities for all." – Falkirk High School

"An important value is equity (for everyone to have equal access to education). To achieve this we will need to build schools where there are lifts so schools are accessible buildings to meet all learners and schools should have more staff to help the needs of kids with disabilities like dyslexia, autism or down syndrome." - Baljaffray Primary School (Children and young people group)

"Pupils with learning needs should be given more chances to show what they know and can do by having specialized exams for them." – Children and young people group

Closing the attainment gap

Some participants described challenges around poverty and equity in education. There were calls for equity in support for all schools, regardless of whether they are in deprived or affluent areas. A range of suggestions for how this could be achieved included: further investment in schools in deprived areas, including requests to maintain Pupil Equity Funding (PEF); to ensure poverty-aware policies and practices are in place at all levels and that the education workforce has adequate resourcing and time to support children and young people on low incomes; for equitable provision of technology, digital devices and digital learning options in schools; and placing more value on school partnerships with agencies in the community, Community Learning and Development (CLD) and the third sector, including ensuring staffing such as home link workers are resourced and consistently available in all schools to support and address children's individual needs. However, a few participants noted that poverty is a wider issue that schools cannot fix.

Removing financial barriers to education and providing opportunities for all was also mentioned. Participants argued education should have no upfront, hidden, additional or voluntary costs and that families should not have to fund any aspect of education which their children have a right to access; otherwise, those from lower-income households will miss out on opportunities. As well as calls to continue free school meals, participants advocated for free trips and extra-curricular activities, free transport, and funding to overcome any access barriers, for example, to cover access to expressive arts, music tuition, sports coaching or swimming lessons. It was also noted that financial support should be provided in a non-stigmatising manner and that more could be done to tackle stigma by normalising conversations about food poverty, fuel poverty and uniform poverty.

"Poverty in the community needs to be tackled - it can't all be the school's responsibility. There are teachers in our children's schools who are buying dinner, Christmas presents, Christmas jumpers etc for young people, parents who are desperately asking for help. This isn't okay." – Currie Cluster parents (parents group)

Only a very small number of comments were made about private schools, with mixed views expressed; a few called for private schools to be abolished, whereas others suggested state school pupils should be offered the same opportunities as those in private schools, such as a half day access to organised sporting activities.

Equity regardless of geography

Comments about equity across Scotland took two forms. One strand centred on ensuring equity in funding and resources and consistency in approach within and across local authorities and between urban and rural areas. This includes well-resourced schools in all areas, equitable provision of technology, staffing and new school buildings, and consistent course availability, teaching standards and use of resources across Scotland.

Another strand of comments highlighted the differences and challenges faced by rural, remote and island schools. A desire to ensure all young people across Scotland have the same opportunities to thrive, including being offered a wide range of subjects and courses, vocational opportunities, work or college placements, and access to university, was commonly mentioned. Technology was described as beneficial in enabling equitable opportunities in rural areas. There were also calls for investment in infrastructure to ensure equal access to technology in rural schools to support online learning.

A lack of investment and higher turnover of staff in rural and island schools was also noted, with participants suggesting that teachers in these areas need to be valued more and consideration given to providing accommodation for teachers and staff, and housing and island allowances

Other comments included: ensuring policies and approaches apply outside the central belt and to small rural schools; conversely, reviewing whether GIRFEC is implemented with greater success in smaller schools and, if so, how this can be scaled up to larger schools; providing support for rural schools with trips, transport, expert visitors and equipment; and young people in rural areas being disadvantaged when accessing mental health services.

"Don't just think about large schools with large staff teams. What is possible in a larger school is not always possible in a small school with only one teacher." – Teacher

"Scotland is a very diverse country. The vision for the future of Scottish Education should promote empowerment at all levels within the system. There is not a one size fits all as the geography of Scotland includes urban, rural and island communities. It is important that this is recognised and there is trust and confidence within a clear framework of collective accountability taking into account the unique context of each community and setting." – Shetland Islands Council Children's Services Directorate

More specifically, there were calls to keep small rural schools open and allow and support them to develop and keep their own unique identity, to help keep rural areas populated and support community development. Suggestions for how rural and island primary schools could help sustain their local areas included: tailoring education to the needs of the community and potential career prospects, for example, crofting, tourism or renewables; for the curriculum to support pupils to become entrepreneurs, given the greater prevalence of small businesses on islands, enabling those who stay or return to the islands to thrive and earn a living; and incorporating the cultural heritage of the islands to be incorporated within the curriculum, to provide a sense of place. One specific challenge was reconciling a young person's right to education and their right to family life if children from islands must board on the mainland for schooling.

"Digital offers in secondary schools should not depend in the size of the school or its location… Physical networking is not always possible or practical, we all have access to the digital paraphernalia needed since COVID so a child at a small rural school should have the same opportunities as someone in the centre of Glasgow. Scottish Government needs to sort out the connectivity issues outside of the central belt – so many schools want to offer digital courses but cannot due to poor internet." – Anonymous organisation

"Free ferry travel for young people on islands. Bus travel is good but ferry travel important for us to broaden horizons and access opportunities. Equity of experience regardless of geographical location." - School Captain and Chair of Pupil Council, Rothesay Academy

Exams and assessment

Various comments were made about the role of exams, testing and assessment, with little consensus on the best approach for the future. While there was some support for exams and assessment, several participants suggested an end to or a move away from focusing on exams and standardised testing. They explained why other types of assessment would be more suitable and called for a fair and transparent system.

Support for exams and assessment

Keeping exams, assessments, and a clear qualification structure was a prevalent theme at 'Q4: What should stay?' and was raised by a small proportion of participants at other questions. These participants argued for retaining exams, testing or a balance of exams and continuous assessment to monitor pupils' progress, maintain or increase standards and measure attainment. Other points noted the need for external moderation of assessments to maintain standards, qualifications which employers and tertiary education know and trust, and academic pathways available for those who want them.

Alternative approaches to assessment

Some respondents called outright for an end to exams, end of year assessments and standardised testing, particularly in primary. Others called for these to be used less frequently alongside other types of assessment. Criticisms of exams included: that there is too much emphasis on results, league tables and academic achievement, which puts unnecessary pressure on young people; concerns that education is too focused on teaching young people to memorise information solely to pass an exam; and that exams do not suit all young people and that it is unfair to determine their future based on how they perform on one day. Some, but not all, suggested a move towards more continuous assessment, project-based work and a broader consideration of other ways to showcase pupils' abilities and achievements. There was, however, debate about whether continuous assessment should be externally assessed or marked by teachers.

Fairness and transparency

Regardless of how assessment takes place, there were calls to prioritise a fair, transparent and consistent assessment structure. Participants suggested at least some external assessment of coursework to ensure fair and consistent marking and reduce teacher workload. A few noted this was important to ensure tertiary education and employers had confidence in qualifications and that Scottish qualifications would be internationally recognised. Other points included requests to stop changing the exam system, integrate skills into assessment, and have some form of learning assessment through the BGE phase. A small number made specific suggestions about how they felt National and Higher exams should be changed or improved.

"Make it clear what the new system is. Make sure the people sitting the new exams or system know exactly what they are doing. Make sure teachers know exactly how it works and how marks are gained." – Learner

"Qualifications that are relevant to industry and are awarded based on the whole learning journey, not just how you perform on a single day. Unit assessments and coursework are a better indication of a learner's knowledge and ability than a highly pressured exam environment." – Individual

"Different methods of assessment. Pupils agreed there is a need for exams, however they wished they could be assessed throughout the year, similar to a university style system." - S3 Kirkintilloch High School Learners (Children and young people group)

"SCQF needs to be a common language across education and employers / HE need to be engaged in understanding it. Doing so will help them recognise the overt value of different qualifications." - The National DYW Leads Network

Focus on the needs of each young person

A recurring theme was that education should be designed to meet the needs of each young person. These comments included multiple sub-themes, which mostly focused on ways to understand needs, listen to young people and build positive relationships.

Most frequently mentioned was how education could meet young people's needs. Participants suggested this involves understanding their passions and interests and tailoring choices around these, letting them develop at their own pace and tailoring teaching and learning to their abilities. A small proportion specifically suggested creating or using personalised learning and support plans for each pupil.

Several participants noted the importance of involving and listening to young people through open discussions, empowering them to make their views heard and enabling them to contribute to decision-making. Some participants highlighted the value of building and maintaining positive pupil/teacher relationships. They argued that a consistent teaching staff creates a sense of stability and allows teachers and pupils to get to know each other and form trusting relationships. A few suggested mentoring could also be useful.

Some advocated for a rights-based education, prioritising and embedding the rights and needs of young people. This included mention that the UNCRC and support for GIRFEC as an effective way to focus on individual young people.

A few participants suggested that while some children need additional support, this should not be to the detriment of high achievers or those in the middle. Providing options which allow academic pupils to excel, as well as challenging and stretching all pupils, was considered important. A very small proportion suggested children should be grouped or streamed in class according to ability or needs, allowing for tailored and targeted teaching.

"I think they should have an extra lesson a week that the pupils can do things that they like and get taught how the skills that they like doing can help them in their future." - Learner

"Measure what we value as opposed to valuing what we measure. Ideologically we all agree that children should be at the centre - in reality, at times, this feels like a distant dream." – Teacher

"If a child hasn't done homework, they shouldn't be sanctioned. They might not have supportive parents, a dining table, office. The fact they are in schools might be a triumph and they can be celebrated for that." – UNICEF UK, as part of children's organisations focus group

Technology and digital skills

Comments on this issue usually fell into two strands. One was calls for better provision of technology in schools, covering Chromebooks, iPads, Wi-Fi and computer labs, for example. Some responses raised the issue of equity and ensuring that all young people have access to technology and consideration of those who do not have access at home. The scope for increased digital or hybrid learning in the future was also raised.

Another strand of the discussion about technology focused on ensuring young people are digitally literate and confident. In relation to health and wellbeing, there were calls for schools to support young people with internet safety, discourage excessive technology and social media use, and increase understanding of the potential harms of social media.

Partnership working with external agencies

Several participants highlighted that schools were not, and should not, be solely responsible for meeting all needs and stressed the importance of collaborating with external stakeholders to safeguard young people. Relevant stakeholders included social work, youth work, Health and Social Care Partnerships, GPs, health visitors and NHS services, Community Learning and Development (CLD) workers, and support services such as Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). The value of partnerships between education, youth work and the third sector were also stressed.

Within these frequent calls to ensure sufficient access to external support were many suggestions on how to improve partnership working. These included: including external agencies as part of the school community by offering a hub-style provision, removing barriers to making referrals, improving communication, more effective child protection and child planning meetings, increasing accountability and sharing good practice.

"There is a lot of stress put onto education to meet children's needs - where is the support services to help? A lot of them have been cut. There should be joined up partnership working, not schools in isolations." – Muirkirk Primary School

"I think there needs to be more youth work support in schools where young people can be heard and also have some advocacy in making sure their needs are recognised by those who make decisions." - Individual

"GIRFEC needs one step more - it is good that we are working across agencies however other agencies are very stretched and it feels we are treading water in education. Children are families often need immediate attention and help. It is not GIRFEC to make them wait for months and months on end." – Teacher

"Change the model of partnership working - each Learning Community has a Nurse, Social Worker, Educational Psychologist, Police Officer, ASN support etc - we wish the PEF money had been allocated to this. We would then be able to focus on our core business - Learning & Teaching." – Anonymous teachers group

Working with local communities

The potential for a mutually beneficial relationship between schools and local communities was noted at multiple questions, with three strands of comments evident.

Most commonly, some participants felt schools should be encouraging and providing opportunities for young people to engage with their community. Examples included: collaboration with youth work organisations and the third sector; volunteering opportunities; participating in local development projects, charity projects and fundraising; bringing in experts and professionals to give talks about topics or issues; and intergenerational learning to hear the lived experience of older people through, for example, visits to care homes. These were all seen as helping young people develop social skills and engage constructively with their community.

Secondly, there were some calls for greater interaction between schools and their local communities, for example schools becoming hubs and focal points for the community and making use of their facilities more widely available.

Thirdly, a few described the need to improve young people's understanding of antisocial, harmful or risky behaviours, for example, gambling, which could be achieved through improved partnership working with social work and health agencies, youth work organisations and the third sector.

"Schools need to be cemented in their community. Visits to care homes, taking responsibility for the appearance of local areas e.g. litter picks, graffiti clean ups, wall painting. Pride in the community, perhaps through a monthly local activity, could build relationships, trust, understanding and a sense of belonging." – Individual

Listening to and empowering to teaching staff

Calls to listen to teaching staff were particularly prevalent at 'Q6: How do we ensure everyone involved in education has a say in future decisions and actions?' but were also made by a few participants in responses to other questions. Comments typically argued that front line school staff, especially teachers, are best placed to make informed decisions about education. Other staff, including learning assistants, early years staff, and office and janitorial staff were also mentioned by some as being able to provide a holistic view of what might be needed in a school, or to change or improve the curriculum.

"Listen to those delivering the curriculum as much/more than those in offices. Allow secondments for current teachers to write and create curriculum. For a new curriculum to work, teachers need to feel like they're at the helm and this isn't another change being done to them with no consultation. Those outwith the classroom are not best placed to make these decisions." - Teacher

"There needs to be far more dialogue with teachers – as well as utilising their expertise, it's important for them to have 'buy in' to any changes or delivery will be impeded." - Teacher

Participants also repeatedly expressed a view that teaching staff at all levels, including head teachers, should feel more empowered to do their job. They explained that empowerment would involve greater autonomy and flexibility around what is taught and how, and argued this could improve staff's motivation. However, some were clear that this would also require less management involvement in day-to-day decision-making about how a class is run or how the curriculum is implemented.

Teaching staff pay and working conditions

The challenges faced by the teaching profession were frequently highlighted, particularly excessive workload, bureaucracy and paperwork. Participants argued that teaching staff need a more manageable workload to reduce stress and pressure and allow them to spend more time teaching. There was also a clear view that teachers and support staff should be better paid and rewarded at a level which reflects the value of the profession.

Related to this, there were repeated calls to improve teacher retention, reduce teacher turnover and ensure pupils have consistency in teaching staff. Most comments highlighted the scope for improved working conditions to encourage teachers to remain in the sector and there were also comments about the need for more permanent teaching contracts.

"Early years education staff need more recognition we do such an important stressful job yet are seriously underpaid and undervalued in comparison to teachers." – Education Practitioner

"More staff and time throughout the system with a return to dedicated development time. More teachers and PSAs needed - pay and conditions need to be improved to make jobs more attractive, particularly at the lower pay scales." - Discussion Group 5 Buckie Community High School (Teachers group)



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