Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

School Education in Scotland: Research, Governance and Culture – Frank Lennon

School Education in Scotland: Research, Governance and Culture
Reflections in the light of 3 recent documents


Three documents have been published in the last 8 months which have the potential to make a significant difference to school education in Scotland:

  • Improving Schools in Scotland: An OECD Perspective (OECD 2015)
  • National Improvement Framework for Scottish Education Achieving Excellence and Equity (NIF 2016)
  • Delivering Excellence and Equity in Scottish Education A Delivery Plan for Scotland (DEESE 2016)

Leaving aside the obvious semantic issue that the respective titles of the latter two documents raise when the first refers to “achieving” excellence and equity and the second to “delivering” excellence and equity, it is worth reflecting on where we are in Scottish education in the light of their publication.

There is general agreement that the OECD report of 2015 is highly significant.  It is the second such report on Scottish education. In 2006, the then Scottish Executive asked the OECD to “…examine the performance of its school system” with a view to receiving advice about the adequacy of recent reforms. The report, ‘Reviews of National Policies for Education: Quality and Equity of Schooling in Scotland (OECD 2007)’, was published by the OECD in December 2007.

The 2015 OECD report is once again a policy review specifically of “…the direction of the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) and emerging impacts seen in quality and equity in Scottish schooling.” It focuses on the Broad General Education (BGE).  As its remit suggests, it provides little in the way of analysis largely because, as it regularly points out, hard evidence is simply not available. Indeed, in Chapter 5 the report says:

“There does not appear to be any large scale research or evaluation projects by either the universities or independent agencies with specific responsibility to provide advice to Education Scotland on what is working well in the years of the Broad General Education and what areas need to be addressed.” (OECD 2015 p151)

The absence of any such evidence on a policy that originated fully 14 years ago in the National Debate of 2002 and which was implemented over 6 years ago (from the start of the 2010-11 school session) is truly remarkable.  This explains why what the OECD report has to offer on CfE is predominantly a narrative[1] largely derived from Scottish Government sources and civil servants albeit supplemented by periodic and often insightful, observations and reflections. Rather helpfully, it does make some sharp observations on CfE.  For example, from Chapter 1 in the section headed ‘Curriculum Principles’ (p44), after finding that in CfE there are:

  • Four capacities, covering 12 attributes and 24 capabilities across the four – 40 in all;
  • Five levels, from early to senior, of which four are covered by Broad General Education;
  • Seven principles, six entitlements and ten aims;
  • Eight curriculum areas and three inter-disciplinary areas;
  • 1 820 Experiences and Outcomes statements (1 488 in the 8 curriculum areas and 332 in the 3 inter-disciplinary areas);
  • Four contexts for learning;
  • “Significant aspects” of learning;

it observes that
 “… the complexity of the layers and dimensions, when all are put together, raises its own questions about how comprehensible is the Curriculum for Excellence”.  (OECD 2015 p44)

Later in Chapter 3 (p94) the report summarises what it calls the recent “intense activity” in Scottish education including:

  • 16 Education Scotland CfE briefings published in 2012 and 2013;
  • the Tackling Bureaucracy Group’s interim report (2012) and final report (2013), follow-up guidelines and research (2014), and further follow-up report (2015);
  • extensive professional learning events organised throughout Scotland.
  • the establishment of the National Parents Forum (2011)
  • the Donaldson Report ‘Teaching Scotland’s Future’ (2011);
  • the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS)’s revised Professional Standards (2013);
  • the Wood Commission Report’s 39 recommendations (2014);
  • the establishment of the Scottish College for Educational Leadership (2014);
  • the Scottish Attainment Challenge (2015)
  • the National Improvement Framework for Scottish Education (2015)

To this list we must now add Delivering Excellence and Equity in Scottish Education (June 2016).

Although the report notes that the array of actions is impressive, there is nothing in the above “intense activity” about research.  Indeed, only one piece of significant research in Scotland into CfE is referenced in the entire report (by Sarah Minty and Mark Priestley[2]) and to date, only two research studies (both on the draft Experiences and Outcomes from 2008 and 2009) are listed on Education Scotland’s website under ‘Key Documents – Research’[3].  The OECD authors are surely right to ask about
 “…the strategic threads running through the many different programmes and policies so as to avoid a scattergun approach and to ensure that these many different actions are working efficiently and being effective” (OECD 2015 p77)

The alacrity of the Scottish Government’s response to the OECD report (published in December 2015) evident in the publication of the NIF (January 2016) and DEESE (published in June 2016) documents might be welcome but such “intense activity” might further concerns about “a scattergun approach”.

The OECD report was also right to question the adequacy of
“…the research and evaluation being conducted to provide an evidence base to inform strategic direction for the different actions” (OECD 2015 p77).

Their proposal that there should be a “research consortium” which would bring together
“…Scottish university research centres, Education Scotland as a research body Scottish Government research, representatives of research units in local government and in teacher unions, the learned societies (e.g. RSE (Royal Society of Edinburgh)) and possibly one or two invited international members” (OECD 2015 p104)

is greatly to be welcomed.  However, this proposed new remit for Education Scotland opens up the question of Education Scotland’s role.  An additional and new research responsibility for Education Scotland might be consistent with the call for more “boldness” in Chapter 3 (p100), but it sits uneasily with what could be argued, are ES’s existing but conflicting responsibilities for, on the one hand, preparing and issuing guidelines and resources to schools to implement CfE and on the other, ES’s responsibility to evaluate and monitor the effectiveness of schools in using the said guidelines and resources to do the actual implementation.  Far from being an example of a new “boldness” this might just as easily be seen as a reinforcement of the culture of compliance that is an inevitable consequence of such a dual role.

In spite of its lack of access to hard evidence, the OECD report makes insightful observations and useful recommendations.  This is especially true in Chapter 3 ‘Decision-making and Governance for the Curriculum for Excellence’ where the report calls for more leadership rather than management, more research and more clarity by “simplifying the simplification process” (p104-05).  However, in common with almost every document on Scottish education published in recent years the report fails to make any explicit observations on, far less give any consideration to, two areas that could be of crucial importance both to CfE and to efforts to deliver excellence and equity in Scottish education namely school governance and school culture.  By contrast, the Delivery Plan document just published, in spite of omitting any reference to school governance and school culture in what it calls the “…impressive track record of improvements and reforms which have been driven forward across education and children’s services in recent years” (DEESE 2016 p2), does go on to raise the prospect of real change here in the near future.  Firstly in the section headed ‘What we will do to deliver” (DEESE p4) it states that from the financial year 2017-18 (i.e. after the 2017 local authority elections):
“… the additional £100 million per annum that will be raised each year from our Council Tax reforms will be allocated directly to schools.” (DEESE p5)

This will be allocated based on the numbers of children in primary school and S1-3 in secondary school who meet the eligibility criteria for free school meals and will not be allocated via local authorities.  The precise mechanism for transferring such cash from central Government to individual school budgets (entirely under the control of local authorities) remains unclear, but the intention is clear enough: more control for individual schools.  For schools, the devil will be in the detail so we shall have to wait for that.  In a welcome, albeit indirect, acknowledgement of the OECD’s criticism about lack of research evidence in evaluating policy in Scottish education, schools will be provided with
“…a new framework of fully evidenced and proven educational interventions and strategies to improve attainment in December 2016” (DEESE p5)

Why we have to wait until December is not clear since precisely such a resource has been available from the Education Endowment Foundation for years and whose Chief Executive Sir Kevan Collins, recently provided an impressive overview of the latest research at a conference in London in February of this year. In any event, providing access to “fully evidenced” interventions is one thing – making them effective in schools is quite another.  Getting the right balance between providing schools with access to “proven educational interventions” on the one hand and requiring them to follow particular interventions on the other, will be crucial. This tension between centrally driven and mandated improvement strategies and increased local autonomy, needs to be handled very carefully and has recently surfaced in the appointment by Education Scotland, of Attainment Advisors to work alongside local authorities as part of the Scottish Attainment Challenge.  Quite apart from the bafflement of some Head Teachers and local authority personnel at what they see as the lack of credible ‘raising attainment’ expertise in some of these appointments, there is the question of quite how the Delivery Plan’s stated intention of extending the “reach and impact” of such Attainment Advisors under the control of a new “Chief Advisor” (DEESE p6) sits with the “clear objective” stated in the section headed ‘What we will do to deliver”

“… to devolve decision making and funding to schools and communities” ?  (DEESE p10)

This objective was prominent in the recommendations of the Commission on School Reform’s report ‘By Diverse Means’ (2013) which strongly argued for more diversity in Scottish education and specifically for greater autonomy for schools.  However, those who welcomed that suggestion and who might otherwise be delighted to see the launch of a “Governance Review” which will:

“…examine the system changes required to deliver our commitments to empower schools, decentralise management and the support through the encouragement of school clusters and creation of new educational regions” (DEESE p10)

might worry about tensions arising between the various current proposals. The success of the new range of reforms will require an explicit understanding of and focus on, the development of an appropriate professional culture neither of which is evident in the two recent Scottish Government documents.   The importance of the development of an appropriate culture both within individual schools and clusters and across the system as a whole, is not even referred to never mind recognised.  The nearest the OECD report comes to dealing with this is in one of the three recommendations at the end of Chapter 4: “Develop a coherent strategy for building teacher and leadership social capital”.  Under this recommendation the report refers to the “cultures” in which teachers work, stating that those who

“… work in cultures of professional collaboration have a stronger impact on student achievement, are more open to change and improvement, and develop a greater sense of self-efficacy than teachers who work in cultures of individualism and isolation.” (OECD 2015 p139)

 Here the importance of the “cultures” in which teachers work is at least recognised.  It sets “cultures of professional collaboration” against “cultures of individualism and isolation” but provides no explicit detailed discussion – before or after this reference – of the importance of professional culture. Moreover, it is very difficult to find published research on this issue anywhere in the educational research literature.   This is disappointing because surely we would do well to be mindful of the maxim often attributed to Peter Drucker, former Professor of Management at New York University that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” as we seek to deliver “excellence and equity” in Scottish education. This requires transformation not improvement.  Thus, management strategies whether centrally or locally devised and driven, may “improve” but they do not “transform” –  culture change is required for transformation. That is much more complex and therefore much more difficult to achieve.  For that reason, we need to spend more time focusing on it.

Currently Scottish education is dominated by a culture of compliance in which schools appear to be seen as mere instruments of “delivery”.  This is in spite of the fact that Scottish schools enjoy, in theory at least, considerably more latitude than is commonly understood.  Scotland has no national curriculum. Obligations and prohibitions contained in statute are remarkably few.  Scotland does have a national examination board but there is no obligation on schools or local authorities to make use of it[4].  Some requirements are contained in regulations issued by the General Teaching Council for Scotland and others are contained in agreements relating to teachers’ terms of employment.  Overall however, Scotland’s schools are much less fettered by legal requirements than, for example, those south of the border.  To a degree, Curriculum for Excellence is itself a policy designed to empower teachers and encourage them to innovate in their own ways.  In the early years it was portrayed in this light and many teachers did, indeed, see it as liberating and creating an opportunity to be creative at a local level.  However, many in the profession have been reluctant to grasp the opportunities offered.  Demand for more detailed prescription came not from the Government and its agencies but from a significant proportion of the teaching profession.  If the development of CfE has become increasingly directed from the centre, it could be argued that it is in response to demands from practitioners. Yet, in spite of some recent research (by Jim Scott) highlighted by Reform Scotland highlighting variations in the number of subjects offered in S4, diversity is not a characteristic of Scottish school education.    Why should this be?  Why are Scotland’s schools, including the most effective among them, apparently reluctant to use the discretion that is available to them?  It is important to understand how this state of affairs has arisen since the reluctance of schools to exercise their current potential for autonomy and therefore for creativity as they attempt to rise to the attainment and other challenges, is likely to dampen their enthusiasm for innovation in the future.

The key to this understanding lies in the professional culture of Scottish education. The emphasis on school improvement began in the 1960s with a system change from selective to comprehensive schools but it did not usher in any change in school governance.  In fact, as well as moving from a selective to a comprehensive system, we have changed everything else in Scottish education in the last 40 years.   We have changed the terms and conditions of teachers (several times), the curriculum (several times), the internal management structures in schools (several times) and the examination system (several times).  We have introduced national strategies for school improvement, literacy, numeracy, Modern Languages, STEM subjects and most recently for improving positive destinations.  Yet throughout all of these laudable developments the culture has barely changed.  Indeed, like school governance, changing the culture is barely spoken about.  As a result schools, now expected to lead on addressing social injustice, continue to work in a culture of conformity and compliance that inhibits their capacity to discharge that responsibility.  There exists, in the education community, a lack of debate about what the core business of schools should be given this recently re-defined role.  The traditional and almost universally accepted current view is that the core business of schools is learning and teaching.  On the face of it this seems like common sense – of course schools are about learning and teaching; but it could be argued this has led to a pre-occupation with ‘what goes on in the classroom’, with learning and teaching, with pedagogy, with the curriculum and assessment.  A consequence (albeit unintended) of this may have been to bolster culture in which teachers see their professional identity primarily as ‘curriculum deliverers’ whose pedagogical expertise is paramount.  It is little wonder that the professional identity of secondary teachers in particular, continues to be dominated by their GTCS validated subject expertise.  Put bluntly, when the professional culture focuses nationally and so exclusively, as it has done recently on the ‘delivery’ of a curriculum and a subject-dominated assessment system, no one should be surprised if consideration of individual social context, emotional and psychological wellbeing – the very things likely to have most influence on the life chances of the least advantaged – suffers.  It is striking that ‘Happy Safe and Achieving their Potential – a standard of support for children and young people in Scottish schools’ (published in 2004 the same year as the Curriculum Review Group’s ‘A Curriculum for Excellence’) has received virtually no national attention over this period presumably on the grounds that the curriculum and assessment have been seen as more important.  If we are serious about:

“… making demonstrable progress in closing the attainment gap during the lifetime of this Parliament and to substantially eliminate it in the next decade” (DEESE 2016 p4)

as the Delivery Plan acknowledges, we will have to involve not only the full efforts of all those involved in education but our efforts will have to extend

“…beyond the classroom and across our communities and wider public services”.


This, which the Delivery Plan does not explicitly acknowledge, will require culture change.  Specifically, we need to re-define, extend and resource what we consider to be the core business of our schools.   We will then need to empower them to proceed.  If schools continue to have to work in an environment where seemingly everything has been up for debate and subject to change except the way they as institutions are governed, the chances of real transformation will be limited.  We need Scottish education to become much more of a school-led system: the persistence of a uniform system of school governance across Scotland is not only surprising given the scale of change everywhere else in education over the past few decades but may now be the single biggest obstacle to releasing the energy, creativity and commitment needed to tackle the challenges that we have given them.  Freeing up schools by offering those who wish it, a change of governance, may be the single most important action we can take to empower them to be more innovative and more dynamic in responding to the individual circumstances of their young people.



[1] Ironically the report devotes a section to ‘Developing a new narrative’ (p106) for CfE.

[2] Minty, S., and M. Priestley, (2012). Developing Curriculum for Excellence: Summary of research findings from a Scottish local authority. Stirling: University of Stirling.

[3](See: )

[4] Indeed, there was a period before the Standard Grade Development Programme got seriously under way when a significant number of Scottish schools made use of the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) qualification run by English examination boards.


Frank Lennon recently retired as headteacher at Dunblane High School