What does Education Scotland actually do? As a former headteacher and I'm a bit confused – Cameron Wyllie

So the dust is settling after a Scottish election in which, truth to tell, not very much happened.

Maybe the time will come now to focus on education which, by any standards, is not in a very good place in Scotland.

In times past, a really enjoyable part of my job as head of an independent school in Edinburgh was hearing families arriving from other countries – including England – telling me how pleased they were to be coming to Scotland because of the reputation of its education system. Where are we now?

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Well, we need change and that change requires leadership and vision: where is that going to come from?

Some years ago, Michael Gove opined that the people of this country had “had enough of experts”. I don’t agree with that – in the last month alone I’ve benefited from expert epidemiologists, expert nurses, an expert dentist (goodbye, old molar) and expert chocolatiers – some of you may see a connection there.

Anyway, if we’re going to have real change in Scottish education, we need some expertise. Where does it lie? It seems a reasonable assumption that some of it might lie in Education Scotland, the "executive agency of the Scottish Government” whose website proudly declares it to be “for Scotland’s learners, with Scotland’s educators”.

In self-punishing mode I have read Education Scotland’s annual report for 2019-20, which, including the accounts (by far the most interesting bit) runs to 129 pages. OK, I am retired, ok, I worked in independent schools but, those things given, I still don’t really understand what Education Scotland does, plus I just have a sneaking feeling that very few of Scotland 53,000 teachers would really be able to help me.

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Teachers are the real experts when it comes to education, says Cameron Wyllie (Picture: Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty Images)
Teachers are the real experts when it comes to education, says Cameron Wyllie (Picture: Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty Images)
Teachers are the real experts when it comes to education, says Cameron Wyllie (Picture: Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty Images)

So, I thought, maybe I could apply for a job and join the 385 staff that Education Scotland already has. There are quite a number of jobs going there; maybe not surprising given, according to the Annual Report, some staff haven’t been very enthusiastic: “Following disappointing People survey results in previous years, this has been an area of key focus for Education Scotland with a significant amount of work undertaken to address the risk of poor staff engagement, centred primarily around health and well-being of staff and connectedness.”

I thought maybe an enthusiastic, cheerful fellow like myself might make a difference so I thought I might apply for a role as a “lead specialist”, a post to be based in Glasgow, Livingston, Dundee or Aberdeen (hey, ho, a change is as good as a rest, I thought) necessitating working for 37 hours a week – about 60 per cent of what the average teacher works in practice.

But what would I be doing? The only lead specialists I ever knew worked on the roofs of historic buildings. So here’s the first paragraph of the Education Scotland job description: "The lead specialists support the senior lead specialists and the head of professional learning and leadership in the development of the professional learning and leadership directorate within Education Scotland as a portal for leadership and professional learning in Scotland as well as the phased development of the suite of programmes, opportunities and networks that professional learning and leadership directorate provide.”

Well, there you go. I felt little the wiser, except that it was clear there was a route for promotion; if I worked hard at my lead specialism, I could advance to senior lead specialist.

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Pretty good, given that the salary range for lead specialist is £49,420 to £61,617 which is more than some headteachers make in Scotland today, actual professionals in actual schools, working long hours dealing with children and parents and budgets and supporting stressed colleagues at the chalk face with big classes often including individual children who require highly personalised care, teachers whose own starting salaries are around £28,000.

So, having not a clue what I’d be doing as a lead specialist, I ventured on – I could be an inspector. Now that’s something I understand. In my experience inspectors are helpful, interested parties, constructive and often insightful.

And, of course, the job of scrutinising Scottish education couldn’t be more important; holding the government and Education Scotland to task… but, of course, it’s Education Scotland who are in the business of recruiting inspectors, to inspect themselves!

Let me suggest a way forward on drugs policy – another area of concern in Scotland. Maybe we could have a meeting of all the main drug suppliers and get them to appoint the police force.

Sigh. It would almost be funny if the impact wasn’t so devastating on so many of our young people, our “learners”. It’s a cliché, of course, but it all has a taint of George Orwell's Animal Farm: “There was endless work in the supervision and organisation of the farm. Much of this was of a kind that the other animals were too ignorant to understand.”

That’s me – just too stupid these days to understand the importance of the work of ‘lead specialists’ and so old-fashioned that I still believe in independent school inspection.

Oh, and back at the annual report. Education Scotland spent £38 million last year; that’s £6 million more than the previous year. £38 million is enough for over 1,000 new teachers.

If the new government is "for Scotland’s learners, with Scotland’s educators” it needs, as part of a radical rethink, to imagine what could be done with a shedload of cash like that.

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Please, Scotland’s wonderful teachers, speak up – we know where actual expertise lies, and it’s with you!

Cameron Wyllie’s blog is A House in Joppa

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