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



Commission calls for better change processes and a focus on disadvantage as the keys to securing sustained improvement

  • SCOTTISH education needs reform if it is to become world-beating once again
  • Poorer-achieving young people are being let down.
  • Call for greater powers to be given to schools and for more diversity within Scotland’s school system

The independent Commission on School Reform, chaired by former Director of Education Keir Bloomer, has published its final report into Scotland’s schooling.  “By diverse means: Improving Scottish education” is the culmination of a process started in November 2011 by the think tanks Reform Scotland and the Centre for Scottish Public Policy.  The Commission had the task of considering whether the school system in Scotland is meeting the present needs of young people and is well prepared to meet the needs of the future.
The Commission found the Scottish schools perform well but that others have been improving faster.  As Commission Chair, Keir Bloomer said:
“In Scotland we tend to assume that our education system is the best in the world. This may have been the case at one time, but it is true no longer. Scotland’s schools are good and offer consistently high standards of teaching but they are not world-leading.  If we want to be the best, some fundamental changes are needed.”
The report concludes that many of the problems within the system are deep-seated and have developed over a number of decades. Even though those tasked with improving Scotland’s education have brought forward innovative ideas such as Curriculum for Excellence, we are not seeing the level of change required to prevent Scotland from falling behind other countries. The report makes a series of 37 recommendations underpinned by 10 pre-requisites for a successful future for Scottish education.
David Cameron, a former President of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland and a member of the Commission commented:
“I think this report manages to be both challenging and constructive. It offers no facile solutions, but points directions. It does not indulge in blame, but tries to offer depth and analysis. I hope it will spark engagement and renewed focus on education as a way that we change lives for better”
The report focuses on how change is brought about.  Keir Bloomer commented:
“In Scotland, we have good ideas, but sadly we are relatively poor at executing them and as a result we rarely realise their full potential.”
The way forward involves creating a system with greater variety so that schools can learn from each other.  Morag Pendry, Education Manager at the Co-operative Education Trust Scotland commented:
“The underlying problem with our system of schooling is that it is too uniform and lacks the diversity required to excel.  This lack of diversity has led to a very consistent level of education across the board, but not to an exceptional level. Indeed, a lack of diversity has almost certainly leveled-down the overall achievement.” 
Frank Lennon, a Commission member and headteacher of Dunblane High School added:
“In order to reverse our decline and become world-beating once again, we need to promote more variety and diversity in Scotland’s school.  Increasing the autonomy of individual schools is essential. Often it is the sense of working in a debilitating culture of disempowerment and a feeling of overburdening bureaucracy that impairs creative thinking at school level. Decisions which can be taken competently at a school level should be taken at a school level without higher interference – that way we can release the creativity that exists in Scotland’s schools and embed a culture of excellence in our system from the ground up.”
The Commission believes that empowering schools will not only raise standards across the board but will help to tackle the chronic problem of underachievement among young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

Another Commission member, Peter Peacock, who was minister of education from 2003 to 2006, sees this as the most important aspect of the Commission’s thinking. He said:
“In a wide ranging report recommending many actions, the call to renewed and focused effort to tackle the effects of disadvantage within Scotland’s education system is of the most fundamental importance to me. Delivering that action will be aided through well supported and ever more effective school leaders who have growing freedom to act in delivering what they judge is best for their pupils and their community.”
The Commission has a range of solutions to offer including targeting those most at risk in the very early years of life.  A very early years service should be established to try to ensure that vulnerable children are ‘learning-ready’ before they entered school. Schools currently operate in a culture that is excessively hierarchical and dis-empowering   It is essential that each level of governance within the system has a clear role and does not intervene inappropriately. 

Keir Bloomer said:
“The role of government is strategic leadership, not micromanaging schools.”
Councillor Paul McLennan, an SNP member of East Lothian Council, explained:
“Different local authorities have different educational needs, and indeed those differences go right down to school level as I know from my time here in East Lothian. It makes little sense for governments to be involved in strategic decisions which would better be taken at a local authority and in operational decisions which would be better taken at school level.

“Other countries increasingly understand that diversity and autonomy are the key to improving educational outcomes. By failing to grasp the need for evolutionary change we are slipping behind our foreign competitors and this report sets out some steps we can take to reverse it.”
The Commission sees its report as a contribution to a long-term process of evolutionary change.  Keir Bloomer concluded:
“We are not interested in allocating blame.  Successive governments have sincerely tried to bring about improvement and have had some success – but it has been limited.  It is time to recognise that we need to look very critically at how we organise change.  The culture of Scottish education has to change.  Mutual respect and a shared sense of direction are essential.  But so too is an enhanced ambition and a determination once again to be the best.”


  1. Reform Scotland is an independent, non-party think tank that aims to set out a better way to deliver increased economic prosperity and more effective public services based on the traditional Scottish principles of limited government, diversity and personal responsibility. Further information is available at
  2. Reform Scotland’s report “On The Pill: Coronavirus and Contraception”, can be read here.
  3. All four opposition parties tweeted their support for our proposal: 
    • Miles Briggs MSP, Conservative:  “This suggestion put forward by @reformscotland calling on @scotgov to include access to the birth control pill in the recently extended Minor Ailment Service seems sensible and will help take pressure off GP surgeries”
    • Monica Lennon MSP, Labour: “A welcome briefing on coronavirus and contraception from @reformscotland calling on @scotgov to include access to the birth control pill in the recently extended Minor Ailment Service.  Will @scotgov support this @JoeFitzSNP @jeaneF1MSP”
    • Alison Johnstone MSP, Greens: “I very much support @reformscotland call for free access to contraceptive pill during COVID-19 crisis.  Enabling prescription direct from pharmacists at this time ensures that cost isn’t a barrier for any woman.  Our local pharmacists are well placed  to offer guidance and advice”
    • Alex Cole Hamilton MSP, Liberal Democrat: “This is a really important suggestion (finger down emoji)”
  4. Media: Message Matters (Andy Maciver, [email protected], 07855 261 244)


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