Education reform in Scotland needs you! People power can bring about much-needed radical change in our classrooms – Cameron Wyllie

So as you may know, there is a ‘National Discussion’ going on about the future of Scottish education, prompted by Professor Ken Muir’s report, optimistically entitled “Putting Learners at the Centre”.
Teachers, parents, pupils and more should have a say in how education is run (Picture: Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty Images)Teachers, parents, pupils and more should have a say in how education is run (Picture: Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty Images)
Teachers, parents, pupils and more should have a say in how education is run (Picture: Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty Images)

Education is, of course, core to the well-being of any nation: improve education and you reduce unemployment, crime, addiction – in effect, you see off the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – but I’m betting that not one in 1,000 of the Scottish population has read the Muir Report, which followed last year’s OECD report, “Improving Schools in Scotland”. Not that I can really recommend either as a riveting read. Ho hum.

Now, however, having established the many committees which will decide on the future direction of Scottish education in a “major review” – almost entirely populated by people previously involved in various quangos, local authorities and governmental agencies which previously directed Scottish education (not exactly the fresh vision one might have expected) – we are all being asked for our views, either by hosting group discussions or by filling in surveys.

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In the past ten days, I have filled in both the survey for the broad National Discussion – the outcomes of which will be conveyed to the main committee by Professor Carol Campbell of the University of Ontario and Professor Alma Harris of the University of Cardiff – and the survey relating to the ‘Independent’ Review of Qualifications and Assessment being conducted by Professor Louise Hayward of the University of Glasgow.

As an aside, it does seem to me that the Scottish Government is over-reliant in its education policy on the expertise of academics, and underplays the expertise of head teachers, but I have respect for all these individuals, and many of the other professors who are involved, and no doubt we shall see what impact they are allowed to have on what actually happens.

I confess that I filled in the main survey on a very badly delayed no 26 bus into Edinburgh from Portobello, a journey which usually takes 25 minutes, but in this instance took 93 minutes (a record). I was thus incandescent with rage anyway and these were not, perhaps, the ideal conditions for constructive criticism. I did answer all the questions put to me, though many of them were repetitive.

I’m not sure I see a difference between “three, how can every child and young person’s individual needs be supported and addressed in the future?” and, “eight, how can the right of every child and young person to have opportunities to develop their full potential be achieved in future?” But no doubt there’s a professor somewhere shaking their head in disbelief, who can explain the big distinction.

We are given the opportunity to answer some more general questions: “What are the most important priorities for a future Scottish education system?” And I would like to suggest that everyone who has any stake at all in education (ie, everybody) gets online and answers this question: just Google ‘National Discussion Scottish education’ and it’s there.

For what it’s worth, here’s my own response, as I fumed on the no 26 bus: “More vocational education. Greater support for the most able. End the ‘presumption of mainstreaming’ and support all children appropriately. End Curriculum for Excellence at 14. A resurgence of extra-curricular activities in state schools. Greater realism about what is actually possible in the limited time children are in school. Far less tolerance of low (and high) level disciplinary issues. A great increase in the autonomy of head teachers.”

That is more or less everything I’ve been banging on about on these pages for years. My guess is these are not the things the learned professoriate, or indeed, the Cabinet Secretary will be wanting to hear, but if any of them seem sensible, maybe they will feature if enough people agree.

My problem with the survey on qualifications and assessment is more straightforward. The questions here begin with an assumption that we are carrying on with Curriculum for Excellence and that the central problem that the Scottish Qualifications Authority (now, whoop de doop, to be renamed Qualifications Scotland – how much will that rebranding cost?) had was “how do we assess someone as an ‘effective contributor?’”

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Professor Hayward is asking the wrong questions. She should begin by asking what ‘qualifications’ are for. One of the core problems in the later stages of Scottish education is that it is obsessed with qualifications, a state of affairs that leaves a sizeable minority of the school population simply feeling that it has failed. Of course, you can’t change the way you assess less ‘academic’ pupils, to give them a more meaningful experience, until there is a radical overhaul of the whole schooling process.

But I don’t believe anything very radical or visionary is going to happen. The people in charge of this supposedly very important review include the same people who have overseen Scottish education in recent years and who have (and this is charitable) failed to improve it. They are part of a monolith which is, as things stand, not suddenly going to crumble.

Still, we – teachers, parents, pupils, school governors and just those of us interested in the future of Scottish society, independent or not – mustn’t just give up. So please, please, find these surveys and fill them in – it’s not entirely necessary to answer the precise questions being asked, just say what you think!

Cameron Wyllie is a former head teacher and his book, Is There A Pigeon in the Room? My Life in Schools, is published by Birlinn. He writes a blog called A House in Joppa



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