SQA to be scrapped as OECD report warns Scottish teachers spending too much time in classroom

Scottish teachers spend too much time in the classroom, a long-awaited report into the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) has warned – as the Scottish Government pledged to overhaul Scotland’s exams system and scrap the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

The report, Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence Into the Future, warned there is a “misalignment between CfE’s aspirations and the qualification system” in the senior phase of secondary education in Scotland which it said was an “obstacle” in the full roll-out of CfE.

However, the OECD said it regards Scotland as a “pioneer” in curriculum reform, which it said many countries across the world were looking towards.

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The OECD report called for:

Teachers in Scotland spend more time in the classroom than the OECD average, the report found
Teachers in Scotland spend more time in the classroom than the OECD average, the report found

The creation of “a specialist stand-alone agency” responsible for the curriculum, which could also take responsibility for assessments;

A better balance between breadth and depth of learning throughout CfE;

The government to adapt the senior phase of education to match the vision of CfE, including an overhaul of the existing exams and assessment system; Teachers to be given less contact time; Development of a “systematic approach” to the review of the curriculum.

The Scottish Government said it would accept all recommendations in full, including scrapping the SQA and “substantially” reforming” Education Scotland.

It also said it would actively consider what changes were required to Scotland’s qualifications and assessment system.

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Education Scotland will no longer undertake inspections, with this work becoming a separate, independent role.

The OECD report also suggested the curriculum work currently undertaken by Education Scotland might best sit with any new curriculum and assessment body that will replace the SQA.

Education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville will on Tuesday give a statement to Parliament on the findings of the report.

Ms Somerville said: “The last few years have accelerated a debate about the future of Curriculum for Excellence and senior phase education in particular. The OECD report is crystal clear - Curriculum for Excellence is the right approach for Scotland.

"In fact, despite all the criticism here at home, the OECD tells us it is viewed internationally as an inspiring example of curriculum practice.

“However, ten years on from CfE being introduced, it is right and proper that we review how it is being implemented. We accept in full all 12 recommendations from the OECD.

"We will replace the SQA. We will talk to young people, parents and teachers to build a system that works in line with CfE – exactly as the OECD recommends. Responsibility for inspection will no longer sit with Education Scotland and we will look at what further reform of the agency’s functions is required."

She added: “What comes next is a period of change. But it is change in order to improve, to achieve more and to deliver for Scotland’s pupils. Our commitment is to do exactly that and we will work with everyone and anyone willing to help to make that a reality.”

The report, which included 30 interviews with 50 different stakeholders, said that despite a drop in teaching time to 22.5 hours a week, teachers’ in-classroom time is still higher than the OECD average.

In a webinar hosted by the OECD, co-author Beatriz Pont said that Scotland’s Pisa performance – the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment – was declining, but by other measures, Scotland was more successful.

Ms Pont said: “We do see you, Scotland, as a pioneer, and it is an example of curriculum making and curriculum reform internationally that many systems are actually looking at."

The report praised Scotland’s teachers as “well-trained and respected professionals in Scotland", while school leaders “have developed strong pedagogical leadership capacities”. But the report said teachers needed more time outside the classroom to develop the curriculum.

Ms Pont added: "In terms of teachers working time, this is an issue that we were struck by is that teachers working time is spent mostly in front of the class and this is difficult. Given that teachers have to spend a lot of time in curriculum making, it requires a lot of time for them to prepare, rather than to be in the classroom."

The report warned there was a lack of consistency in the senior phase of schools, due in part, to the fact this part of CfE had been developed later. It said changes could include more continuous teacher assessment, externally marked projects and extended essays and oral and practical presentations.

The report said: “The structure, learning practices and assessment approaches in the Senior Phase also need adapting to be consistent with CfE’s vision, and to allow for the smooth curriculum experience promised from three to 18.”

Education academic and report co-author Jan van den Akker said: “The CfE is a sort of jewel, but you have to polish it, to make it shining in every facet.

"One of the facets that needs a bit more attention, dedication is the senior face. You seriously need to think about if the current design and practice of the senior phase is sufficiently in line with the CfE. There's almost a rhetorical question because we think it is not. So there are some major challenges to be done.”

The report also said the ownership of CfE was “fragmented” and added the technical language used in the implementation of the policy was “overwhelming”.

It said: “Scotland successfully developed an education language to support the philosophy of CfE that made its way into daily discussions of education policy makers, teachers and learners alike, thanks to communication efforts by system leaders.

"But the constant production and recycling of documentation was often described as overwhelming, and the terminology used too technical and open to interpretation.”

Graeme Logan, the Scottish Government's director of learning, said at the OECD webinar: “The Scottish Government's aim is to achieve excellence and equity for children and young people in Scotland, and we want to use this opportunity to see how we can intensify those efforts, and also to reduce the variability, and the outcomes that children and young people achieve in different parts of the country."

Scottish Conservative shadow education secretary Oliver Mundell said: “This damning OECD report exposes how badly the SNP Government have failed Scotland’s schools. The SNP have created a system lacking structure, vision, accountability, and data. Instead of fixing those deficiencies, they tried to paper over the cracks with thousands of pages of ‘confusing and unhelpful’ guidance."

He added: “This report is the final nail in the SNP’s flawed education system. They have now been forced into a massive top-to-bottom overhaul of their mistakes.

"When we fix the flaws, we must be wary of losing any more hallmarks of Scottish education. Our schools have always been proud of their strong exam system and abandoning that would be a mistake.

“The opportunity to finally restore Scotland’s schools after 14 years of decline must be grasped before another generation of pupils are let down.”

Scottish Labour education spokesperson Michael Marra said: “Parents, pupils and the many critics of the government’s performance on education policy over many years now see their own words and concerns validated by much of this report.

“We need an end to the narrowing of the school curriculum and a far greater focus on ensuring that pupils receive an in-depth education in all of their subjects – rote learning will not do. The SNP has failed to ensure that Curriculum for Excellence delivered the wide and practical education that the pupils of Scotland deserve and our country’s future needs.

“Scottish Labour is clear that action is needed to support teachers to deliver for pupils, including reducing the level of class contact time for teachers. We must be clear – real change is not possible without this resource."

Scottish Greens education spokesman Ross Greer said: ““Scottish teachers work some of the highest classroom hours in the developed world, leaving too little time for planning and preparation of quality lessons. Reducing the frankly ridiculous number of tick-box paperwork exercises teachers are expected to complete and scrapping the P1-S3 standardised testing system would go some way to reducing teacher workload.

"However, the only way to make the significant change the OECD say is needed is to recruit thousands of additional teachers. The Scottish Greens believe something in the region of 5,500 additional full-time posts are required and can be delivered within this five-year term of Parliament.”

EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said the union had previously pointed out the “disconnect” between the implementation of the CfE between the “broad general education” phase of education, up to age 15, and the senior phase.

He said: “There is massive assessment overload in the senior phase, which squeezes out the time needed for both depth and breadth of learning – two of CfE’s big ambitions. This overload is also the driver of excessive workload, and that has been exposed clearly during the pandemic.

“The comparatively high level of teacher class contact time was another area highlighted, with the OECD highlighting the need for reduction in class contact time – a key priority for the EIS – if teachers are to be able to collaborate around curriculum and assessment.”

He added: “The report also seems to confirm that the Government’s focus on Standardised National Assessments has been a monumental distraction with little impact other than adding to the bureaucracy that bedevils teachers’ working lives.”

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