The decisions to scrap the Scottish Qualification Authority, overhaul the exams system, carry out substantial reform of Education Scotland and set up an independent school inspectorate will usher in a period of considerable upheaval.
That such sweeping changes are deemed necessary effectively represents a stinging rebuke of the way that, even Covid aside, our education system has been run.
But it is the substance of those changes, what emerges from the process, that really matters.
The advice from international experts is extremely useful, but it is Scotland’s ministers and civil servants who now have the most serious task of designing a new structure that will have a genuinely positive impact on pupils and teachers in the classroom.
Streamlining bureaucracy, at the institutional level and in the classroom itself, should be a key goal. For one, the money saved in this way could be used to employ more teachers.
The OECD’s finding that our teachers spend too much time in the classroom – more than counterparts in many other countries – may surprise some, but the fairly simple reasoning behind this is that they need to be able to devote more time to preparing lessons and working on the curriculum. Freeing up teachers to do this will only be achieved on any significant scale if there are actually more of them.
For some years now, the morale of teachers has been sapped by a deterioration in their working conditions. In 2018, the then outgoing president of the Education Institute of Scotland, Nicola Fisher, thundered: “What we do to teachers in this country is ridiculous. We underpay teachers. We overwork them. We tell them, incorrectly, that they are part of a failing system. We tell them that what they are doing in the classroom is insufficiently ‘excellent’. We cut budgets and constantly expect them to do more with less.”
If Scotland’s teachers have been blamed, it appears unjustly so with the OECD report describing them as “well-trained and respected professionals”. And the much-criticised Curriculum for Excellence was said to offer “an inspiring and widely supported philosophy of education”.
So the problems seem to lie somewhere between the classroom and the philosophy – namely, the administration.
Noting that Scotland had “successfully developed an education language to support the philosophy of Curriculum for Excellence”, the OECD report went on to say that “the constant production and recycling of documentation was often described as ‘overwhelming’, and the terminology used too technical and open to interpretation”.
It also praised the standing of education in public discourse, saying it is a “source of pride in Scotland” and “has been granted great importance in the political debate to a degree that would be the envy of many a system”.
However, the OECD experts added that this focus had “sometimes translated into a busy system at risk of policy and institutional overload” with a “reactive and oftentimes political approach”.
This presents a picture of a skilled profession which has been turned into a political football, demoralised, and hindered by overly bureaucratic systems and corporate gibberish from doing the job they want to do, the job they could do: ensuring Scotland’s children can fulfil their potential after receiving a world-leading education.
As we are fond of reminding ourselves, Scotland could once say with pride that that was the case. The coming reforms are an opportunity to once again be among the very best and it is one we must grasp with both hands.