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.

8. Education Scotland

Established on 1 July 2011, Education Scotland is a Scottish Government executive agency charged with supporting quality and improvement in Scottish education. As an executive agency, Education Scotland operates impartially while remaining directly accountable to Scottish Ministers for its performance and use of public funds.

The role of the Chief Executive also encompasses the roles of both HM Chief Inspector of Education and Chief Adviser for Education in Scotland. Education Scotland's work to support the education system is organised in five Directorates.

  • Professional Learning and Leadership (PLL) – The Scottish Government's Education Governance: Next Steps (June 2017)[35] identified that Education Scotland has strategic responsibility for PLL in Scotland. This work includes the design and delivery of a wide range of professional learning opportunities that support Scotland's practitioners, including 'Into Headship', the route for aspiring school leaders towards the now mandatory Standard for Headship. At the same time, the role and functions of the Scottish College for Educational Leadership (SCEL) were transferred to Education Scotland.
  • National Improvement – This Directorate has responsibility for Curriculum Innovation; the National e-Learning Offer; policy advice, support and implementation; Inclusion, Wellbeing & Equalities; Digital Services including Glow, managing the Scottish Wide Area Network (SWAN) and supporting digital learning and teaching.
  • Regional Improvement – This Directorate comprises six regional teams which include a range of staff with specialist expertise who work together with Scottish Government and local, regional and national partners to lead on a wide range of national policy priorities, including SAC and the NIF.
  • Corporate Services – The Corporate Services Directorate provides many of the enabling functions for Education Scotland. This includes leading and supporting the effective development and delivery of corporate and directorate level governance, risk, business planning, corporate performance, finance, procurement, grants, statistics, internal and external communications and engagement and HR. This directorate also provides administration support to the directorates, including support to the Chief Executive and Strategic Directors.
  • Scrutiny (HM Inspectors) – HM Inspectors are defined under section 135(1) of the 1980 Act[36]. Appointment to the post of HM Inspector is subject to approval by Her Majesty at a sitting of her Privy Council. In addition to inspection and evaluation functions they also undertake activities which support the Scottish Funding Council to fulfil its statutory obligations under The Further and Higher Education Act, 2005 (Section 13)[37] for assuring and enhancing quality in the college sector.

The Agency also houses the Community Learning and Development Standards Council and the Registrar of Independent Schools. As part of its work, Education Scotland also provides professional advice to Scottish Ministers and gathers intelligence to support policy development and decision making.

More detail on the work of Education Scotland can be found in its background document which accompanied the public consultation[38].

Support for curriculum and assessment

The OECD report noted that transparency in the division of responsibilities among stakeholders is a necessary condition for policy success in a system that promotes shared responsibility of its curriculum. The OECD further noted that ambiguous or overlapping responsibilities can cause confusion for practitioners as to where they can look to for support. This is an important consideration in looking at reform of Education Scotland. The OECD suggests a number of reasons as to why a confusing landscape has been formed. These include the following:

  • The uncertainties created by the breadth of functions carried out by Education Scotland which includes inspection and scrutiny alongside support and improvement functions.
  • The fact that capacity and resources to provide support and guidance on CfE came initially from SQA, even if it was beyond their mandate, before resources produced by other bodies with statutory responsibility for curriculum support, such as local authorities and Education Scotland, became available.
  • The rotation of top administrative and executive positions in Scotland's education system among a relatively small number of individuals which limits creative thinking and constructive challenge within top decision-making processes.
  • The multiple layers of governance which generate additional policy priorities and supplementary materials with little coordination.
  • The overwhelming number of organisations which draws heavily on system leadership capacity.

The OECD also emphasised and recommended a 'need for clarity about the roles and responsibilities of each actor and their boundaries, especially between Education Scotland and SQA, RICs and local authorities, and between schools, local authorities and central government'(when it comes to curriculum design).

The findings of the OECD report relate closely to those arising from my consultation and engagement work undertaken in preparation for this report. A consistent theme I noted particularly with practitioners and among PSAG members, was confusion and lack of clarity on the roles played by national agencies and other providers, including RICs, in responding to needs for support with curriculum, assessment, learning and teaching issues.

This lack of clarity was also highlighted in the recent Research Scotland report, 'Review of the Regional Improvement Collaboratives' (October 2021)[39].

'Some felt that there was a lack of clarity around the role of Education Scotland, and a tension between being a partner in the RICs and having a scrutiny role. While the involvement of Education Scotland was generally felt to add value, there remained some issues around power, control and joint working'.

The tension was also clearly demonstrated to me through the public consultations returns in which a significantly greater proportion of those who responded (54%) felt there was a lack of clarity on the roles played by national bodies as opposed to the 9% who felt there was.

Figure 5: Levels of Agreement (agree + strongly agree) Disagreement (disagree + strongly disagree) that there is clarity on the roles played by national agencies and other providers for responding to needs for support with curriculum and assessment issues
Figure described in text above

When asked about those aspects of support that were working well, 12% of respondents felt that there were no such areas of support, typified by the following:

"As a day-to-day teacher I am unaware of any support provided by national agencies to any individual pupils or to me."

(Teacher and Parent, Primary School)

Those who responded more positively cited over 40 different sources of support. These ranged from national bodies and groups such as Education Scotland, local authorities, the Scottish Catholic Education Service and professional associations to local and subject-based formal and informal networks. Several respondents felt that collaboration between national agencies, local authorities and teachers/teacher associations had been particularly effective.

"Targeted support planned in partnership with the local authority and schools has led to purposeful and impactful interactions between Education Scotland, headteachers and practitioners."

(Local Authorities/Local Government)

Respondents linked to Gaelic Medium Education felt there was good support available from a range of agencies, including: Fèisean nan Gàidheal, FilmG, Spòrs Gàidhlig, Bòrd na Gàidhlig (BnG) and Stòrlann.

For the post-school/college/university sector, the learning programmes on leadership were seen as a success, as was some of the support provided by SQA and Colleges Scotland. The Professional Learning Network and opportunities for online discussion and professional learning/development were also welcomed. The College Development Network (CDN) and Education Scotland were also seen as providing good input and support, but, it was suggested that variability existed in this provision.

Education Scotland itself, in its response to the public consultation, acknowledged the confusion that exists around where educators should go to access support. They stated that there is a need for 'greater clarity on the roles and responsibilities in the system', citing the perception by many that Education Scotland sets education-related policy when this is, in fact, the responsibility of the Scottish Government.

While Education Scotland and the SQA were mentioned by some as a source of support, others disagreed and felt that support was either patchy (good for some subjects and lacking for others) or had generally "dwindled" over recent years. Some suggested Education Scotland now offered little support to schools, teachers and learners in relation to the curriculum, and/or that the support available varied significantly by area. Some also complained that support had been lacking during the COVID-19 pandemic. While a number of respondents (particularly secondary school teachers) noted that the SQA was a good source of support in relation to assessment, they felt that Education Scotland was far less helpful in relation to the curriculum.

It was also noted that individual staff and teams in Education Scotland were helpful. However, it was suggested that this relied too heavily on personal contacts between practitioners and such staff and teams, and therefore did not provide equity in support across the profession.

"If ES [Education Scotland] is contacted, support will be provided but inequity in this as it is often through personal contacts."

(School/Centre Leader, Secondary School)

"There is feedback from parts of the country which is very positive about the support provided by Education Scotland. However, this is very inconsistent which would suggest that there is not a clear structure/framework for the support to be delivered. It is too reliant on individuals."

(Local Authorities/Local Government)

Many teachers and practitioners with whom I engaged confirmed that the 'middle' landscape designed to support them was too cluttered, lacked coherence, with too much overlap and duplication of effort. This meant that schools and teachers did not always know who to approach for support or advice on specific areas. It was sometimes felt there were too many different agencies developing materials and approaches, with little overall co-ordination and too little time available for schools and educators to fully consider and implement everything.

"There are too many people trying to look busy to justify their job title. They throw ideas at teachers and expect all of the ideas to be implemented in classrooms. There are too many ideas and not enough time. We need less agencies, more support in classrooms, smaller class sizes and more prescriptive planning, not more agencies trying to justify how busy they are."

(Teacher/Practitioner, Primary School)

"This varies from school to school and authority to authority. Clarity needed… We do not know where the support is located or how to access it (or even have the TIME to access it)."

(Teacher/Practitioner, Primary School)

Further, it was also suggested that the support and advice provided by national agencies (with the SQA and Education Scotland named specifically), was often provided too late or felt rushed.

"Whilst it is always well intentioned it could not be said to always be coherent, well researched or well timed. Perhaps the move to electronic systems has led to more things being pushed out last minute with no time to be properly assimilated and then needing changed."

(Third Sector)

Education Scotland and the SQA websites were also criticised by a few respondents as being difficult to navigate and not user friendly. It was felt that, while useful material was provided, difficulties with the websites meant this was not quick and easy to access. I am aware that these issues are being addressed as part of Education Scotland's Transformation Programme.

It was also highlighted to me that there was a lack of clarity over the remit of, and what was provided by, the Learning Directorate in the Scottish Government and the role and impact of RICs on front-line staff, particularly on the curriculum. To add to the lack of clarity, it was pointed out that SDS had begun to develop qualifications which was seen by many as being within the remit of the SQA. I also heard the view that there is duplication in the roles of the Care Inspectorate and HMI within Education Scotland which was seen as particularly challenging for the ELC sector. Like others, I believe the above examples demonstrate that the 'middle' landscape needs to be simplified with clear mapping/signposting provided so educators can find the relevant support they need.

Many with whom I spoke also sought a de‑cluttered landscape where fewer agencies provided more joined up working and removed the duplication of effort and roles. Several respondents (typically primary and secondary school teachers) but also many PSAG members, requested clear lines of communication and a set of dedicated contacts either to regional teams or subject specific teams who they could approach for support.

"Clarity in these circumstances should emerge in a de-cluttered system that identifies clear roles, responsibilities and governance."

(School/Centre Leader, Secondary School)

"The current landscape is hugely cluttered and there is no clear understanding across the system of the roles/responsibilities of agencies and LAs [local authorities] etc. There is enormous repetition across the system, for example, there are people leading curriculum in their school, someone leading at the LA [local authority], someone at the RIC [Regional Improvement Collaborative], a team at Education Scotland, with no clarity over roles or the direction."

(Teacher/Practitioner, Secondary School)

"I have never fully understood the workings of Education Scotland and the overall purpose. They seem to do everything but not in a very obvious way, there needs to be more structure, separate branches doing different roles and clearly defined job definitions so that the whole education community understands who to contact about what and when. It is difficult to know what support they offer and who to ask for it."

(National Agency Officer, Secondary School)

"It's very difficult for parents to figure out which agency is responsible for what.

The system needs to be far more streamlined, and communication needs to be much more parent friendly."

(Parent/Carer, Secondary School)

A number of other issues regarding the work of national bodies were brought to my attention. The first was that the support agencies and other providers need to promote their work and be more visible to front-line teachers and practitioners many of whom often had to rely on their own leadership teams and informal networks to provide support. Parents/carers reported that they and the wider general public should be made more aware of the national bodies and what they do, and that this could be achieved through more regular, direct and tailored communication.

A further important issue was the strong feeling from leaders, teachers, practitioners and many PSAG members that staff in national bodies were 'too far removed from the classroom' and therefore did not understand the practicalities of everyday life in a teaching and learning context.

Crucially, it was suggested that the model by which teachers and practitioners seek support from education bodies on the basis of a pre-determined offer is often unhelpful and flawed. It was suggested a better approach would be for teachers and practitioners to be able to make more bespoke requests related to their needs and have that request met in a timely fashion. This bottom-up model of influencing the work of national bodies was considered to be critically important, with their work being much more tailored to support the needs of front-line staff. From the feedback I have received this is not always evident in current practice and it is important that the role of local authorities in facilitating this support is recognised.

While I recognise the continuing value of a high-quality national offer in key areas, for example school leadership, it is suggested that the model by which teachers and practitioners seek support requires to be increasingly led more locally by professionals themselves.

Similarly, local authority-based respondents stressed the need for enhanced joint working between themselves and national bodies. This is important given the support and overall resource available to practitioners at national, regional and local levels. Ensuring high-quality support while reducing duplication across the system will be key.

"The statutory responsibility for improvement rests with local authorities therefore it needs to be clear how local authorities, Regional Improvement Collaboratives and any national agency or agencies work together to ensure continuous improvement in the outcomes for learners."

(Local Authorities/Local Government)

Support for professional learning and leadership

The public consultation showed that there were a greater number of positive responses to the question about whether there was clarity on where support for professional learning and leadership could be accessed, compared to views on where support for curriculum and assessment could be accessed. Just under one-third (31%) of respondents commented negatively while just over one-quarter (26%) were positive.

Figure 6: Levels of Agreement (agree + strongly agree) Disagreement (disagree + strongly disagree) that there is clarity on where high quality support for leadership and professional learning can be accessed to support practitioners
Figure described in text above

The main reason reported to me for there being more positive responses lay in the view that there were a wide range of opportunities available to engage in leadership training and professional learning. The increased online offering developed as a result of COVID-19 and lockdown situations contributed to this, with respondents hoping this would continue long-term. It was also suggested to me that the online provision had helped to address some of the accessibility disparities across the country (including between rural and urban areas and for those located outwith the central belt), although geographic differences in levels and access to provision was still noted by several respondents as a problem.

However, many with whom I have engaged felt that, while a good deal of professional learning and support for leadership was available, schools and teachers were 'bombarded' and found it very difficult to identify which providers/options would best meet their bespoke needs. Again, it was suggested to me that there was a plethora of providers, with little co‑ordination and coherence across the offering, and 'patchy' provision in some areas notably in supporting approaches to learning and teaching. While a broad choice can encourage creativity and responsiveness, the current situation where there is little coordination of the offering can present difficulties for teachers and practitioners. It was suggested that a central body needed to take responsibility for sifting, streamlining and assuring quality before onward dissemination to schools, teachers and practitioners.

"PL [Professional Learning] should be coordinated and grouped by ES [Education Scotland] improvement staff and distilled to those busiest and at the front-line."

(National Agency Officer)

Given other views regarding the cluttered landscape, this may suggest there is a need for greater, targeted and co-ordinated promotion of professional learning opportunities.

While many respondents spoke favourably about the national leadership pathway programmes available, others felt that the demands of the 'Into Headship' programme did not give recognition to the experiences that those already in post have. Indeed, it was felt that this programme focused too heavily on academic theory and not enough on practical advice. Rather, it was felt there was a need to support strategic leadership development with a greater focus on the importance of experiential learning.

Funding and time were regularly referenced to me as being the biggest barriers for teachers and practitioners accessing professional learning. Teachers and practitioners reported that they were regularly expected to undertake this in their own time – something that was true for both class teachers and members of school leadership teams. It was pointed out to me that funding and resources were needed to allow classroom cover (not provided by the headteacher) and increased non-contact time to facilitate teachers and leadership teams attendance at professional learning during the working day.

"Teachers are totally overwhelmed, there isn't enough time in the working week do what is required of a teacher in Scotland. More non-contact time is needed…"

(Teacher/Practitioner, Primary School)

Others also told me there was currently too much focus on leadership, not enough curriculum and subject-specific development opportunities, and too little focus on effective learning and teaching practices. It was noted that there were gaps by subject area, sector and role, with the following specific issues regularly mentioned:

  • a need for professional learning opportunities to be equally available to all educational sectors, with ELC flagged as an area particularly overlooked in the current provision;
  • a need for more Gaelic and minority ethnic teachers to be recruited and more relevant professional learning targeted at these professionals;
  • a need for more recognition, training and professional learning to be available for support staff; and
  • a lack of dedicated professional learning or provision which recognises the unique circumstances of learning and teaching in denominational schools.

A number of respondents with whom I engaged raised concern about a lack of sufficient professional learning in respect of race equality and anti-racist practice in education. I note that Education Scotland and the Scottish Government are taking steps to increase and improve this provision, for example with the recently launched Racial Literacy Programme. I would encourage that the outcomes of this and ongoing work are adopted and made available as soon as possible.

"There is some CPD available at a national level for practitioners wishing to improve their leadership skills with a view to applying for promotion… However – there is barely any nationally or locally available CPD aimed at supporting teachers to improve their classroom practice. Teaching is a craft as well as a profession – we should be regularly reviewing our practice, considering research and discussing how our pedagogy could improve. CPD on this is simply not available to most teachers in Scotland."

(Teacher/Practitioner, Secondary School)

Many respondents pointed out to me that there was little guidance, too few incentives or sufficient professional learning available to help them change roles or progress their career. This was particularly apparent in the opportunities afforded to teachers from minority ethnic backgrounds, despite the recommendations in Professor Rowena Arshad's report, Teaching in a Diverse Scotland: Increasing and Retaining Minority Ethnic Teachers in Scotland's Schools, published in 2018[40].

Related to this there is a need to find ways of better incentivising the professional learning of teachers and other practitioners. Some of the confusion reported to me lies in Education Scotland and the GTCS operating different systems of validating, accrediting and recognising professional learning programmes and achievements. I agree that simplifying and making these arrangements more consistent would help to reduce confusion in this important area.

In the ELC sector, some respondents indicated that there were difficulties in finding good support and opportunities for professional learning. These included difficulties in attending due to staffing/resourcing issues and the need to meet staff/children ratios in centres. This was particularly an issue for those working in the Private, Voluntary or Independent (PVI) sector.

There were also calls for more nationally-recognised dedicated professional learning and leadership programmes to be developed and provided for ELC practitioners, as well as greater collaborative working and sharing of effective pedagogy and practice between nursery staff and primary one to provide more effective transitions.

"The levels of staffing within Local Authority nurseries right now is not conducive to providing high quality provision nor allowing sufficient development of staff skills. There is disparity between early learning settings surrounding job roles, in particular the role of the Head Teacher varies wildly."

(Teacher, Early Years Practitioner)

An education agency with a broad remit provides the opportunity to review the breadth of the national professional learning offer ensuring all practitioners can access high quality support to meet their needs.

In terms of moving forward, it was suggested that such an agency needs to work more collaboratively with local authorities and other stakeholders, for example universities, to develop and deliver leadership and professional learning. Several respondents highlighted that peer-to-peer learning and networking, both within a local authority, between areas, and between sectors was a highly effective and impactful approach. A few also suggested that more use could be made of mentorships in schools to support recently qualified teachers and those wishing to learn new/leadership areas.

"There should be more opportunities for collaborative support across authorities, which is more possible than ever since the move to remote learning. We have so much to learn from different authorities. But this needs to have leadership; it can't just be left to teachers to work it out among ourselves."

(Teacher/Practitioner, Secondary School)

In discussing the wider support landscape, it was clear in my engagements and through the public consultation returns that there were mixed views on the effectiveness with which Education Scotland and the RICs carried out their support and improvement functions.

Regional Improvement Collaboratives (RICs)

The Scottish Government's report Education Governance – Next Steps in June 2017[41] set out the vision of an education system centred around children and young people, based on the principle of subsidiarity, i.e. that, where possible, functions, actions and decisions should be taken at the level closest to those who are most affected by them.

A joint steering group comprising Scottish Government, local government (including COSLA, SOLACE and ADES) and Education Scotland was set up to develop proposals for the creation of RICs. The aim of RICs is to provide support for improvement for headteachers, teachers and practitioners through teams of professionals drawn largely from local authorities and schools. The six RICs in Scottish education became operational in January 2018 although some local authorities were formally collaborating before this date.

A RIC Strategic Group (comprising Scottish Government, COSLA, Education Scotland and designated leads for each RIC) acts as a steering group for the RICs. The role of RICs is ultimately overseen by Scottish Ministers and COSLA Leaders as part of their Joint Agreement on Education Reform[42].

From the outset it was made clear that the establishment of RICs was not about creating new formal bodies, but was about developing different ways of working, bringing together capacity from across an area and beyond, to add value through collective efforts.

A review was commissioned jointly by Scottish Government and COSLA in early 2020 to secure an independent analysis of the development and early impact of the RICs. Owing to the Covid pandemic, work did not start until May 2021, completing in October 2021. The report, Review of the Regional Improvement Collaboratives, by Research Scotland, was published in December 2021[43].

In spite of emphasising the relative recency of RICs being established, the review identified a number of positive contributions that they have had on supporting change and improvement. These included the high level of confidence in RIC structures and governance arrangements among both regional and national stakeholders; the extent to which RICs created a space where people could come together to collaborate and share ideas, adding value to, rather than duplicating the role of local authorities; and the positive difference made to how local authorities worked together through the RICs.

In my wide-ranging discussions the relatively positive assessment of impact set out in the Research Scotland report was at times challenged. These challenges were often highlighted by practitioners who felt that the work of the RICs had yet to impact in any meaningful way in supporting them.

"Regional Improvement Collaboratives are not visible at the school or classroom level (though some feedback suggests that the Northern Alliance has been more visible and added value). For many, it is not clear what added value they offer the life and work of schools. It may be that their evolution has been hampered by the Covid period but it can appear that they inhabit an uncertain place between Education Scotland and local authority roles which further adds to the confusion about their purpose, activity and contribution."

(Trade Union/Professional Association)

The Research Scotland report does however also make reference to a number of issues that still need to be addressed to support and enhance change and improvement. These include the requirement to:

  • review whether the expertise within the RIC and Education Scotland regional improvement teams could be joined up more effectively and used to better effect;
  • raise awareness and extend the visibility of the RICs and make sure that people at all levels in the education system, particularly class teachers and support staff, understand the role of the RICs; and
  • see more networking opportunities on themes such as subject specific support for secondary schools, supporting children and young people with additional support needs, and Gaelic Medium Education (GME).

Overall, I have formed a view that the effectiveness of the partnerships between RICs and Education Scotland Regional Improvement Team is mixed. Where relationships worked most positively and effectively, as identified in the report Progress and Challenge: Reflections on the Development of the West Partnership 2018-2020 (Feb 2021)[44], was where Education Scotland personnel worked closely at the local level to provide specialist advice, support and resources.

The contribution by Education Scotland's Regional Improvement Teams to regional collaboration was perceived as largely positive. This was particularly the view of those that had worked most closely with Education Scotland personnel on the ground. When Education Scotland personnel worked closely with workstreams or groups to provide specialist advice, support and resources this collaboration was at its strongest. However, concerns were expressed to me that the composition of the Education Scotland teams could be inflexible and did not always reflect local needs and priorities.

The success and value of locality-based work was further highlighted in the report, External Evaluation of Education Scotland's Locality Work[45], commissioned by Education Scotland from JRS: The Research Consortium, to evaluate the organisation's locality support for the education system during the Covid-19 pandemic. This evaluation work was carried out over April to August 2021.

The report contained case studies from all six RICs which were carried out remotely. They reflected the three levels of locality support provided by the agency, namely: support for Early Learning Centres and Schools; support at local authority level; and support at RIC level. While my public consultation and engagement meetings indicated some criticism at the lack of engagement and support by Education Scotland during the pandemic, it was clear from the JRS research that feedback from those involved was much more positive. The flexible and collaborative approach adopted by Education Scotland, which featured across the case studies, was widely valued. Education Scotland's locality work was said to have developed and strengthened their relationships with local authorities which may enable more new joint initiatives to happen in future.

Given the value placed on Education Scotland's locality work, concerns were raised by those taking part in the JRS exercise about what would happen to those Education Scotland staff who had played a key role in the locality work when they reverted to their original duties and responsibilities post-pandemic. A request from all involved in the case studies was that the relationships that had been built up had to be protected and nurtured, and that the momentum of the locality work should continue in some form.

This led to a key recommendation in the report that Education Scotland should consider:

'whether the work of Regional Improvement Teams can accommodate (in the longer-term) the kind of responsive, collaborative, partnership-based work with local authorities that draws down expertise and experience from across the organisation, and that has been a hallmark of the locality work over 2020/21.'

Local Government perspectives

Feedback to me from local government clearly stressed the distinction between the ongoing development of the RICs in general terms, which takes account of the joint Scottish Government/COSLA commitment to the RICs and the support provided to the RICs by Education Scotland. It is the latter point which comes into consideration in the review of the role and functions of that national agency. The views offered to me on the current support from Education Scotland to RICs are set out below.

  • Overall, there are mixed views on the value of the support from Education Scotland Regional Teams to RICs.
  • In many cases, Educational Scotland Regional Teams act as valued sounding boards and it is felt the joint working was driving improvement, with the access to additional support provided by Education Scotland welcomed.
  • In other areas, there is a degree of tension with a lack of clarity around the role of Education Scotland engaging as part of the RICs, but also having a responsibility for authorising activities.
  • There are concerns in some areas that Education Scotland's role in scrutiny and providing policy advice to the Scottish Government blended into the Education Scotland's Regional Teams' work in supporting the RICs.
  • More broadly, there are concerns that the offer from Education Scotland to the RICs can be too uniform, with a perceived 'one-size fits all' approach not always being suitably responsive to the priorities identified by RICs.

There is undoubtedly a great deal of support for the work Education Scotland undertakes at a local level and that this locality-based support needs to be strengthened in order that practitioners have more consistent opportunities to have their support needs met. Where current relationships are strong and Education Scotland staff are collaborating closely with local government colleagues then the impact on practice and learner outcomes is greatly enhanced.

A strong and consistent message that emerged from engagements and discussions with me was a desire to see the principle of subsidiarity be enacted in practice. Many practitioners and PSAG members in particular mentioned the need to ensure that there was sufficient resource in place, including time and staff, to allow them to plan and collaborate effectively if functions, actions and decisions were to be taken at the level closest to children and young people. It was also felt that genuine improvement in outcomes for all learners was predicated on high quality learning and teaching that focused on supporting the needs of all children and young people and those practitioners supporting learning.

Together with local government officials, practitioners stressed the principle that support for improvement provided by Education Scotland should build on the best practice to date and crucially should lead to an extension of the approach that is place-based, and as much as possible, locally responsive to need.

It was emphasised that any support co-created by Education Scotland with the RICs should be tailored and bespoke to the local needs. It was felt that there needed to be more support that better reflected the diversity of Scotland's communities. It was also pointed out that the reform of Education Scotland's functions was an opportunity to clarify the perception held by some local government officials that Education Scotland's Regional Teams performed a dual role, i.e. that of support and scrutiny of the work at regional level.

On the critical area of funding for RICs, it was pointed out that the current bid-fund approach and annual distribution have created a challenging approach to sustainable delivery. Maximising the funding available to RICs, it was suggested, would ensure that support for regional improvement was locally responsive. It was also suggested that a longer-term funding commitment would allow RICs to take a more strategic approach, focusing on improvement over time, increasing ambition and enabling staff resources to be managed more effectively. I feel this is important and issues in respect of the funding cycle require to be addressed if RICs are to be a long-term feature of the education landscape.

An important constraint related to maximising the potential of the RICs, and the concept of applying a more regional and localised approach to support and improvement in Scottish education, was the ongoing tensions that exist between locally and nationally identified priorities for regional collaboration. It was suggested putting in place a co‑sponsorship relationship for Education Scotland, similar to that in place between the Scottish Government and COSLA for Public Health Scotland, would offer an effective solution. I am attracted to the co‑sponsorship model that exists for Public Health Scotland and suggest that consideration is given to putting a similar relationship in place between COSLA and the proposed national agency for Scottish education. I feel that this would help to ensure consistency of commitment to regional collaboration and the principle of subsidiarity while promoting a shared understanding and use of the overall support available at national, regional and local levels.


Since taking up post in 2017, the Chief Executive of Education Scotland, supported by her Strategic Directors, has made significant positive changes to how the agency operates. This has included an increased focus on working collaboratively with local authorities and RICs through the provision of regional and local support. From the feedback I have received, it is this direct support and engagement that teachers and practitioners clearly value most as they navigate through the challenging and changing education landscape within which they work.

Although there was some criticism levelled at the variability in quality and access to such support from the RICs and Education Scotland, the examples of strong collaboration and impact being achieved and referenced elsewhere in this report, illustrate the potential benefits of this model of support based around regional collaboration if it is extended and supported more widely.

It is my view that this focus on providing high quality, responsive support that meets the needs of teachers and practitioners, provided through the combined efforts of a national agency working in collaboration with local authorities is essential. Effective delivery of this key function will allow for teachers and practitioners to gain the support they require which in turn will improve outcomes for all learners. The provision of such formal support needs to recognise and complement those areas of informal support, such as local and subject networks and national networks such as the Building Our Curriculum Self Help (BOCSH) group and national subject associations, which have provided much-valued assistance to many leaders and practitioners over many years and particularly over the period of the Covid pandemic.

A consistent theme emerging from my engagements has been what was regularly referred to as the 'disconnect' between policy and practice. In particular, and as noted in the OECD report, this was most notable in the context of curriculum and assessment. From the discussions I have had on this, it has become clear that the issue is not only one of who owns the curriculum. It is also one of "what is the curriculum and how is it created?", "what is it for?" and "what is its relationship to what we value and assess?" The wide variety of interpretations and understandings given to me in answer to these questions demonstrates one of the key reasons why leaders and practitioners often feel confusion and lack of coherence in the current system. It is an important area that needs to be tackled as part of educational reform. My following proposal is designed to do that.

The process of advising the Scottish Government on curriculum and assessment policy needs to take place much closer to school leaders, teachers, and practitioners than it does just now. Ultimately, it is Scottish Government and Ministers who are responsible for all aspects of education policy. However, how those policies are arrived at and what they should contain are felt by many in the system to be something that is closed off to them, lying almost exclusively in the domain of civil servants, many of whom have little or no direct experience of education.

It is very apparent from my engagements over recent months that many teachers, practitioners and stakeholders have constructive, innovative and pragmatic ideas of what should be included in education policies, particularly on curriculum, assessment, learning and teaching. Creating the opportunity for wide engagement in policy drafting and formulation would access those ideas, improve understanding of how policy can translate into practice and support a culture of trust and genuine engagement. Where professional learning can be more closely related to those policies through high quality, localised support, teachers and practitioners can have increased clarity and confidence of what is expected of them, with the likelihood of increased equity for all learners.

It is my view that creating a new curriculum and assessment agency can only offer some of what I have set out above. What is needed is a single agency that has a wider remit; one that brings policy and practice much closer together to ensure better outcomes for all learners. Bringing curriculum, assessment, learning and teaching, together with professional learning for support and improvement, within the remit of a single national agency has the potential to bring greater coherence between policy and practice and to secure a much stronger sense of collective ownership of policy. It can help to establish a common language and common understanding of expectations. The inclusion of the SCQF Partnership in the proposed agency, referred to in section 11, will further enhance this. It can also ensure a national offer to support policy implementation where that is required. If it is allied to readily accessible, responsive high quality local professional learning, it will support and enhance the quality of learning and teaching provided by teachers and practitioners and, ultimately, improve outcomes for all learners.

Recommendation 6: There should be a national agency for Scottish education. This should be an executive agency of the Scottish Government comprising the current support and improvement functions of Education Scotland, SQA's Accreditation/Regulation Directorate, the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) Partnership and elements of Scottish Government's Curriculum, Qualifications and Gaelic Division.

Recommendation 7: The proposed agency for Scottish education should take on board SQA's current accrediting and regulating functions. It will be important that robust safeguards are put in place to ensure that regulation of qualifications remains at arm's length from Scottish Ministers and the integrity of the regulatory role within the proposed agency is secure.

Recommendation 8: The main focus of the proposed national agency for Scottish education should be to provide responsive, bespoke support and professional learning at regional and local levels. In addition the agency should advise the Scottish Government on curriculum and assessment policy. While the proposed agency should also provide a national offer in respect of leadership and in areas to support policy implementation, this should be done through ensuring significant resource is made available to respond to the varied needs of all learners, teachers and practitioners at local and regional levels.

Recommendation 9: In line with best practice in the governance of public bodies, the agency should adopt a participative approach to governance in all of its work. The board and its chair should reflect the range of stakeholders, including parents/carers and young people. In order to secure wide ownership of its strategic advice it should also utilise digital connectivity to achieve open and transparent engagement with all stakeholders, most notably all learners, teachers and practitioners and local government.

Recommendation 10: Given the Community Learning and Development (CLD) Standards Council[46] has become successfully embedded within Education Scotland in its current form and feedback from CLD practitioners has been positive about its work, the Council should remain part of the proposed national agency for Scottish education.

Recommendation 11: With the increased focus of the proposed agency on providing support for improvement at local and regional levels, the Registrar of Independent Schools, with their national remit, should return to the Learning Directorate in the Scottish Government. With this change the Registrar of Independent Schools will be better placed to work more closely with the national professional body, General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS), with the requirement now in place that all teachers in independent schools are registered and regulated by them.

Recommendation 12: The proposed national agency for Scottish education should create and sustain a forum for ongoing and proactive discussion about curriculum, assessment, learning and teaching, professional learning and leadership in Scotland. It should gather views from national bodies, existing think tanks, research and practices, including in other jurisdictions, in order to develop and enhance key policies.



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