Exclusive:Education chiefs warn Jenny Gilruth her reform delays are causing 'instability' for staff and children

SNP minister privately told it is now ‘crucial’ she outlines the next steps

Jenny Gilruth was privately warned by senior figures in Scotland’s education agency that the prolonged “instability” caused by the government’s stalled reform programme was damaging staff morale and the delivery of services for teachers and pupils.

A letter obtained by The Scotsman also shows how non-executive members of Education Scotland’s advisory board told the cabinet secretary her plans for a new Centre of Teaching Excellence, which were announced at the SNP’s conference in October, had only “increased” the uncertainty in the sector.

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They said it was now “crucial” that Ms Gilruth moves to end two years of turmoil by setting out the next stages of reform.

Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth chats to pupils during a visit to Craigmount High School in Edinburgh to mark SQA Results Day 2023. Andrew Milligan/PA WireEducation Secretary Jenny Gilruth chats to pupils during a visit to Craigmount High School in Edinburgh to mark SQA Results Day 2023. Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth chats to pupils during a visit to Craigmount High School in Edinburgh to mark SQA Results Day 2023. Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

The Scottish Government pledged to replace Education Scotland (ES) and the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) with three new bodies in the wake of the Muir report in 2022.

Shortly after becoming education secretary in spring last year, Ms Gilruth announced she would be pausing the reform process for 12 months, saying she wanted to take time to fully consider proposals made in a series of reports on the future of Scottish education, and to ensure the plans were shaped by teachers.

A consultation was held at the end of last year, but the government is still to announce details and the next steps.

The Scotsman revealed in January that ES, which has close to 400 employees, had been forced to put strict limits on the recruitment of new staff amid "increasingly challenging" financial pressures.

Now, correspondence has been released under freedom of information (FOI) laws showing how members of the agency’s advisory board raised their concerns with the cabinet secretary in November.

John Fyffe, a board member and chair of ES’s audit and risk committee, wrote the letter on behalf of the non-executive members.

He said: “While we recognise the rationale for the delay, setting out the sequencing of what is next in the reform agenda is now crucial.

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"The last two years have been a time of significant ongoing uncertainty for the staff and leadership team of Education Scotland and as an advisory board, we are alert to the potential impacts this ongoing uncertainty is having on the wellbeing and morale of staff, the continued

delivery of services and ultimately children and learners/young people, despite the best efforts of the leadership team and staff teams.

"Uncertainty continues to surround the ownership of the envisaged changes, the lack of detailed and agreed timelines, and ongoing capacity to deliver continuity of service to both teachers and learners.

"Staff know little more now than they did following the Scottish Government’s response to Professor Muir’s report.”

Mr Fyffe, a former Perth and Kinross Council education director who served as president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland between 2013 and 2015, added: “Of course, the continued lack of clarity for the agency around the direction for reform is not limited to threats to the delivery of ‘business as usual’ and morale, the retention and recruitment of staff but also the very real risk of those in Education Scotland being disempowered to lead change.”

Ms Gilruth has said the proposed new Centre of Teaching Excellence will be hosted by a university, learning from the successful model of the Centre for Excellence for Children’s Care and Protection, known as CELCIS, and working closely with the Scottish Council of Deans of Education.

However, there have been concerns about how it fits into the wider reform programme, and the new bodies which will replace ES and the SQA.

In his letter, Mr Fyffe wrote: “Plans to put Scotland at the forefront of innovative research in teaching practice are, of course, to be welcomed but without further detail about how this work will interact with the reform of the national bodies, uncertainty among staff and indeed the education sector has only increased."

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He added: “Indeed, the ongoing instability and accompanying risks arising from the current lack of clarity around the wider education reform programme, combined with the significant fiscal challenge facing all public bodies, cannot be underestimated.”

Scottish Labour’s education spokeswoman Pam Duncan-Glancy said the letter shows why Ms Gilruth must outline her plans.

“This lays bare the real effect of this SNP government’s inaction and delay on education reform,” she said.

"Everyone – staff, pupils and parents – agree it’s needed, and are waiting in anticipation of action from their government. This is not just crucial to address the challenges in education we face today, but also for the future.

"For the sake of our children, parents and staff, the cabinet secretary must come to the chamber and set out the steps she’ll take to reform our crumbling education system.

"If she doesn’t she’ll be failing the thousands of people who have given up their valuable time to set out what needs to change, and squandering the opportunities of yet more children and young people across Scotland.”

Ms Gilruth responded to the letter from ES board members on December 11, saying it was important to ensure reform was about systemic change that improves outcomes for children, and that it was right to take time to ensure it was “holistic”.

She added: “In order to address uncertainty I want to move swiftly ahead to deliver reform that is more than re-badging and fundamentally orientates our national bodies, in a sustainable way, around supporting improved outcomes.”

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A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government is committed to a programme of education reform which improves outcomes for pupils in our schools. A key part of this is better supporting the teachers and other professionals who work with them.

“We appreciate the challenges for the range of agencies and their staff involved in the process, but it is right that we take the time necessary to ensure reform addresses the realities facing teachers and other professionals in their day-to-day work, and ensuring they are engaged in that process.”



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