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.

4. Less commonly mentioned themes

Many other overarching issues were highlighted by a small proportion of participants at multiple questions. These topics, from most to least frequently mentioned, included: fostering creative and critical thinking; work-based learning; developing confident young people and citizens and an education system that can adapt to the modern world; facilities; physical health and PE; the value of early years education and the introduction of a kindergarten stage; discipline; the structure of the school day; school meals; transitions; opportunities to learn from other countries; and the need for strong leadership in schools.

Fostering critical and creative thinking

There were varied comments about how the education system should produce creative and critical thinkers, who love learning and have the curiosity to explore, debate and challenge the world around them. Participants frequently highlighted the importance of critical thinking skills, often in relation to the vast amount of information available to learners. They stressed the importance of young people solving problems, having a curiosity and ability to undertake their own research and investigation, form and debate their own opinions, and assess the accuracy of news and social media.

"As well as core skills like maths and literacy, softer skills are also important e.g. learning how to learn, digital skills. Also, given how much information children have access to now, important that they are taught critical thinking and evaluation of the information presented to them as it informs so much of their future views." – Oxgangs Primary School Parent Council (parents group)

Work-based curriculum and learning

In addition to offering flexible learning pathways, there was a particular strand of comments on the theme of work-based learning, especially at 'Q5: What are the most important priorities for a future Scottish education system?'. Participants made several suggestions about how to prepare young people for work, work-based learning and vocational positive destinations, including: teaching skills for work; offering vocational opportunities in primary schools; promoting the Developing the Young Workforce (DYW) programme; having more partnerships between schools, colleges, universities and businesses; partnering with employers and local businesses to have guest speakers in school, giving young people real examples of future careers; promoting and supporting apprenticeships; and opportunities for professionals from other sectors to move into teaching.

A separate strand of comments reiterated the need for better career advice to allow to help young people understand the skills and attitudes needed for work and the jobs they might like to do, enabling them to make informed subject and pathway choices.

"Skills for the workplace and life. Instead of forcing people to go to uni people should be helped with more vocational skills and qualifications since these are more likely to help them find employment after school." – Learner

"Skills for work - this isn't intended to remove creativity or arts from the curriculum; however we do have to be realistic and ensure [our] education system provides young people with meaningful skills that lets them enter the workplace or further education." – Education Practitioner

Creating confident young people and citizens

There was a desire to ensure young people are aspirational. Participants frequently called for Scotland's education system to produce well-rounded young people who have the practical and social skills to contribute to the modern world and support their communities. Words used to describe these young people included: happy, confident, resilient, engaged, motivated, ambitious, social, caring, empathetic, reflective and independent. To support this, participants felt schools should celebrate success but also help young people to have a growth mindset and be comfortable with failure.

Another important aspect of this was helping young people develop their emotional literacy and interpersonal skills. This could include listening and communication skills, building positive relationships and friendships, understanding values of kindness, empathy, trust and respect and modelling appropriate values and behaviours.

"Prepare children to make the most of their talents and interests and to be ready to contribute to society (including challenging the status quo and being able to think for themselves)." – Parent

"To stop seeing children as data associated with literacy and numeracy and realise that the aim of our curriculum is to produce well rounded, successful and responsible learners and citizens." - Teacher

Another common theme, particularly in responses to 'Q9: How can children and young people be helped to learn about our changing world, so they feel able to positively contribute?', was helping young people to understand their place in the world and develop a sense of responsibility and citizenship. There were multiple aspects to this:

  • helping young people understand they can create change by showing them examples of how they can contribute, in particular where the actions of young people have had an impact
  • empowering young people to act and express their views, building confidence and resilience through offering opportunities to take part in activities, encouraging and inspiring them to participate, and developing leadership skills
  • role models for young people

"Some of the concepts that young people are being asked to grapple with these days are overwhelming and terrifying, but contextualising them on their personal knowledge then making the road by walking together with them will help them and us positively contribute towards our changing world" – Education Practitioner

Facilities and equipment

Comments about facilities covered several issues. Calls for school buildings to be fit-for-purpose were common as were requests for more outdoor spaces, playgrounds and both indoor and outdoor sports facilities. There were also requests for classrooms to have up-to-date equipment, particularly laboratories and practical spaces, and to ensure pupils have the equipment for learning such as musical instruments.

"Design schools fit to meet the needs of teachers and children. My local new builds have no accessible green spaces, tiny play areas, no quiet spaces or breakout rooms for children with ASN. We need lots of growing spaces." - Parent

In the context of how facilities can support meeting every child and young person's individual needs, including modern school buildings, learning spaces, facilities and equipment, there were calls for both larger and smaller spaces, quiet spaces and more comfortable spaces, accessible green space and play areas, and adaptations for disabilities such as ramps. A few called for smaller schools, and fewer 'super schools' and open-plan schools, with open-plan classrooms noted as a challenge for deaf learners.

While not directly related to facilities, safe and appropriate learning environments were seen as a priority. As well as ensuring school does not create any stress or harm and that facilities are well-maintained, participants described the need for safe, relaxing, supportive spaces, and a few called for quiet spaces and a ban on mobile phones. Conversely, learners were keen to have more freedom and choice in their learning environments, including keeping their phone and being allowed to go to the toilet when they choose to.

Physical health and Physical Education (PE)

The potential for education to enhance young people's physical health through PE and physical activity was often raised. Some stressed the importance and benefits of PE, with many noting this should continue throughout school, and in some cases be mandatory, to ensure young people are physically fit. Other observations were more general, highlighting the need to encourage physical activity, Active Schools activities and active travel. In all cases, the importance of physical activity to movement, health and social engagement were noted. Two related themes, each mentioned by a small proportion of participants, were the need for more specialist PE teachers, and better sports facilities. These included: gyms and changing facilities, more PE equipment, playgrounds and outdoor spaces, outdoor fitness equipment, and all-weather pitches.

"Physical sport or education should be mandatory, but only for a period or two a week, and should be more about having fun and keeping fit than anything serious such as an exam or competitivity." – Learner

Focus on early years education

The value of early years education, particularly play-based early years, was another recurring but less commonly mentioned theme. As described by respondents, the benefits of play-based learning include that it: promotes nurture, socialisation and the development of meaningful relationships; helps to develop a child's interests through investigation and discovery; promotes physical development; and develops problem-solving, risk assessment and resilience. A small number called for more staff and greater support for the early years workforce, awareness of the pressures they face, and opportunities to engage in curriculum planning and professional learning, so early years is recognised as a valued career choice. The 'Realising the Ambition' national practice guidance was highlighted by a few participants as a particularly positive and valuable document.

A small proportion of participants discussed a later start to primary school and the introduction of a kindergarten stage in Scotland; those who raised this issue were predominantly in favour of introducing this stage. Supporters typically argued that children were not ready to start school until age six or seven, and that Scotland should learn from Scandinavian style model. A minority who mentioned their opposition to this idea noted their children were ready to start P1 and would have been bored if they stayed in nursery and described a preference for the ability to defer entry to P1 to remain.

"Give early years education as much importance as primary school. What children learn, achieve and experience in their early years can determine how well the rest of their education journey will go, as well as the rest of their lives. Give more attention to additional needs in the early years, often nothing is put in place for children with additional needs until they go to school, when so much could be done beforehand to aid their individual development." – Education Practitioner

"At present, what happens in early years settings is seen by most educators as having little relevance to the educational performance of children and young people later in the system. Politicians and press regard ELC as little more than a child-minding service while parents are at work, and Primary 1/2 children are regarded as schoolchildren who can be expected to crack on with the three Rs. This is in direct contradiction of the growing evidence about the profound significance of early childhood experiences and the beneficial effects of high-quality early childhood care and education." – Upstart Scotland


Though typically mentioned by a very small proportion at each question, discipline was a recurring theme. Participants felt there should be greater action to address poor or dangerous behaviour in schools, clear rules around what is acceptable and consequences for disruptive behaviour, and more action to tackle bullying, including cyber-bullying.

"Stronger anti-bullying powers. No workplace would stand for the racism, homophobia, physical, mental torture that school children are put through by their peers." – Parent

Adaptable education for the modern world

Some participants highlighted the wider need for the education system to be adaptable and flexible to changes in the modern world and the challenges facing society.

The most common theme, raised by several participants, was topical relevant issues to be incorporated into the curriculum, put into context in all subjects and taught in a positive, relevant, engaging way. Examples of relevant topics included contemporary politics, citizenship, environmentalism, sustainability, human rights, social issues and sex education. More generally, some participants called for a robust, comprehensive, modern, engaging and inspiring curriculum. They recognised that this may require redesign or reform, with some feeling that the current curriculum is too cluttered.

Some participants mentioned how topical issues could be integrated within specific subjects. Modern Studies was frequently mentioned with some calling for this to be compulsory or treated as a core subject; other social subjects such as history and geography and RME were also mentioned, as was PSE.).

A very small proportion of participants stressed the importance of learning from history to help frame current issues and future action. This included calls to de-colonise the curriculum and reflect on Scotland's colonial history and its impact on society.

"The world is advancing rapidly in the area of technology. With this advancement, children must be equipped with sufficient science, engineering, technology and mathematical skills. Even the current hot issue of climate change requires scientific knowledge to enable further research to be undertaken in tackling the matter." - Parent

"The same way they learn about anything... by having teachers who can engage children in their learning by presenting lessons on topical issues such as climate change, energy conservation in an interesting and age appropriate way." – Parent

"Having lessons that are purely focused on the reality of the world, like modern studies, but not just starting this in senior years of high school, opening them up from a young age as well." - Learner

Structure of the school day

A small proportion of participants, particularly learners, made varied suggestions about school schedules and timetables at a few questions. However, little consensus was evident. Suggestions included: both longer and shorter days; calls for a four day week or to maintain the five day week or half-day Friday in some areas; more breaks and longer lunches; more free periods and study time; more soft starts or a later start to the school day; flexibility around start and end times to accommodate working parents and those with other responsibilities such as carers; and consistent school holidays across Scotland.

School meals and diet

Continued provision of school meals, especially free school meals, was frequently noted as a priority because: ensuring children are well fed was seen as useful to helping them learn; nutritious meals could help improve some children's diet; and providing free meals was a crucial support for some young people who might not be well fed at home.

"If we want an education system which is underpinned by a commitment to social justice and principles of equality and equity, then further action is also needed to eliminate the poverty-related achievement and attainment gap. The provision of universal free school meals would go some way to ensuring children and young people can concentrate in class and engage more readily in learning, not having to deal with the impact of hunger. Hunger and stigma do not stop at P5." - Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS)

Concerns around progressive education and social change

Throughout the consultation, a very small proportion of participants opposed young people being exposed to what they described as 'minority' or 'woke' agendas, typically including trans rights, gender and sexual identity, and issues around sex education.

Effective transition through the learner journey

Transitions were raised by a few who called for children to be equipped with the skills and knowledge to move effectively through their education. Participants not only noted the moves from early year to primary, and primary to secondary, but also ensuring young people are confident and adequately prepared for college, university or the world of work. The importance of successful transitions for young people with disabilities or additional support needs was also noted.

Learning from other countries

While only usually mentioned by a very small proportion of participants, there were repeated references to Scotland looking to and learning from education in other counties. Most comments directed policymakers to Nordic countries, in particular, Finland, which were described as having more effective education systems.

"Programmes such as Germany's apprenticeship scheme are fantastic ways of ensuring all young people have a positive destination at the end of their educational journey. Many of the issues faced are linked to historic urban deprivation so investment in these communities is vital - children who have role models to follow are more likely to have high aspirations." – Individual

Strong leadership

Another less common but recurring theme was for more effective leadership and greater control to be given to schools. Some noted the need for better or stronger management in individual schools; conversely, there were also calls for fewer senior management positions and less bureaucracy. Specific requests shared by a few participants included: for better management training to ensure strong leaders in schools; greater accountability over how non-class committed teachers spend their time; and the use of shared head teachers, with a clear preference for one head teacher per school being expressed.

At a wider level, there was criticism of the management of education policy and the politicisation of education, with calls for greater clarity about the roles and influence of local and central government and education bodies over setting policy and strategy.



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