Saturday, 12th November saw EIS members from across Scotland’s schools, colleges and early years settings coming together in Glasgow for the first in-person Education event since before the pandemic. And its purpose couldn’t have been more important – talking about and helping to shape the future of Scottish Education in our National Discussion.

Implementing the first recommendation of the Muir Report, the Scottish Government launched the National Discussion during the Scottish Learning Festival and appointed Professors Alma Harris and Carol Campbell as the independent facilitators to gather and harness views from stakeholders across Scotland, with the aim of supporting all to reach a consensual vision of Curriculum for Excellence.

The ‘Let’s Talk Scottish Education’ event provided the time and space for our members to express their views, to talk about what’s important to them in Scottish education, to capture their vision for the future and to consider how that vision can become a reality. We welcomed the independent facilitators, Professors Campbell and Harris, to the event so that they could hear from teachers and lecturers first-hand, and capture their views about what’s important, what needs to change and what needs to stay.

And true to form, members had plenty to say!

After an introduction in which the facilitators set the scene and acknowledged the centrality of teacher and pupil voice in this discussion, the day was given over to collegiate dialogue, with groups considering a range of questions about the challenges, the opportunities and the key priorities which should underpin, and help to deliver an inclusive and equitable education for all children and young people in Scotland.

The key messages came over loud and clear:

  • ‘Bring back the joy!’ – The narrow focus on attainment – from the use of SNSAs throughout the BGE to the reliance on high-stakes exams in the senior phase – stifles creativity and enjoyment across all stages of learning. There was consensus that we need to reverse the decline of GTCS registered teachers in nursery and that play-based pedagogy should lead the way in Early Years and the early stages of primary and even beyond, with teachers being trusted to respond to the holistic needs of pupils, and supported to follow learners’ interests, building in opportunities for exploration and excitement to enhance breadth, depth and enjoyment of learning.
  • ‘Learners can only flourish when they feel safe, supported, and included.’ – Education needs to become truly child-centred, focusing on the holistic development of the child or young person. Only when social, emotional and physical needs are met will children and young people have the ability to learn well. Practically, this means addressing the impact of poverty on achievement and attainment; ensuring that every child and young person has access to free school meals and that sufficient resources are devoted to removing the barriers to full engagement in the curriculum.
  • ‘Policy doesn’t equal practice!’ – Everyone agreed that Scotland has the legislative and policy frameworks to deliver the ambition of excellence and equity in education. The Curriculum for Excellence (‘CfE’), with its commitment to social justice, equity and equality, is the bedrock of comprehensive education. The four capacities, supported by GIRFEC, promote the holistic development of all learners and their right to be supported to achieve their potential. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child builds on this approach and puts Scotland in prime position to deliver the policy ambition. However, the practical experience of all in the room underlined the findings of recent reviews which demonstrate that the barrier is not policy but its implementation in practice. There was a unanimous call for increased core funding and ring-fenced resources in Additional Support for Learning (‘ASL’), to support smaller class sizes and allow greater investment in specialist ASL teachers, in pupil support workers and in wider support services, such as CAMHS. The message was clear – the current situation is unsustainable and has been for some time. Inclusive education is dependent on adequate resourcing to meet the needs of all pupils. We need to put a stop to mainstreaming on the cheap!
  • ‘Cut class sizes and invest in teachers!’ – Teachers and lecturers throughout the day spoke of exhaustion from excessive workloads; their frustration in striving to meet needs but feeling like they are failing; and the significant pressures which they face on a daily basis, balancing competing demands in the classroom. The consensus was that current government policy gives lip service to teacher and pupil wellbeing but fails to recognise the reality, as we emerge from the pandemic – an erosion of resourcing with drastic cuts, rising levels and severity of pupil need, paired with increasing and unsustainable workload for teachers. Those present felt that if the government is serious about health and wellbeing for all, it’s time to cut class sizes, to give more time for preparation and reflection, for engagement with pupils and their families in the supportive conversations needed to help children and young people thrive, and to promote teacher wellbeing, by removing unnecessary bureaucracy and slashing workload – a long-overdue promise!
  • ‘Measure educational achievement more equitably’ – It will be no surprise that there was a lot of criticism on the day levelled at the over-reliance on the current academic model which focuses on qualifications and attainment. Participants wanted to see a move to a system which recognises and celebrates the success of all learners – one which considers a diversity of pathways which are genuinely suitable and accessible for learners in the senior phase; which challenges system and societal assumptions that don’t value so-called academic and vocational learning equally; and one in which every young person is seen and valued.
  • ‘Trust in teachers’ – The need for cultural change which acknowledges teacher professional judgment and autonomy was a core theme of the discussion. Managerialism and top-down approaches are stifling professional autonomy and generating enormous workload and stress. Pedagogical discussion is squeezed out of collegiate meetings and collaborative events at the expense of bureaucratic initiatives, often revolving around quality assurance and scrutiny, in which teachers see no value and which actively undermine professional judgement. The take-away from this – if we want to have an Empowered School system, then we need to truly trust and empower our teachers.
  • ‘A commitment to a more diverse workforce’ – A core theme running through the discussion was the belief that educational reform must be accompanied by action to address systemic inequalities in the profession, promoting a more diverse workforce and supporting more Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic teachers into teaching and promoted posts. The workforce should represent the communities which schools serve, with learners seeing themselves reflected in the staff body. Teachers need time and space to develop their own racial literacy and be supported to develop a diverse, decolonised and anti-racist curriculum.
  • ‘Investment in time for professional learning’ – Professional autonomy in the selection of professional learning activities and barriers to engagement, related to time and the cost, permeated the discussion. Time for collegiate dialogue is central to sharing good practice and developing skills, understanding and confidence, with those present advocating for a greater focus on this during collegiate time.

After a day in which the conference room buzzed with ideas and thinking around a common vision for Scottish education, the event closed with participants sharing their hopes for the future – an education system, properly resourced, with social justice, equity, inclusion, equality and diversity at the heart, and in which the professionalism of teachers is truly respected.

The National Discussion closed on 5th December 2022 and whilst we await the outcome, one thing is for sure – the voices of Scotland’s teachers and lecturers have spoken and were heard by Professors Campbell and Harris. What now needs to happen is that Scottish Government listens carefully too… and acts accordingly.