With summer approaching and school trips on the horizon, many of us will be preparing to hear the repeated cries of ‘Are we there yet?’. And with the raft of consultation documents emanating from proposals for Education Reform, we might be forgiven for asking the same question ourselves.

The recommendations made in the OECD Report in 2021 and the Muir Review in 2022 seem like a distant memory, whilst the promise of reduced class contact time in the 2021 SNP Manifesto for Change has yet to be honoured.

But with the outcome of the National Discussion now overdue and the Hayward Review scheduled to report later this month, teachers and lecturers across Scotland are waiting anxiously to find out whether the Scottish Government has been listening to their voices through the reform process, and crucially, whether it will now act to implement the systemic and cultural change necessary to deliver inclusive and equitable education for all children and young people in Scotland – and to address the unsustainable levels of workload which teachers and lecturers continue to bear.

“It is crucial that the current reform process reflects carefully upon how and why the original CfE Senior Phase design principles did not translate into practice”

The Interim Report, published by Professor Louise Hayward’s Independent Review in March, might have provided some grounds for cautious optimism about proposals for reform of Senior Phase qualifications and assessment.

Refreshingly, the report echoed many of the concerns which the EIS has long cited as the ills of the current system – the problematic nature of the three year exam treadmill, with its the ‘two term dash’ and related workload drivers; the impact this has on quality, depth and breadth of teaching and learning; the monocular focus on exam attainment and the associated data being used inappropriately to ascribe value to learners and to schools; a narrowing of options for learners, particularly those who can achieve outwith the ‘academic’ mainstream; and the impacts of socio-economic inequality on learning and on outcomes.

In outlining a model for reform, Professor Hayward is clear that these issues must be addressed and proposes the introduction of a Scottish Diploma of Achievement (SDA).

The SDA is designed to recognise a broader range of achievements across three elements – learning within individual subject areas, personal development and learning in an interdisciplinary context – and provides the potential for assessment to be more aligned with the aims of the curriculum than current arrangements.

In responding to the consultation, the EIS has highlighted that the success of the SDA will be dependent on the form and content of each specific component, their inter-relationship, and the coherence and cohesion of the Senior Phase as a whole – as well as on its impact on reducing teacher workload. At this stage, it is unclear whether the proposed structure of the SDA will attach relative weighting to each area but it is evident that without a concerted effort within the system and within society to shift cultural attitudes, the current focus on qualifications and attainment data has the potential to exert a dominant influence to the detriment of the two more innovative and inclusive areas.

If reform is to be meaningful, we cannot allow this to happen. We must learn from the past. The fact that the original design principles for the current Senior Phase were intended to facilitate largely two-year courses with examinations upon exit and that these were never implemented sends a salutary warning as to how ingrained the exam-centric culture, and its associated data- drive, is.

It is crucial that the current reform process reflects carefully upon how and why the original CfE Senior Phase design principles did not translate into practice; and that there are safeguards within a reformed system to prevent a recurrence, whilst protecting the flexibility necessary to include all learners and accommodate their specific needs in context.

In re-affirming the principle of certification for all, and in giving formal recognition to achievements across the four capacities – or whatever might replace them as the synopsis of the purposes of the curriculum – the SDA proposal has the potential to make a bold statement that, in Scotland, we value much more in education than academic success measured by exam passes. However, the extent to which the SDA can go beyond making a statement and can actually contribute to effective system and cultural transformation will be determined by the clarity of its purpose, its integration into the wider system and the value attributed to it by those who seek to achieve it and those who use it. Much will rest on resources.

Aligning with the key principles highlighted in the EIS response to the National Discussion, effective implementation of the SDA must be underpinned by:

  • the allocation of proper funding – for additional staff, for teacher time, and for CLPL within the working week, as well as for reduced class sizes, reduced class contact time and ring-fenced resourcing to meet the rising level and severity of additional support needs if all young people are to be supported to achieve an SDA that reflects their individual achievements;
  • a cultural shift, away from performativity to one rooted in principles of quality education and empowerment, where teacher professional judgement is trusted and valued; and
  • lastly, notwithstanding the EIS’s determination to see significant change in the system, it will require rational, achievable timelines for implementation which prioritise change in a measured and balanced way, with ongoing decision-making processes inclusive of all educational stakeholders and communication clear at all stages.

As we await the outcome of these important consultations, work continues at pace on the Education Reform Delivery Boards, tasked with shaping the new national agencies to replace Education Scotland and the SQA. In representing members’ views, the EIS has shared concerns that unless teacher voice is truly at the heart of governance arrangements, particularly of the new qualifications body, then the culture shift and professional trust needed to rebuild the current broken system and deliver meaningful change, will not materialise.

We continue to argue for greater transparency and separation between accreditation and regulation, and the awarding function of the new qualifications body, stressing the imperative for independence in the former.

And with legislation promised within this Parliamentary session, we await the government’s response and continue to advocate for the vision espoused by members during the National Discussion – a vision of an education system, which is properly resourced, with social justice, equity, inclusion, equality and diversity at the heart, and in which the professionalism of teachers is truly respected.

Are we there? Not yet but the EIS is signalling the route.