A watershed for Scottish education

by David Istance 
Senior Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

This is a watershed moment for Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, say some of the country’s education stakeholders. They’re talking about the ambitious education reforms that were rolled out in Scotland’s schools five years ago. What better time for a review of the reforms? Improving Schools in Scotland: An OECD Perspective, published today, provides just that.

So what kind of watershed has Scotland’s education reform programme reached?

First, the programme is at a “watershed” as a statement of fact: the main curriculum programme has now been implemented, and the overhaul of teachers’ education and qualifications is nearly complete. This is watershed meaning “key transition moment”.

Second, it can be seen as a “watershed” as so much of the hard work of redesign has been accomplished and essential building blocks have been put in place. This is about unleashing the full potential of the Curriculum for Excellence after a 13-year gestation period. Hence the very positive sense of watershed as “take-off point”.

But “watershed” may mean something altogether less inspiring: concerns over achievement levels and rumblings over the new teachers’ qualifications combined with a febrile political environment might yet unpick key elements of the Curriculum for Excellence despite its longevity. This would be the more ominous meaning of watershed as “make-or-break moment”.

The recommendations contained in this new review might influence which kind of watershed this turns out to be for the Curriculum for Excellence: will it be key transition moment, take-off point, or make-or-break moment?

The OECD report notches up many points to admire in Scottish schooling, not least among them enviable levels of consensus, clear enthusiasm (including among young people for learning), and political patience. But for the full potential to be realised, the OECD review team believes some key changes will be needed.

There should be a more ambitious theory of change and a more robust evidence base available right across the system, especially about learning outcomes and progress. The Curriculum for Excellence needs to be understood less as a curriculum programme to be managed from the centre and more as a dynamic, highly equitable curriculum being built continuously in schools, networks and communities. And the success of that implementation process needs to be closely evaluated.

There is a key role for a strengthened “middle”, covering local authorities, networks and collaboratives of schools, teachers and communities, and teachers’ and head teachers’ associations. As local authorities assume more prominent system leadership in a reinforced “middle”, the shortcomings of those authorities falling behind in performance and expertise will need to be addressed. Learner engagement is a prerequisite of powerful learning and improved outcomes, and that argues for innovating learning environments, especially in secondary schools, beginning in the most deprived areas.

All this should contribute to creating a new narrative for the Curriculum for Excellence, the OECD review report argues, and this will be an essential ingredient if the existing watershed moment is to become “take-off point”.

Improving Schools in Scotland: An OECD Perspective
Photo credit: Education Scotland

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