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.

9. Towards a national agency for Scottish education

A common theme emerging from my work has been the perceived complexity of existing structures, role and functions within the 'middle ground' of Scottish education. It is to address what I consider to be genuine concerns that I am recommending there should be a single national agency, the focus of which includes support for learning and teaching and curriculum and assessment. In responding to the public consultation, many respondents assumed that a single curriculum and assessment body would simply be an amalgamation of the existing SQA and Education Scotland. This is not what is being recommended.

I was particularly struck by the strong pleas, notably from PSAG members, for decision making on these policies to be better informed by those closer to the lived experiences of those that work in education establishments and the learners they serve. Also, the need for high-quality professional learning that aligns closely with policies in these areas. Such coherence and a significant increase in the engagement of teachers, practitioners and other stakeholders in informing policy, will be of major benefit to all parties.

It will be important to clearly communicate the role and functions of this proposed agency and how it fits into the wider education system. Having a clear set of aims, a defined focus and an accepted role and remit will be key. A single agency that links policy with practice goes some way towards reducing the complications in an already complex education system, a point often mentioned during the consultation and engagement phase of this work.

"Current structures of governance and advice are already complex, with the danger of misunderstandings occurring among the teaching profession and other stakeholders. A risk relating to future reforms is further confusion about the revised roles and responsibilities of national agencies and providers of support. There will need to be an emphasis on collaboration and communication among these bodies to avoid conflicts of interest or blame."

(Teacher/Practitioner, Secondary School)

Countries around the world have different structures and governance arrangements in place covering curriculum, assessment and qualifications. These arrangements have often been arrived at as a result of changes made in government policy over a number of years and tend to reflect any changing values and beliefs underpinning its education system. This variation and lack of a single dominant pattern across countries is recognised in the SQA's own (as yet unpublished) research, A comparative study of organisational structures in high-performing jurisdictions, in which it looks at how inter-organisational structures in different high-performing jurisdictions compare in relation to curriculum, qualifications, assessment and regulation.

As was often noted, Scotland has a high number of national bodies with specific interests in components of the education system. Where comparable nations may have only one or two organisations, Scotland has many more with what are perceived to be overlapping roles and responsibilities. Students, parents and carers sometimes also perceive the current qualifications environment as being cluttered, with competing qualifications and organisations across multiple levels.

To recognise the ultimate responsibility of Scottish Ministers for education policy, it is my recommendation that the proposed national agency for Scottish education should be an executive agency of the Scottish Government.

As well as having an important role in developing and implementing policy I also envisage that the proposed agency will develop as an important source of advice and support for teachers and practitioners as they implement policy. To do so, one of its main roles will be to provide localised, responsive support and high-quality professional learning on curriculum, assessment, learning and teaching from early years to the end of the Senior Phase. It will advise Minsters on policy and strategy in those areas.

As part of its internal structures, it will take on the role currently carried out by SQA's Advisory Council, potentially modelled on the current Curriculum and Assessment Board. The proposed agency will provide well-informed advice on the needs and views of stakeholders, especially those of learners, teachers and practitioners, on curriculum, assessment, learning and teaching. Through close working with the proposed Qualifications Scotland, the proposed agency will be well placed to advise and inform the qualifications and assessment body on the design, development and delivery of qualifications.

An important responsibility of the proposed national agency for Scottish education will be to create and sustain a forum for ongoing and proactive discussion about curriculum, assessment, learning and teaching in Scotland. This forum should gather views from existing think tanks, research and practices, including in other jurisdictions, with a view to developing and enhancing key policies such as addressing social inequality, closing the poverty‑related attainment gap and improving outcomes for all learners. It should collate examples of creative and innovative practice in curriculum development, assessment and approaches to learning and teaching, as part of this process. The agency should also help ensure that all of Scotland's educators, learners and parents take full advantage of the opportunities offered by digital technology.

In advising Ministers on curriculum and assessment for all stages of the system, the proposed agency will be uniquely placed to ensure that the advice it offers is informed by the insights of leaders, practitioners, teachers and all learners as well as by research and international benchmarking. It is through the views gathered from this wide-ranging forum that the revised vision and policy related to CfE should be generated. The impact of any policy change on qualifications and assessment should then be taken forward by the proposed Qualifications Scotland which should encompass the responsibilities of the current Qualifications Development Directorate in SQA.

For this process to operate effectively it will be critical that there is close and ongoing cooperation and engagement between the proposed Qualifications Scotland and the proposed national agency and the Scottish Government.

This proactive approach will help ensure that Scottish education is able to anticipate and plan for the inevitable future changes required to curriculum and assessment. In my view this is an important function for the proposed agency as it will give confidence to learners, practitioners, other stakeholders and indeed politicians and the public that an ongoing and iterative process is in place that scans the horizon and avoids the need for disruptive, large-scale change to curriculum and ultimately qualifications, as has been the practice to date.

Placing SQA's current accreditation and regulation functions within the proposed agency offers benefits that are discussed elsewhere in this report. However, it will be important that robust safeguards are put in place in the proposed agency to ensure that regulation of qualifications remains at arm's length from Scottish Ministers which securely protects the integrity of its regulatory role.

Such an agency will provide clarity on curriculum and assessment responsibilities at a national level. This addresses some of the main concerns in the OECD report. By incorporating the majority of Education Scotland with the removal of the Inspectorate and SQA's Accreditation/Regulation functions (discussed in section 6), along with the SCQF Partnership (discussed in detail in section 11), and elements of the Scottish Government's Curriculum, Qualifications and Gaelic Division (discussed in section 7) the proposed national agency for Scottish education will provide coherence to curriculum, assessment, learning and teaching policy and strategy, support learner journeys and ensure clarity on where the specific responsibilities reside. The proposed agency is designed to streamline the landscape and better integrate decision making in respect of assessment, curriculum, learning and teaching, professional learning and leadership, and support to teachers and practitioners in these areas.

The proposed national agency for Scottish Education should be led by a chief executive and have a board which reflects its diverse range of stakeholders and a chair that can command the confidence of both the government and those the agency serves. To address the concerns raised with me it should, in all of its activities, reflect a model of participative governance which reflects the need for cultural change across the system. This should include meaningful and widespread engagement with teachers, practitioners, learners, school and local authority managers, parents/carers, business interests, trade unions, and other educational interests such as experts in the fields of curriculum, assessment, learning and teaching. In doing so, use should be made of digital connectivity to achieve open, transparent and widespread engagement which would help to generate greater awareness of the work of the agency and increase buy-in for its overall offer.

The proposed agency must operate on the basis of a close, positive and dynamic relationship with local authorities who have a statutory responsibility for education. This includes maintaining and where necessary enhancing the activities encapsulated in the Education Joint Agreement between COSLA, the Scottish Government and Education Scotland in respect of RICs. It will also be important that the agency works closely with colleges, training providers and industry.

As part of the proposed agency's approach to governance and as a means of ensuring a strong, representative and proactive basis for its curriculum, assessment, learning and teaching work, the agency should build on existing arrangements and set-up development groups (subject, curriculum area, thematic as required). They should be populated by a diverse group of leading practitioners and experts as appropriate, to maintain ongoing monitoring of curriculum and assessment, learning and teaching and undertake specific tasks to ensure that these are kept up-to-date. The work of such development groups will help to inform policy and direct the work of Qualifications Scotland on any adjustments that should be applied in terms of the design, development and delivery of qualifications.

In summary the main opportunities presented by the establishment of a national agency for Scottish education include a chance to:

  • improve the policy-making process by engaging a wide range of expertise and perspectives and in so doing create space to bring the curriculum and assessment system more up-to-date, reflecting the needs and diversity of learners in 21st century Scotland;
  • better involve skilled and experienced practitioners in the agency who understand the demands of teaching and assessment on the ground thus establishing a stronger sense of ownership of the strategic direction of curriculum, learning, teaching and assessment in Scotland;
  • respond with greater energy to the need to explore a changing curriculum and alternative assessment models, including competency-based models for assessing academic subjects, what one commentator described as "a future-proof 21st agile and empowering curriculum, using effective research-based pedagogy and innovative assessment approaches";
  • provide a mechanism which systematically reviews the suitability of Scotland's approach to curriculum, assessment and learning and teaching, critically taking into account the experience of teachers and practitioners and the latest research;
  • bring policy and practice in respect of curriculum, assessment, learning and teaching closer together thus ensuring greater cohesion between what is expected and what is provided;
  • declutter and streamline the 'middle ground' in Scotland's educational landscape;
  • consider the needs of the Climate Emergency Skills Action Plan[47] and support, where it is within remit, the growth of green jobs and the supply of green skills; and
  • attune more closely to the aims and objectives of the National Plan for Gaelic, individual Gaelic Language Plans[48] and the REAREP work on curriculum reform.



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