A Step Closer to Grasping the Thistle in Scottish Education?

Professor Ken Muir’s much-anticipated report has finally been published.

Entitled ‘Putting Learners at the Centre: Towards a Future Vision for Scottish Education’, it made something of an inelegant entrance into the public domain due to a Scottish Government error that saw a press briefing issued 24 hours too soon, forcing an urgent reshuffle of parliamentary business and a somewhat hurried launch of the report a day earlier than planned.

Let’s hope that this government guddle wasn’t an omen for what’s to come. Too much is at stake.

Muir’s guiding principles of reform

Ken Muir’s many useful recommendations are underpinned by a set of principles that strongly accord with EIS thinking as shared within our own written submission and extensive contributions to deliberations within a range of the associated consultation meetings.

The principles outlined in the final report, fully accepted by the Scottish Government, demonstrate that Professor Muir in many respects, is on the same page as the EIS in concluding that the future success of Scottish Education will be dependent on a shift in culture more than it will superficial adaptations to its structures and national agencies.

We wholeheartedly agree with Ken Muir’s declaration of the need for:

  • Redistribution of power, influence, and resource within Scottish education to reflect the principles of de-centralisation and local decision-making, to genuinely empower teachers and practitioners and put learners’ voices at the heart of decision making. The EIS has argued consistently for greater empowerment of teachers and democratic decision-making since the last governance review of Education in 2017.
  • Recognition and celebration of Scotland as an ethnically diverse society, with equal status being given to the voices of those most often unheard. The EIS absolutely agrees that empowerment must be of all teachers, including those from under-represented groups.
  • Increased collaboration among practitioners to better support and enable progress and improvement. We also believe that working and learning together will be key to our future development as a profession, but we need the time to collaborate, so the reduction in contact time promised by the Scottish Government will be critical in enabling this.
  • Increased trust and confidence between local authorities, schools and national bodies. There can be no doubt that politicking, hierarchies, command and control culture, accountability and stretched resources have undermined the trust and confidence of the teaching profession in national agencies and in some cases, local authority employers, so some restoration work is urgently needed.
  • Governance arrangements for national and local bodies that are designed to include teacher voice, alongside that of learners and other stakeholders. The EIS has led the calls for teacher empowerment to extend to national education bodies which should function wholly in support of learners, their teachers and wider school communities. Importantly, Professor Muir’s Report also highlights the need for a rethink on resourcing, again concurring with the EIS that our system requires:
  • Increased recognition of the role and value of Early Years, including its approaches to learning and teaching…and by implication, the need for more teachers, completely in line with EIS demands for more than a decade since teacher numbers in Early Years began declining as a result of cost-cutting.
  • Greater resourcing and attention placed on ensuring the needs of individual learners are met, including, crucially, those with additional support needs. A primary argument in the EIS response to the Muir Review was that the huge resourcing deficit that has existed for most of the lifespan of CfE has been a critical factor in hampering progress, with the chronic lack of ASN resourcing verging on criminal.
  • A rechannelling of resource to provide ‘responsive, bespoke support’ for teachers and practitioners. The EIS has also argued that successive cuts and previous restructuring of national agencies in ways that did not serve the needs of practitioners have left gaping holes in provision.

On assessment and qualifications, the findings of the report are on common ground with the EIS view that Scottish Education urgently needs a review of the roles and purposes of assessment, including exams, to ensure that assessment supports progression in learning and is firmly aligned with the agreed purposes of education. The findings also point to the need, as the EIS has long-argued, for parity of esteem between so-called vocational and academic learning and qualifications as part of the endeavour towards greater equity.

And on teacher workload, Professor Muir also concludes in concert with the EIS, the need for reduced levels of bureaucracy with clarity and agreement on what are appropriate forms and levels of accountability and system evaluation. The Report underscores that too much time and energy is currently wasted on paperwork and processes that serve agendas remote from learning, teaching and nurturing of young people, that the EIS sees as the rightful raison d’etre of our education service.

Report Recommendations

Professor Muir made a total of 21 recommendations in the report, grouped thematically under four headings.

1. A renewed vision

He recommends a national conversation on the future of Scottish Education, including a refreshed vision for CfE. The national discussion should involve all stakeholders towards reaching consensus. The Scottish Government has agreed to facilitate this and the EIS will be ready to engage when the time comes but is anxious to avoid any hold-up on priority areas.

2. A new qualifications body

Professor Muir concludes that the SQA should be replaced by a new Executive Non-Departmental Public Body, which would adopt the SQA’s current functions with regards to awarding qualifications, examinations and certification. Critically, the recommendation states that its governance arrangements should ensure representation from and accountability to, learners and teachers, among others.The Scottish Government has accepted this recommendation in full, promising that the new body will prioritise learners and support teachers, be grounded in the premise that assessment, including exams, should be aligned to the purposes of the curriculum, and will be operational by August 2024EIS members will most definitely not mourn the long-awaited demise of the SQA.

3. A national agency for Scottish Education

Professor Muir recommends the creation of a new agency with responsibility for curriculum, assessment, learning and teaching, which should carry responsibility for evidence-based policy development, and the provision of responsive, bespoke support and professional learning for teachers and practitioners, including on leadership. The report underlines the need for proper resourcing of this body to enable it to fulfil these essential functions and says its governance arrangements should, again, be inclusive of teacher and learner voices. Whilst saying it broadly accepts this, the Scottish Government has stopped short of relinquishing control of education policy, citing reasons of accountability for policy responsibility remaining with the Learning Directorate. The EIS anticipated such reluctance on the part of national government, which is largely staffed by non-educationalists, to loosen its grip on education policy. It’s an opportunity lost to enable coherence of purpose across and throughout curriculum in its widest sense, assessment, learning and teaching, and between policy design and implementation.

4. Inspection

As expected, but disappointingly, the report does not recommend, abolition of inspection, rather the creation of a new independent inspectorate body and the combining of Care Inspectorate and HMIE inspections of Early Years establishments. There are some green shoots of hope in the Scottish Government’s broad acceptance of the recommendations that the new body will operate ‘a supportive inspection system to foster improvement across education settings facilitating a trusting environment between our national agencies and our learning institutions’ and has committed to consulting on the Early Years question.

What now?

Overall, the EIS can be satisfied that Professor Muir has listened with care and reflected the views that we and others shared with him. What now remains to be seen is the extent to which the Scottish Government will grasp the thistle and take the actions necessary, including resourcing, to bring Scottish Education and its agencies – starting with culture, then policy and practice – properly into the 21st century.