7 major obstacles to improving Scottish education

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A member of the panel of experts conducting a Scottish education review which was launched yesterday identified six key areas for improvement.

Professor Walter Humes praised the “dedication of the vast majority of Scottish teachers “, but argued that several deeply rooted issues were hampering their best efforts.

He also argued that a silver lining from Covid was that there is “now much more critical attention directed at those who run the [education] system”.


Background: National consultation on Scottish education is launched

Find out more about the SSTA congress: Call to end ‘dictating from above’ in Scottish education

More from Walter Humes: The Scottish education bureaucracy is alive – but not well

View of the news editor: Let’s end jargon in education

Also this week: 6 essentials for school leaders in times of Covid flow


Professor Humes, in a speech at the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA) Annual Meeting, Glasgow, outlined seven areas that have led to the underachievement of Scottish education. He had already highlighted them in an article from 2018, and today reviewed the progress made since then.

The seven barriers of Professor Humes are:

1. Don’t learn from the past

Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) was “introduced without sufficiently taking into account previous reflections on curriculum development”.

Professor Humes quoted Lawrence Stenhouse’s work as an example: “One of Stenhouse’s key principles was that there can be no effective program development without teacher development.

“There is now a greater recognition of this [in Scotland]. Mark Priestley’s work on teacher involvement in curriculum development and the importance of teacher action has made a valuable contribution. “

2. Bad political leadership

“We have had no less than 10 cabinet secretaries for education since devolution,” said Professor Humes. “This poses problems of political continuity as each newcomer tries to establish his presence by launching new initiatives.

“The current Secretary to the Cabinet [Shirley-Anne Somerville] has only been in office for a few months, so it would be premature to pass judgment on his contribution. “

3. A complacent and selfish political community

“I have written about the Scottish education leadership class for decades and have suggested that it fostered a conformist and risk-averse culture,” Professor Humes said.

He added that “the political community is perhaps a little less complacent than before, but the informal networks of the main actors continue to function and will be used to defend their positions”.

4. Lack of independent up-to-date data

“This is a recurring theme in [fellow education academic] Lindsay Paterson’s work, ”said Professor Humes. “The accusation is sometimes made that the government fears the systematic collection of data because it can make it more difficult to defend its case.

He added that the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – whose June review of the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence led to the review team of which Professor Humes is a member – had stressed “the importance of longitudinal data for carrying out appropriate evaluations and regular reviews of the system”.

5. Defensive and protectionist professional attitudes

Professor Humes said he “has long considered professionalism to be an ambivalent concept, containing elements of both public service and self-interest, perhaps most evident in the legal profession”, adding: ” I think it’s a concept that needs to be questioned, not meant to be obvious. “

6. Boastful and sentimental language

“Bragging is now the default position of most public bodies, not just in education – jJust look at their websites and their absurdly grandiose mission and vision statements, “said Professor Humes.” This one will be hard to change because it reflects how much the world of public relations has taken over from the management thinking. “

7. A deep vein of anti-intellectualism

This, Professor Humes said, “was an ironic comment on the academic community”, which had “too often associated itself with the superficial discourse and intellectual evasions of government”. Addressing this issue in Scotland remains “a work in progress”.

The main objectives of the review launched yesterday – which is headed by Professor Ken Muir, former CEO of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, and due to report in January – is to make recommendations on what should replace the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and how the programs and the inspection body Education Scotland should be reformed.

“Restoring public and professional confidence is not easy and will not be achieved simply by rebadging existing agencies,” said Professor Humes. “There are difficult questions to do with the overall distribution of power in Scottish education, the challenge of winning the hearts and minds of the faculty for reform proposals, and the role of other agencies which are essential to the quality of what is happening in schools, especially local authorities.

“My point of view is that in addition to fulfilling the mandate that has been assigned to us, we need to define a longer term program of action.”

Professor Humes concluded by stressing that teachers in Scotland are held in high regard.

“Although this is a testing period for Scottish education, students and parents continue to pay tribute to the dedication of the vast majority of Scottish teachers,” he said.

“One good thing that emerges from the current difficulties is that there is now much more critical attention directed to those who run the system, whether as politicians, government officials or CEOs of national organizations. can be used to defend existing power bases rather than to encourage innovation and experimentation.

“The ‘iron cage’ of education bureaucracy is unlikely to be completely dismantled, but the locks and shackles that protect it are less secure than in the past. Teachers have a vital role to play in this process.


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