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

By Diverse Means: Improving Scottish Education

This report does not offer a comprehensive analysis of every aspect of  Scottish school education. The Commission has chosen instead to focus on matters that seem to be of the greatest importance but which have been relatively neglected.

The focus is, therefore, on change – how it is brought about and why it is often not as successful as intended. In its interim report, the Commission suggested that the performance of Scotland’s schools is good and remarkably consistent but that, taken as a whole, the system no longer ranks among the world’s best. Improvement is not as rapid as in many other countries so that there is a risk of Scotland falling behind. A particular problem is Scotland’s continuing failure to tackle
successfully the educational consequences of social and economic disadvantage.

Scotland does not lack good ideas. It has policies such as Curriculum for Excellence and Teaching Scotland’s Future that are forward-looking and have the capacity to bring about real improvement. However, the experience of other major policy initiatives over the past half-century indicates that Scotland often fails to extract the maximum benefit from good policies. In short, processes of change in Scottish education fall short of what is required.

To a large extent this is because the system is too uniform. It lacks the diversity that is a vital element of any learning organisation. The Commission sees the promotion of increased variety in the system as a crucially important prerequisite of future improvement. The best way of achieving this objective is to increase the autonomy of individual schools. Every school should have as much control over its resources as is practicable. They should be encouraged to innovate and take
well-considered risks.

At present, however, schools are reluctant to take the initiative. This is because the culture of the system as a whole is disempowering. The structure is hierarchical with an ethos of each layer being subordinate to the one above it. There is too little communication or sense that constructive criticism is welcomed. Above all, the Commission considers it essential to develop a sense of common endeavour where everybody involved feels able to contribute on equal terms.

At present the responsibilities of different tiers of management are ill-defined. The strategic leadership role of government is obscured by a strong tendency to become involved in detail. The freedom of action of schools is too circumscribed. The Commission takes the view that headteachers should be seen as the chief executives of largely autonomous bodies. At the same time, it is imperative that a collegiate culture should exist within schools.

The Commission says little about the details of the curriculum but suggests that Curriculum for Excellence offers a suitable framework for the foreseeable future. It does, however, recommend that it should be interpreted in increasingly ambitious ways. It should not be seen as a ‘one-off’ change but as a long-term process in which successive changes build on each other in a manner that ultimately is transformational.

The report sets out ten preconditions for successful change. If these were put in place, the Commission believes that Scottish education could face the future with confidence.

Education has never been more important. It is, of course, essential to future economic success. However, it is at least as vital to developing individuals who can live fulfilled and purposeful lives. It underpins society and offers the means by which humanity can tackle the pressing problems of our time.

This report is offered in the belief that it can help Scotland to make its contribution.


By Diverse Means