WHEN THE Scottish government announced its intention to invite the OECD to conduct an independent review of Scottish education, the general public may have been pleased to see the government finally taking action to halt the decline in standards in Scotland’s schools. To educational professionals, the announcement was received with a high degree of scepticism and little expectation of a report which would reset the direction of travel. Sadly, the professionals were right.
Not only will the report be ineffective in rectifying the glaring problems in the current education system, the OECD has presented the SNP government with the perfect scapegoats for their failed policies and implementation strategies; enter the SQA and Education Scotland. It is all their fault apparently, despite the fact that their policies and practices have been totally under SNP control for the last 13 years. If anything positive emerges from this review, it will be in spite of the flawed report and its largely irrelevant recommendations.
Why the initial cynicism regarding the OECD? Well, it has reviewed Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) for the Scottish government on two previous occasions, and praised it to the skies. The chances of a third review contradicting its previous predictions of excellence were slim to none. In addition, the researchers had little or no expertise in the history and current context of Scottish education, which makes their task much more difficult. Their final report and recommendations betray their relative ignorance, and render much of their comment redundant.
For example, it is clear that they think the usual route to university is via Advanced Highers, and that Highers are useful only for entry to HNC/HND courses. This would be the norm in most developed countries but it isn’t the case in Scotland. The final concern was the limited range of the OECD research. The authors spoke only to the people and organisations identified for them by the Scottish Government, they took evidence only from similarly identified sources and relied on the Scottish government website for most of their information. This was explicitly made clear in the response to two groups – Reform Scotland’s Commission on Education and the Royal Society – both of whom had their carefully researched evidence rejected as they were not on the preordained list. By excluding wide swathes of the education profession from the process, the OECD report is by no means either reliable or comprehensive. At least the OECD had the grace to admit in the introduction to the report that the lack of objective data makes it very difficult to evaluate CfE. This is one of the very few comments that is both accurate and relevant to the problems in Scottish education.
The key problems with the OECD report are that it fails to identify most of the more significant issues in Scottish education, it fails to recommend the necessary practical steps which might improve the situation, and it allows the Scottish government to sidestep its total responsibility for most of them.
The major problems in our schools are the low standards of basic literacy and numeracy which hamper all future learning, a drop in standards compared to other countries in the critically important STEM areas of mathematics and science, a curriculum which places little or no value on acquiring knowledge, again to the detriment of future learning, and a veritable desert in relation to meaningful assessment which would generate the necessary data for the proper evaluation of developments.
Scotland has been removed from all but one of the international assessment programmes and has abandoned its own regular assessment of literacy and numeracy. The SNP has been assiduous in obfuscating or removing as much evidence as possible in relation to its failures in education.
The SNP has also imposed a compliance culture on the teaching profession. Far from increased autonomy in the classroom, teachers and schools have been judged almost exclusively on their adherence to CfE strategies, with the inspectorate, HMIe, totally complicit in this process. Outcomes were irrelevant, even something as obviously detrimental as the sharp drop in the number of subjects studied by pupils in the senior school. The sole objective was implementation of government policies, regardless of actual impact.
To improve matters, we need a revamped curriculum which places appropriate emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge. We need meaningful assessment strategies associated with the curriculum, which will inform individual progress and provide data on system wide improvement, or lack of it. Scotland must rejoin international assessment programmes to ensure that we are at the very least keeping pace with the rest of the world, and beginning once again to excel. Scotland’s young people should not be denied opportunity on the grounds of a mediocre education system. And we need a truly independent inspection system which focuses on outcomes, not box ticking exercises on CfE criteria.
Already, however, it is clear that the focus will not be on practical changes which will improve teaching and learning. Instead, it will be on the organisations which can take the heat off the Scottish government. The SQA, which has indeed performed woefully badly in both 2020 and 2021; pupils, parents and teachers have been badly let down, and the organisation certainly deserves to be radically transformed. But make no mistake, at every stage the SQA has been following the government’s policies and working to their instruction. No head will roll; the SQA will take the brunt of the criticism and let the SNP off the hook.
Likewise, Education Scotland is to be reformed. The SNP removed the independence of the inspectorate, changing its remit to implementation of CfE rather than evaluating the standards in Scotland’s schools. In the compliance culture, HMIe were the enforcers. Changing the organisation will be easy; changing the culture will be difficult, especially if the same old people are left in post. But if Education Scotland is to deflect blame from the Scottish government their reward will be to retain their positions. It is highly unlikely that any individual will be taking any responsibility whatsoever for what has gone wrong.
Like many, I held out little hope for a review which would introduce meaningful change to what is happening in our schools. My lack of optimism was fully justified. No-one will be found to have been responsible for the mistakes, mistakes which were pointed out both at the time of change and subsequently as negative outcomes became ever more evident.
If the usual suspects in the educational establishment are tasked with reforming the system, there is little prospect of improvement. They have not acknowledged how wrong they were, the OECD report fails to identify the most pressing problems and the government will duck all responsibility for any of it.
Welcome to the world of Scottish education; same old, same old, while children and young people are denied the quality of education they are entitled to expect in the 21st century.
If you are interested in education you may also wish to read this article by Professor Lindsay Paterson: The OECD education report does not offer a solution, it is now part of the problem
Photo of school pupils on climbing equipment by Monkey Business from Adobe Stock