Putting Learners at the Centre: Towards a Future Vision for Scottish Education

Report provided to Scottish Ministers by Professor Ken Muir on the replacement of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, reform of Education Scotland and removal of its inspection function.

7. Considerations around a new curriculum and assessment agency

As part of the Scottish Government's response to the OECD report[34], the Cabinet Secretary announced the intention to replace the SQA and that I consider the possibility of creating a new specialist agency responsible for both curriculum and assessment.

In the public consultation, respondents were asked to rate how much they agreed that the creation of a curriculum and assessment agency will help to address the misalignment of curriculum and assessment as outlined in the OECD report. While a large proportion (41%) neither agreed or disagreed, most often citing their lack of awareness of the potential of such a body, of those who offered a definite view, a clear majority (39%) either agreed or strongly agreed that such a body should be created, while only 13% disagreed or strongly disagreed.

Figure 4: Levels of Agreement (agree + strongly agree) Disagreement (disagree + strongly disagree) that the creation of a curriculum and assessment agency will help to address the misalignment of curriculum and assessment
Figure described in text above

Respondents to the public consultation offered a range of perspectives on establishing a curriculum and assessment body. These fell into three main themes – Politics, Staffing, and Learning and Teaching.


The view was expressed by some respondents to the proposal of creating a curriculum and assessment agency. It was suggested that in Scotland we had 'been here before' and that there was a grave danger of this proposal, which if implemented, would simply amount to 'rearranging the deckchairs' or being a 'rebranding' of past ineffective agencies.

It was stressed by many respondents that should such an agency be set up, it should be independent of Scottish Government and other current agencies Skills Development Scotland (SDS), Scottish Funding Council (SFC), SQA and Education Scotland. These comments often touched on the need for cultural as well as structural change while suggesting that if the agency is independent of politics and affiliated national bodies, and its sole purpose is to improve education, then it could work.

"A rebranding exercise will not change the fundamental problems in Scottish education. It is not the SQA's fault that the system is dysfunctional. There needs to be a large change in the structure."

(Teacher/Practitioner, Secondary School)

Several respondents argued that a deeper and broader discussion needed to take place about wider education reform before proposing a new infrastructure of bodies; essentially that the decision to reform agencies had come too soon.

Of those who agreed with or were neutral about a new curriculum and assessment agency, several supported the view that a review needed to be undertaken first, but also that the findings from the post-qualification admissions consultation in the tertiary sector should be realised and any proposed changes piloted first. It was suggested that the creation of such an agency had the potential to streamline the current 'crowded middle' (between policy and practice) and provide greater clarity for teachers and practitioners. It was also suggested that more resources would inevitably be needed to establish such an agency.

In my wide-ranging engagements, there was a good deal of discussion and expression of views about the possibility of establishing a curriculum and assessment agency. A number of potential disadvantages were suggested to the creation of such an agency. There was a fear that it could result in a mere rebranding, that things would not change but there would be yet more bureaucracy.

"In practice, assessment will continue to be the big dog and by assessment the assumed meaning will be of one-off, high stakes written examinations. Welding the two together in one agency has only a superficial appeal. Maintaining their separation could at least allow curriculum to assume the role of a client making service demands of assessment... A retitling or rebottling exercise is unlikely to prove sufficient to the purpose of changing the whole culture."

(Teacher/Practitioner, Secondary School)

Several respondents suggested it would take too long to set up or reconfigure such an agency. They felt that it would cost too much to deliver and that it would operate best if staffed by teachers but that this would be unrealistic as teachers were already working beyond capacity. It was also suggested to me that if SQA staff were redeployed to another agency, high quality staff may be lost.


One of the most commonly cited issues with the current infrastructure related to what one respondent referred to as the "fairly static staffing" in national bodies, implying a lack of current practical experience.

"The embedded model is of a central corps of 'experts' dispersing wisdom and scrutiny to grateful recipients at the front-line. This is a deeply flawed model."

(Teacher/Practitioner, Secondary School)

Therefore, it was pointed out that an important proviso for any curriculum and assessment agency, whether or not respondents agreed to the proposal, was that current practitioners with up-to-date experience including teachers youth workers, and Further Education (FE) and Higher Education (HE) professionals (whether or not seconded), should be involved in staffing the agency.

It was widely felt that the real life experiences of teachers, practitioners and senior leaders from across education sectors would give credibility and increase the effectiveness of any such body while increasing the likelihood of it being successful. As one respondent suggested, it would:

"bring insight into the strengths and weaknesses of curriculum design and modelling and how assessment can validate learner experience and development."

(Teacher/Practitioner, Secondary)

As noted above, many respondents agreed or were neutral about the proposed agency. This was partly because they saw the current model as flawed and were concerned that perceived mistakes from the past would be repeated. Even those who were positive about the creation of such an agency stressed the need to avoid the creation of an overly bureaucratic model that acted to control as opposed to support.

Learning and Teaching

Some respondents felt that establishing a curriculum and assessment agency risked undermining the importance of learning and teaching as one of the most significant drivers in improving outcomes for all learners. Many, therefore, were keen to stress that learning and teaching should be embedded within the work of any new curriculum and assessment body. In doing so, it was felt it could go a long way to correcting the current imbalance where examinations and assessment are seen to be driving what is taught and how it is taught, to the more desirable position of curriculum, assessment, learning and teaching driving what is valued and therefore recognised through any examinations and certification.

"If such an agency aimed to align the curricula better by creating a 'through-curriculum' from 3-18 with specified knowledge (content) and skills, I would be all for it. If, however, it attempted to make the Senior Phase more like the BGE, with an over-emphasis on woolly 'skills and experiences' rather than knowledge, this should be strongly resisted."

(Teacher/Practitioner, Secondary School)

I heard a number of strong arguments from many different areas of education – from the ELC sector through to researchers in universities – for establishing an agency that embraced wider policy and practice, not only in curriculum and assessment but also in respect of learning and teaching from the early years to the Senior Phase and beyond. Consideration of practice in the tertiary sector was also felt to be important. These arguments included the opportunity to provide greater consistency, clarity, coherence and continuity in our education system.

It was felt that an agency with a broad remit could also enhance collaboration and coordination, not just among teachers and practitioners, but more generally across sectors. For example, there was strong support for extending some of the play-based learning, teaching and assessment practices seen in ELC into early primary classes. The lack of coherence across education was reflected in the lack of recognition given by some in the school sector to the ELC sector in building the strong foundations for children becoming lifelong learners.

"In the early level more work is needed to ensure that all primary 1-3's experience a play-based curriculum that is consistent with their nursery experience. This could support progression as children gain confidence. Despite the expectation on play-based learning in infancy departments it can often be tokenistic."

(Early Years practitioner)

"Where Early Years (EY) education is valued and appropriately funded by local authorities, EY to primary transition processes can work well, with EY teachers and other practitioners provided time to collaborate with teachers in early primary. However, the disappearance of nursery teachers- critical bridging professionals- from the EY sector, lack of consistent support within primary for play-based approaches, and the introduction of assessment models that clash with a play-based ethos and pedagogy, combine to undermine some of the benefits that the 3-18 curriculum offers by way of EY to primary transition."

(Trade Union/Professional Association)

"Few people in education appreciate that children's early years' experiences actually matter a great deal in terms of how they then achieve and attain throughout the entire school system. We can identify children at 3 and 4 who are going to struggle right through school and who are likely to underachieve and have poor outcomes – but we do little about that. Unless and until our youngest children's education and experiences matter to those of us outwith early years, we are not going to bring about the reforms we desperately need."

(Early Years practitioner)

Overall, it was felt that an agency with a broad remit beyond curriculum and assessment could be a key driver to effecting improved outcomes for all learners, from ELC through to the Senior Phase and beyond.

Reflecting on all I have heard and read, it is my view that creating a new body focusing only on curriculum and assessment is not enough. What is needed is a single agency with a broader remit to address some of the key issues raised in the OECD report. Such an agency also has the potential to address a number of the tensions, concerns and aspirations that have been shared with me in my engagements and discussions. To realise the principles set out earlier in this report, any such agency needs to:

  • provide the means by which policy and practice are brought much closer together;
  • bring those involved in the learning and teaching process closer to policy; and
  • create opportunities for genuine engagement of all stakeholders, not least learners, teachers and practitioners.

The prime focus of such an agency should be on supporting every individual learner and those teachers and practitioners that support their learning. By developing a close understanding of practice in Scotland's schools, the agency will also be well placed to advise the Scottish Government on the development of policies related to curriculum, assessment, learning, and teaching.

"One agency with a strong vision and mission for the future is better than two pulling in different directions."

(Teacher/Practitioner, Secondary School)

I am convinced that such an agency, with a broader remit than perhaps was originally envisaged by the OECD, would act to bring policy and practice much closer together. This has many advantages. It has the potential to increase teacher and practitioner confidence and job satisfaction if support to meet their needs is more responsive and closer to hand. It would be well placed to engage with and act on feedback from learners, parents, carers and wider stakeholders. Such an agency should therefore be capable of both advising on the development of policy and supporting its implementation in practice. It could also address some of the long-standing workload issues by providing greater clarity and coherence on curriculum, assessment, learning and teaching.

"arrangements are fragmented between agencies and… there is no clear or 'joined up' support across the different sectors or stages of the learning journey."

(Post school sector)

A broad agency of the kind envisaged could help to ensure a more seamless curriculum and a smoother transition from BGE to the Senior Phase and beyond. With a broad remit and the bringing together of some of the parts of the existing 'cluttered landscape', it offers a realistic way forward in tackling the age-long issue of how we better recognise and value the wider achievements of all learners and deliver parity of esteem across different qualifications and awards. Overall, it has the potential to deliver improved experiences and outcomes for learners and drive the kind of cultural and mindset shifts that many have suggested are necessary for Scottish education to thrive in the future.

As one respondent put it:

"If the agency is established with teachers included, alongside parties from all angles and agencies then we could establish an effective progression and meaningful links between BGE and Senior Phase, and curriculum and assessment."

(Teacher/Practitioner, Secondary School)

Those carrying out the fieldwork for the OECD report noted concerns about the responses they received in answers to their question 'Who owns CfE?' The responses indicated shared ownership by many players in Scottish education. The OECD team pointed out that while many claimed ownership, the responsibilities that came with that ownership were unclear. This led to some schools feeling they had complete ownership while others felt ownership lay elsewhere.

Those responding to the public consultation and in some in-depth discussions I had with stakeholders confirmed this confusion and lack of clarity. Some respondents felt that the Scottish Government and its Curriculum, Qualifications and Gaelic Division within the Learning Directorate 'owned' the curriculum, particularly in the early years and in BGE. A few made specific reference to the existing advisory body the Curriculum and Assessment Board (CAB) who they suggested had ownership.

Some felt that SQA 'owned' the curriculum, particularly at the Senior Phase, with its production of subject Conditions and Arrangements. Others variously referred to Education Scotland, SDS, local authorities and schools themselves being the owners. What is clear is that some of the confusion and misunderstandings that exist in Scottish education stem from what is seen by many as multiple bodies in the middle ground between policy and practice having a role and responsibility for the curriculum.

This confusion is heightened at a time when the language of empowerment and autonomy is increasingly more apparent and subject to various interpretations and uncertainties.

Currently, Education Scotland, local authorities and RICs are all key players in this middle ground. The opportunity to reform the role and functions of Education Scotland and to consider its relationships to other key players, has the potential to play a significant role in enhancing outcomes for all learners.



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