How to improve Scottish schools – six main problems and their solutions

Here is the evidence I submitted to the Commission on School Reform (deadline extended to June 29th for submissions).
I welcomed its fresh overview of educational policy making and its aim to place Scotland within a developing international context, looking into the medium term.  I broadly concur with the approach of the original CforEx document in identifying four high level ‘capacities’ as the fundamental goal of school based education for all and have therefore restricted my comments to more immediate matters of concern in relation to secondary education (my area of expertise).   My comments take a view from ‘where we are now’ and identify six major obstacles to improvement.   They are based on the insights and experience gained in the rich and varied educational roles I have played, both inside and outside of schools (listed in the appendix).  I confine my comments to secondary education only.  Given that we have just mortgaged the next twenty to thirty years in order to build secondary schools designed on conventional lines and to work within current budget models, I make an assumption that the secondary school as we know it will continue at least into that medium term and this is the timescale within which my ‘possible solutions’ are suggested.
Here are the six problems:

 Six major problems facing Scottish secondary education:

1.  uneven quality of the 32 local authorities

2.  20% of young people lost to education

3.  invalid and unreliable accountability systems

4.  school conservatism

5.  uneven teacher capacities and skills

6.  the dominance of the examination system 


Problem 1:  The uneven quality of the current 32 education authorities:   

Local authorities have multiple responsibilities, their Chief Executives have varying levels of interest in schools, they provide very varied levels of resourcing and their officers vary greatly in their professional insight, credibility and capacity to provide effective educational leadership.     Central service departments within local authorities (HR, IT, Finance) vary greatly in the quality of service provided to schools.   In my experience, this can either support or cause problems in relation to many areas of school life – for example, dealing with incompetent staff or keeping accurate financial records.  Local government officers invariably see their most important accountabilities as to their superiors (and ultimately the elected members).   A great deal of time is wasted / energy spent in schools servicing the central bureaucracy.  There is almost no internal accountability, allowing schools to complain about the negative impact of systems which may make perfect sense to those in head office but which take school staff away from their most important role in working with their pupils.  The public muzzle which prevents officers sharing concerns with the public means that the only route to improvement currently is through a central line manager (e.g. Director of Children’s Services).  He or she may themselves have to play political games with the Finance Director or HR Director and may be unwilling or unable to persuade senior colleagues that they should be taking an interest in the way in which their systems impact negatively on school capacity.  Those of us who work in schools always see our first responsibility and accountability as being towards our pupils and parents, but our formal accountability is to ‘head office’.  This can result in conflicts of priorities and use of time, which inevitably favour the bureaucracy.

Possible Solutions:

A new governance model which produces a more even quality of educational management and support and better direct accountabilty is required.     This would involve a balance of strategic and local reporting and management:

  1. an unitary education board (therefore focussed on education above all) covering the catchment areas of around 40-50 secondary schools (the right size to provide a sound professional base for sharing practice, staff management and development, strategic policy oversight  and long term budgetary planning, evening out local variations, tackling social inequality and ensuring a degree of fair uniformity of resourcing);
  2. these boards should have democratic accountability (direct election and/or councillor/msp representation) and fit with other public body boundaries where possible (e.g health board areas);
  3. professional educational leadership would be dedicated to education and not to the internal politics of a particular local authority;
  4. direct local accountability for each school would work through Parent / Student / Staff joint boards, similar to ‘works councils’.

Problem 2:  The 20% of young people in Scotland cited by the OECD report (and many others) as ‘losing out’ as they increasingly turn away from education: 

Curriculum for Excellence offers nothing new for this group, who are still likely to be, in the main, those who have the poorest academic record as judged by the examination system.  The deteriorating job situation and reduced College funding model provide further immediate challenges.  The 16+ ‘learning choices’ initiative builds on previous attempts to try to guarantee a better pathway, but, given the centrality of this problem, it is again disappointing that the ‘senior phase’ reforms currently underway yet again (as with Higher Still) focus heavily on ensuring the best pathways to Higher: this is ironic, given that currently the clearest and best supported progression pathway is already the one that goes through Higher to University, whereas those leaving school with Level 3 or Level 4 awards face a confused map of ill-understood choices and progression options.  A clearer plan is required for those who will leave school as soon as they can and prefer practical / applied / context-specific learning.  We have some good examples in isolated cases of improved provision, but this is dependent on accidental local circumstances which may change.  There is no national policy solution.  The last time we debated this issue seriously as a nation was after the Howie report, 20 years ago.  Curriculum for Excellence has, astonishingly, generated no civic engagement with this issue, given its central importance for our civic and economic future.

Possible solutions:

  1. In part this is a curricular problem within schools – see the solutions offered to Problem 6:  Curriculum for Excellence may help to rub the sharper edges off the examination mincer (as many of our teachers do now through the quality of the relationships they develop with young people).  That may reduce the current S2/3 alienation from formal learning.  However the three suggestions below (2-4) would do much to enforce a clear message across the system that the children who leave at 16[1] are every bit as important as those who want to stay at school and progress towards Highers.  This clear message would make itself felt further down the school, where different types of progression would be seen as having equal value.
  2. Great steps forward could result if relevant authorities (local authorities, Colleges, training providers, Skills Scotland, employers, new education boards etc.) were required by law to plan jointly for all those youngsters in their area – individually not just in general terms.  Some of the work undertaken through the MCMC initiative (such as tracking individual youngsters, ensuring mentoring across the transition from school into a positive destination, bringing providers together to plan jointly, identifying gaps in provision and working with the voluntary sector) provide a basis for this kind of practice and suggest a way forward.
  3. On its own, local planning is not sufficient.  A clear national map of pathways (into employment, training, FE and HE) is required to generate effective joint planning and to provide a scaffold for continuing progression, from age 16 up to age 25.  Options can be simplified within a common structure (as for example in Norway) so that parents, teachers and young people understand how to progress from school to a job in 2015 (as opposed to the old well understood industrial/mining progression routes which many Scottish communities had lost by 1985.[2])
  4. Politicians, civic leaders and employers should unite to ensure ‘no child left behind’.  Effective national leadership of such a campaign, feeding into good local planning within a clear progression system, could mobilise support from all sections of society.

Problem 3:   Invalid accountability systems produce perverse incentives and inaccurate judgements on the quality of schools and their work:

The Inspectorate assessment model drives all other accountability systems and enforces this authority through its formal and informal power, not through its intellectual validity.  Its increasing obsession with ‘judgement’, categorising schools into one of six ‘levels’ of performance, has done a great disservice to civic debate by reducing the complexity of individual school communities to a simplistic overview.  The following invalid assumptions underpin the model:

  • That it is possible to make comparative judgements of pinpoint accuracy in relation to examination results, based on proxy indicators of similarity which have a very low confidence level (e.g. a free school meals uptake of 20% says nothing about the social composition of the remaining 80% of the school population which can vary widely);
  • That inputs have no effect on outputs – no reliable attempt is made to assess the impact of any aspect of ‘input’ e.g. staffing levels or staffing continuity.
  • That the professional staff of the school are alone responsible for the quality of the service –  no reliable attempt is made to assess the impact of EA or national policies (sometimes confused and disempowering), levels of parental engagement and support or the input of other key partners.  The dominant conceptual model underpinning this approach is that education is a ‘service’, delivered to ‘consumers’.  In fact, education is a co-constructed activity, involving many partners.

This invalid accountability model, based on an inaccurate accountability/responsibility map, masks the underlying issues and problems in Scottish education since it wrongly analyses responsibility and therefore wrongly assesses accountability.  It cannot generate an accurate map for improvement.  Some of those who are responsible for factors leading to good or poor performance are unaware of and unaccountable for their role.  This hinders good decision making.  It values what we can measure rather than measuring what we value.  ( )

Possible solutions:

  1. Recalibrate the accountability model, giving due attention to factors such as poor and confused policy development, uneven levels of support leading to staffing discontinuities etc.   An inevitable consequence is that judgements will be much less ‘certain’;
  2. Focus on the experience of the young people, giving them more of a say in public accountability (their judgements are usually very sound);
  3. Focus more on the much greater differences within schools (professional accountability – based around what individual teachers are doing) rather than what research shows are the much narrower differences between schools (market accountability – based around the ‘parent choice’ model of ensuring quality);
  4. Abandon the current Inspectorate and create a new Ofsced[3], drawing on the best practitioners, parental and student insight and using higher quality expertise in measurement from the University sector to draft new expectations and standards based on a more valid and reliable measure of performance.

Problem 4:   Schools are very conservative in character – they don’t always seem to make best use of technology (e.g. mobile phones) – the pressure of rapid social, technological and economic change is likely to increase rather than decrease in coming years.

Schools and teachers do find it hard to engage with fast moving changes in social patterns and technology, particularly information technology.  Examination pressures often persuade teachers to take a more controlling approach to content, using their experience of how to meet syllabus requirements of which students may be unaware to impose the structure and sequencing of lessons and courses, thus disempowering students.  Years of predictable teaching experience can reduce creative energy and impulses.

Possible solutions:

  1. This is partly to do with the spaces created for learning.  Curriculum for Excellence has already encouraged schools to create more open-ended, enquiry-based, real context-centred spaces for learning and there is some evidence of this having an impact.  In such spaces, a wider range of skills can be displayed and developed, while the content can be more responsive to changes in the social or technological environment.  The examination curriculum sits alongside this.  There should be room for both approaches, but how this goes forward will in part depend on the other ‘problems’ identified here.  Freeing up creative approaches may require less immediate accountability, the freedom to make some mistakes and the freedom to value (for some students on some occasions) engaged learning more than examination success.
  2. Another factor is the creativity of teachers.  Some retain this throughout their career, others become more set in their ways.  New ways of energising and developing staff have emerged from the more active focus on cpd that resulted from the 2001 agreement.  These provide a sound basis for further development (see #5 below).
  3. It is not a bad thing that schools have a degree of permanence about them – in a fast changing world, a secure and predictable community provides a strong base.  Teachers do know a lot of things that are worth knowing.  We should not lose this.  There is a balance to be struck.


Problem 5:  Teachers vary greatly in their capacity, motivation and professional skill:

This problem does not relate to specific teachers but to all teachers.    The same teacher can vary in each of these areas across their career, with changing family circumstances etc.  Most have times in the year, or times in their career, when they are less enthusiastic.  Sometimes this can develop into a self-reinforcing spiral of declining interest and quality of practice.

Possible solutions:

  1. The Donaldson report outlined some of our current understanding of quality in professional development.  This involves recruiting the right people and developing the right skills in them at the start of their career; providing varied and challenging professional development opportunities which link research to practice, opportunities which are team-based as well as individual and which empower by engagement.
  2. Develop the profession’s professional knowledge – unlike professions such as medicine, law or architecture, where the ‘subject knowledge and methodology’ aligns with the ‘professional knowledge and methodology’, teachers from different disciplinary backgrounds have to learn a new ‘professional methodology’.  Most importantly this applies to research methods and their use (and potential abuse) of evidence in evaluating their work.  Issue s of validity and reliability in evaluation are central to the practice of teaching and encouraging learning.  More work is needed on this in pre-professional programmes and in common understanding of what a teacher is/does.  Every doctor is a scientist.   Every teacher needs to be develop the skills and conceptual repertoire of an educational researcher and, as important, to consider this to be an important intellectual foundation for their professional practice.
  3. Accountability for the quality of a teacher’s cpd should be sharpened.
  4. The planning period for CPD should be a ‘rolling five year model’ – the most common current model of year to year planning does not encourage teachers to develop a curriculum for their own development.
  5. A wide range of additional stimulating opportunities should be structured into employment contracts.  For example, teachers could be required to undertake one of the following once every ten years, as part of their medium terms educational plan:
  • Sabbatical opportunities[4] on something like the Australian model e.g. teachers can ‘pay in’, tax free, to an account from their salary (up to 20% a year) which they can cash in to take a year out for further study or study tour or work experience or an equally challenging sabbatical opportunity;
  • Teacher exchange – spend a year in another school (made easier if the larger area boards mentioned above where responsible for delivering school education);
  • Work placement / subject refresher summer school (35 hours in each case to be taken outwith the school year);
  • Shared leadership responsibility for the professional development opportunities within school.
  • 7.   Well developed leadership/management pathways, building on the SQH experience but spreading aspects of it into earlier career development – early leadership, middle leadership, whole school leadership etc.
  • 8.       Experiment in some schools with different leadership structures – rotating leadership / more collegial leadership etc. as a pathbreaker for reforming the fixed hierarchical structures of leadership and accountability.
  • 9.       Revised arrangements for assessing competence which tie into the five year reaccreditation model already under discussion in the GTCS.

Problem 6:  The examination system still dominates the secondary school curriculum and gives a strong underlying message that success at Higher is the most important and valuable outcome of schooling.  It needs to be balanced by an equally strong national message that every young person is equally valued.

Although I have listed this last, it contributes to all the other problems and so could be seen as the most important.

Since the development of a school system purporting to serve the needs of all children, a continual problem has been that the progression to Higher, a progression most children cannot achieve, has the highest status.  When comprehensive education was introduced, there was no attempt to address this problem.  Scotland consequently ended up with comprehensive schools which saw their first mission as being to protect the route to Higher and this has been reinforced by a rigid accountability system based around examination results in which the ‘gold standard’ was Credit Level (prep for Higher next year) or Higher attainment.  This systemic preference for Higher candidates can be highly demotivating for some children, either because they develop an image of themselves as ‘not good at x or y’ or because they increasingly feel neutral or resentful towards a system that does not recognise what they are good at but insists on ranking them on a measure they are not good at.  From an early stage of secondary school (somewhere around the middle of S1 to the middle of S2), young people realise where this is going.  They may tolerate and enjoy school nonetheless, because o f the quality of their relationships with, and the enthusiasm of, their teachers or because they value the friendship and community life of the school or because there is a particular aspect, such as sport or music, which they greatly enjoy.  There is no comparable high value national equivalent for those not aspiring to Higher, saying clearly to all our young people: ‘yes we value you equally highly and here is what you can aspire to.’

The Higher has an important role and is well understood and so should be retained.  Relative to these problems, the problems which the over-dominance of Higher poses for the learning of academically able children (rigidity of syllabus, ‘out of date’ character of some content, competitive individualist approaches to learning, examination based assessment) are less significant.  Nonetheless, these can constrain the learning of even the most academically able.  The educational purpose of Higher seems to be subservient to its purpose in helping to select those best fitted to progress into particular academic pathways – some experiment with the character of Higher might rebalance these two different but important functions.

Possible solutions:

  1. In the four capacities of Curriculum for Excellence, we already have established a broader range of valuable outcomes of schooling to which all youngsters can aspire.  It seems that nationally we are only prepared to value one of these.  I have argued in more detail elsewhere ( ) that we should build on the work already done on the P7 and S3 profile to establish a Scottish Graduation Certificate, reflecting development in relation to all four capacities and not ranking children on a linear scale but respecting individual stories.  This would not replace Higher (and its Level 5 ‘stepping stone’).  Higher, or a modified version, would continue to provide useful information about an individual’s academic learning potential and achievement, while developing important skills in the manipulation of concepts, ideas, theories, experiments, spaces and number).  Such a certificate, available to all learners at the point of leaving school, would, however, provide a strong counterweight to Higher in establishing a broader set of purposes for schooling than academic selection, and a motivating outcome to which all children could aspire.  Teachers, recognising its importance, would also be motivated to value all of the capacities in this way.
  2. The current subject – based Higher has a number of advantages in facilitating flexible choice etc.  Pilot schemes which aim to increase the range and flexibility of options, while retaining the academic standard, should be developed – for example, a ‘shell’ Higher which allowed individual investigations of academic quality (analogous to an Advanced Higher project /  dissertation) should be developed to allow teachers to build on the cross disciplinary approaches featured through earlier stage CforEx planning.  Schools should also have the option to develop group awards (a damp squib of the Higher Still initiative!!) of this type.

Appendix                               My professional experience in education

  • headteacher for almost 20 years in three secondary schools, working within five different local authorities, leading significant improvements and successful in introducing many positive changes, but along the way experiencing many of the practical problems and frustrations that prevent us ‘realising the vision’;
  • founder Director of the Centre for Educational Leadership at the University of Edinburgh – I have tutored and mentored many current headteachers;
  • author of two textbooks used on the Scottish Qualification for Headship [ ‘Dealing with Dilemmas’ and ‘School Leadership’ (joint author) ];
  • member of various education committees in curriculum, policy and staff development at national level;
  • occasional contributor to educational journals sharing ideas, challenging complacency and contributing to debate;
  • experience as a local authority officer, operating in the space between national policy and school delivery;;
  • strong track record as a successful teacher developer and teacher trainer (throughout my career I have received invitations to contribute to teacher development, from my role as the first teaching fellow at University of Stirling in the 80s to being sought out by the University of Edinburgh to tutor on SQH in 2011);
  • recognition by my peers in office bearing roles within the EIS, School Leaders Scotland, the Scottish Association of Teachers of History and by invitations to speak at many local and national events and conferences on curriculum, school leadership and educational policy;
  • experience as a successful teacher in a wide variety of settings;
  • VSO volunteer (teaching and curriculum development) in two developing countries;
  • Parent of four children educated in typical Scottish schools and chair of School Board of one such school;
  • Semi-retired tutor on SQH programme, continuing to take a passionate interest in Scottish education.

[1] Or, in a properly managed progression, before 16.

[2] Many parents/ teachers grew up amid vanishing certainties as local industries/apprenticeship in mining and factory work disappeared.  No clear map of how you get from school to work has been created.

[3] Office of Scottish Education

[4] Included in the 2001 agreement but never implemented.


One thought on “How to improve Scottish schools – six main problems and their solutions

  1. Pingback: Let’s make Scottish education fairer for all | Danny Murphy's Blog

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