The last three years have seen teachers and college lecturers across Scotland engage in endless consultations on Education Reform, to the extent that many have reported ‘consultation fatigue’ and have questioned whether the talk will ever end and the action will ever start.

However, the publication of two major reports in the summer term – one outlining the vision of the future of Scottish education and the other, making recommendations on reform of the senior phase – gave some grounds for optimism…

‘All Learners in Scotland Matter’

On 1st June, the EIS welcomed the publication of ‘All Leaners in Scotland Matter’, the long-awaited report emanating from the National Discussion. In this report, Professors Alma Harris and Carol Campbell effectively harness the views of stakeholders to shape the vision for the future of Scottish education and importantly, set out the action necessary to make it a reality.

The vision and values outlined in the report resonate strongly with those articulated by the EIS, responding to the holistic needs of all learners, underpinned by principles of social justice, inclusion, equity, equality and diversity.

In practical terms, this must surely require addressing the impact of poverty; ensuring that every child and young person has access to free school meals; that diversity is reflected in the education workforce and embedded in the curriculum; and that sufficient resources are devoted to removing the barriers to young people’s full engagement in education.

Importantly, the report sends a strong message to the Scottish Government about the imperative and urgency of ‘dedicated and sustainable funding’ to provide adequate staffing and specialist resources to deliver inclusive education and to honour the commitments made to children and young people with additional support needs, nearly two decades ago.

Like the Muir Review, the report reiterates the importance of cultural change in driving reform and issues a call to bring the joy back to learning and teaching – a call echoing the voices of our members during the National Discussion. It’s to be hoped that this will herald a departure from the narrow focus we have seen on narrow attainment data and high-stakes exams, which has stifled creativity and enjoyment across all stages of learning, and is negatively impacting the mental health of young people – sapping the joy out of teaching.

Professors Campbell and Harris clearly express the importance of ‘the education profession leading the way forward with professional expertise and judgement informing decisions and actions’ – music to our ears and a principle endorsed by the Cabinet Secretary when she welcomed the report in the Scottish Parliament.

‘It’s Our Future’

Following swiftly on the heels of this publication, Professor Louise Hayward delivered her report, ‘It’s Our Future’, outlining proposed changes to qualifications and assessment in the senior phase.

The report provides an in-depth and convincing case for change, making a series of important recommendations to deliver a more positive educational experience for young people in the senior phase of Scottish education. If accepted, these recommendations to reduce the emphasis on high-stakes exams, place a greater emphasis on continuous assessment, and provide space for greater breadth, depth, and enjoyment of learning across all areas of the curriculum, can deliver positive change for all of Scotland’s young people.

However, the report makes it clear that the review must learn lessons from the failure of the current senior phase to realise the vision of Curriculum for Excellence. It places an emphasis on a rational, planned and sustainable approach to change – one which the EIS endorses. Scotland’s teachers and lecturers must have their say in how the recommendations are taken forward, in a way that recognises their professional expertise, that does not add to their already excessive workloads, that provides dedicated time for planning and preparation and that addresses the wellbeing challenges they face. The need is more acute than ever before.

But if Scotland is truly to ‘put learners at the centre’, the Scottish Government must be prepared to back these ambitious proposals with resources – and it could start by committing to cut class sizes and honouring its manifesto promise to cut class contact time.

‘Fit for the Future’

Unlike the two reports referenced, the Withers Review, which makes recommendations in relation to post-school education, emerged from the ether in early June, without any consultation having taken place with key educational stakeholders, including the education trade unions or even the National Union of Students.

Against this background, you might well ask upon what basis the recommendations within the report are founded and even be surprised to read in the foreword the strong advice to Ministers ‘not to shape change based on the views of those with current delivery responsibilities’ – an approach at odds with that advocated by Professors Campbell and Harris in the National Discussion Report and endorsed by the Cabinet Secretary.

The report – which places an over-emphasis on skills development to the detriment of the wider purposes of education – seeks to assign oversight of the post-school educational landscape to a single body – the new qualifications agency.

Whilst the EIS accepts that simplifying current arrangements by subsuming certain responsibilities into one body may mitigate some perceived deficiencies of the current system, much will depend on the new qualification body’s governance arrangements and the extent to which teachers and lecturers have a seat at the decision-making table.

Moreover, the proposal to assign responsibility for the accreditation and regulation of all non-degree post-school qualifications to the new qualifications body raises the same questions as are currently being asked in relation to government’s decision to disregard Professor Muir’s recommendations and retain accreditation and regulation within the qualification body. We are no further forward in being assured that the new qualification body will not be “marking [even more of] its own homework”.

What is clear is that the proposals, if adopted, will add to the complexity of the task facing the wider Education Reform programme, specifically the delivery of a new qualifications body. We have stressed that whilst appropriate time is required to ensure each element of the reform programme is addressed, there can be no further delay in establishing a qualifications body in order to expedite the reform of assessment and qualifications in schools.

Holistic Reform

In announcing that she would take time to consider the recommendations in all three reports holistically, the Cabinet Secretary made it clear that the planned reform of the SQA and Education Scotland would be delayed, with the SQA continuing to operate until 2025.

In responding to this announcement, we have clearly articulated the profession’s lack of confidence and trust in the SQA – feelings which will only be strengthened following their recent evidence session in the Scottish Parliament when they blamed teachers and schools in what can only be regarded as an effort to deflect blame from themselves. In discussing the results of the 2022 appeals system, no recognition was given of the extreme circumstances in which schools were operating, with high pupil and staff absence as a result of Covid, or of the lack of professional learning or support for an appeals system, introduced very late in the academic year.

Against this backdrop, it is difficult to see how we can move forward confidently and competently in reforming the senior phase with the SQA intact for another two years.

What Scotland urgently needs is a qualifications body that is capable of listening, a collaborative organisation that works in the interests of learners, collegiately alongside teachers and lecturers – who are expert in learning, teaching and assessment, who know best what their learners need and whose professional views should be actively and routinely sought and heard.

As we await the outcome of the Cabinet Secretary’s deliberations, we may still not know when reform will take place, but one thing is clear – everyone involved in Scottish education is eager to move forward with positive change.

This will bring additional resource requirements which will require significant additional investment from government. But we believe that Scotland’s young people are worth it.