The National Improvement Framework for Scottish Education

See also blog on national testing.

This is my abbreviated response to the Scottish Government’s consultation on the proposed National Framework for Scottish Education. Responses are welcome either here as comments or to my e.mail at


I wholeheartedly endorse the vision and commend the political commitment to realising it in practice. Setting out a clear vision and values for Scottish education is helpful. However, the document (and consequently the Framework) contains a number of conceptual confusions. Many of these conceptual confusions arise from the way in which the term ‘equality’ is used in the document, and in more general public discourse. As a result, the practical steps proposed are not well targeted. The Moray House School of Education, the EIS and others have made a number of valuable responses which contribute helpfully to the debate in terms of practice. As a result, I will limit this response to the foundational issue of conceptual clarity and one or two recommendations. I hope this response is helpful to you and would be happy to be involved in any further consultation / discussion on these matters.

The concept of equality:

  • different ‘equalities’: at times in the document, equality is used to mean equality of opportunity and at other times to mean equality of outcome. These are very different types of equality. Other aspects of educational equality are equality of value and equality of input. Each of these aspects is important and is explored briefly in turn below.
  • equality of opportunity: this is generally considered to be the weakest form of equality, if what it means is equality in the opportunities offered, even though different individuals will have different levels of capacity to take up the opportunities. Delivering even this weak form of equality would demand greater equality of input than is currently the case (see below).
  • equality of outcomes: if this very strong form of equality is the desired ambition, the government needs to be clear which of the many possible inequalities are to be ‘equalised’ – the categories of the ‘equalisation equation’ in which greater equality is to be measured: socio-economic (deciles, SIMD or occupational class), gender, ethnicity, rurality, in-care, age (on average, those who start school at a younger age have a very unequal experience of education and continue to learn and achieve less well through to age 18[1] ) etc. Another important aspect is the age at which ‘equality’ of outcome will be judged – in addition to the school stages at which it is proposed to conduct national assessments, a case can be made for stage appropriate assessments at 3 (much of the different at P1 can be predicted at age 3) and 25 (the latter would fit with the GIRFEC framework in maintaining public interest in the progress of all young people, and also takes account of the influence of postgraduate education, unfunded internships and other later inequality in educational opportunity).
  • equality of value: the society into which Scotland’s future citizens are growing values individuals very differently according to the skills they bring to the job market. In contrast, every public school in Scotland aims to value each child equally. However although teachers and schools strive to do this, the schooling system does not value children equally, particularly as selection effects influence the character of schooling through the examination system. What does ‘Higher’ say if not that everything else is ‘lower’? A universal graduation certificate, allowing for diversity in achievements but requiring a minimum ‘threshold’ level, could restore balance to the way the system values young people (see below).
  • equality of input[2]: the two most important sources of input to a child’s education are those of the parent and the schooling system, and great inequality in these inputs contributes hugely to inequality in outputs. (a) Parental inputs vary greatly and at all ages, for example: in the value they place on school education; in differential levels of support in learning to read; in the purchase of privileged access to private education or private tutoring; at later stages, where advantaged parents can find routes to success in the job market or use their social advantages to put a ‘glass floor’ beneath their children. Because the selective function of schooling, and consequently the examination system, is competitive, advantaged parents use every advantage to ensure that their children succeed in the competition (b) School inputs also vary greatly. At present, equality is measured (bizarrely) only by looking at the outputs. Important factors such as the range of additional support services or the amount of money provided for each pupil by different local authorities (including significant differentials in funding to support individual special or socio-economic needs) are not measured or accounted for in the ‘equalisation equation’. Public and political discourse on ‘equality’ needs to recognise the importance and scale of the different inputs made by parents and local authorities and the extent to which these influence the capacity of schools to ‘close the gap’.
  • equity[3]: equality should not mean ‘sameness’. We value diversity and freedom of choice. As young people near the end of their school career, they are exercising agency and choice in a variety of ways in their personal lives. This is also true in school education. Equality cannot and should not therefore be done to the students, but must be done with This is where the concept of ‘equity’ is important: the vision of the Framework is for equity, which is about fairness, not an equality of sameness. At present, the senior phase has become too individualised for those not aiming for Higher examinations, with the consequence that greater inequality may be embedded ‘by the back door’ as the selection effects of competitive examinations kick in. The original vision of Curriculum for Excellence outlined four ‘capacities’ of every educated citizen. Scotland should revisit that vision in the context of ‘education to age 18’ and identify a minimum threshold level of achievement in relation to the desirable outcomes of education, to which every young person should be entitled. These can be matched to the graduation certificate (see below) to provide a strong curricular map for the 15-18 stage, one which values fairly the differing achievements of young people rather than positioning them on a linear scale of examination results, in which some will inevitably be less well positioned than others.
  1. Some recommendations:
    • a Graduation Certificate for all[4]: the government therefore needs to be clear exactly which ‘equalities’ it intends to improve and how it will measure whether the desired improvement has taken place. It is helpful that health and wellbeing are to be included alongside literacy and numeracy. However the principle ‘measurement’ of educational success in our schooling system remains the SQA examinations. The use of ‘positive sustained destinations’ offers one element of a more balanced evaluation. However a genuinely equal valuation of all our young people would certificate the diverse range of achievements and talents which they ‘bring to the table’, not simply their academic progress. In 2007 the OECD report recommended that Scotland introduce a graduation certificate to mark each young person’ progress from full-time education. We should (a) ensure that all young people remain in education (whether in a training or workplace, school or college) to age 18; (b) pilot and then introduce a graduation certificate which would include the variety of ways in which different young people achieve and bring value to our communities (not simply their academic achievements – important as these are). Such a graduation certificate should initially be piloted in chosen locations before widespread introduction.
    • diagnostic individual character of testing[5]: I am in agreement with the idea of standardising testing across the country – at present we have this ‘de facto’ since so many authorities administer standardised tests. However much more care needs to be taken with the conduct of the tests, messages about their intention and communication of their results. At present, too much testing in schools results in judgement, with negative consequences for those whose test results are not seen as being ‘good enough’. The fundamental purpose of testing in education should be, as it is in health, diagnosis – a purpose in which a degree of norm-referencing plays an important part, particularly in relation to development. I therefore propose that, as is the practice in medical/health testing, results are confidential to the young person, his/her teacher(s) and his/her parent and are used only to support planning. Such confidentiality should apply within classrooms as well as more widely.
    • other purposes of testing: currently examination results are used for two further purposes and it seems that the Framework will also use standardised tests for these purposes: (a) to hold schools to account – where standardised testing has been used for this purpose in other systems, it has generally had negative effects of increasing inequality as the schools in the poorest areas tend to be labelled and judged more harshly leading to a negative spiral (b) to provide an overview of the system as a whole – this important function should be delivered through anonymous sampling of standardised results, as was done with the previous national survey.


[1] Murphy, D. (2014) Schooling Scotland (Argyll Press) p21

[2] See Murphy, D. et al (eds) (2015), Everyone’s Future (Institute of Education/Trentham Press)

[3] Ibid Chapters 5 and 11

[4] Murphy, D. (2014) p115ff

[5] Murphy (2104) pp61-63


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