Wednesday 14 June
I attend the funeral of an elderly lady, whose spirit I greatly admired. It was a small turnout as most of her contemporaries had predeceased her, but two relatives had travelled up from the south of England, one sporting a kilt for the occasion. In his address, the minister managed to capture something of Jean's distinctive character: her fierce independence, her robust opinions on a range of subjects and her irreverent sense of humour. Even in her final months, when she became painfully frail, that old spark would surface, brightening the moment for her visitors.
Thursday 15 June
I engage in more missionary work in the east – another trip to Edinburgh. I am there to meet the new Scottish public services ombudsman (SPSO), Rosemary Agnew, as part of a small delegation from the organisation Accountability Scotland. We are received courteously and spend a constructive hour-and-a-half discussing a range of concerns. The importance of public confidence in complaints procedures, both those internal to public bodies, such as the NHS and local councils, and those that are taken to the SPSO, was stressed. People should feel that they are listened to and their cases are investigated fairly. Some of the examples that have come to the attention of Accountability Scotland suggest that complainants experience delay, procedural obstacles and a lack of empathy. Their frustration and sense of injustice can lead to psychological damage. Requesting a judicial review of decisions taken by the SPSO is not an option for most people, since the costs are prohibitive.
Although the Scottish government and MSPs have been alerted to these concerns, no real progress has been made so far. MSPs have been inadequately briefed when the matter has been discussed in committees and understanding of what a proper system of administrative justice might entail appears to be limited. As things stand, senior officials and professionals working in public bodies are able to claim that they have adequate systems of accountability in place when, in fact, their mindset is inward-looking and protectionist. Too often complainants are seen as nuisances rather than as potential sources of information which could lead to the improvement of services.
Rosemary Agnew comes with a good track record in her previous post as Scottish information commissioner. One of her final acts in that role was to rebuke Scottish ministers for failing to respond to freedom of information requests. Accountability Scotland hopes that she will be equally resolute as Scottish public services ombudsman.
Friday 16 June
In our 'post-truth' age, we must learn to translate the predictable statements issued by the professional liars of the public relations industry when they are called on to defend questionable practices. I have started to compile a glossary of weasel phrases, often employed in the public and private sectors, whose real meaning is rather different from what seems to be stated.
'We give the highest priority to customer service/health and safety/environmental awareness.' We are obliged to pay lip service to these principles but we really don't give a toss about any of them.
'Customer satisfaction is at an all-time high.' We have contrived to 'lose' negative evaluations so that we can claim everything is hunky-dory.
'We take complaints very seriously.' We have a well-developed system of delay, obstruction and evasion to fob off complainants.
'Our recruitment and training procedures ensure that staff are able to discharge their responsibilities effectively.' We pay minimum wages to employees on zero-hours contracts and put them through an oppressive induction programme.
'We regret that, on this occasion, we have failed to live up to our usual high standards.' We do not accept any legal liability but have no alternative but to offer a token apology.
'Rest assured lessons will be learned from this episode.' A low-level scapegoat will be found and senior management will carry on as before.
'The company is proud of its record and is determined to build on its reputation for success.' We have a team of aggressive lawyers at our disposal who will not hesitate to take action against anyone who questions our integrity.
Saturday 17 June
I chair a session at the European conference on curriculum studies, held at Stirling University, which has attracted delegates from many countries. The focus is on the academic freedom in universities and the two speakers come from countries (Iran and Algeria) where political, religious and ethnic pressures mean that the student experience often falls short of the proclaimed values of higher education. One talks of various forms of exploitation – intellectual, financial, psychological, sexual – that distort the teaching and learning process: these are maintained through the persistence of cultural conditions which permit the abuse of power. The other paper describes an attempt to develop a curriculum that challenges 'archaic' teaching methods by listening to the experiences of students and addressing controversial but important subjects, such as the significance of the 'Arab spring', human rights and the position of women in society. I am struck by the passion and courage of both speakers, who are trying to stimulate debate of a kind that must carry personal risk in their own countries.
Monday 19 June
I am asked by a journalist for some comments on the latest package of reform proposals for Scottish education, announced last week by John Swinney. They are designed to address areas of weakness – in literacy and numeracy, for example – identified in research studies and international surveys. The reforms are presented as a means of giving teachers and headteachers more freedom in relation to teaching and learning: they are to be 'empowered' and released from oppressive bureaucracy. This rests rather uneasily with the creation of three new bureaucratic bodies – Regional Improvement Collaboratives, a Scottish Education Council and an Education Workforce Council.
Furthermore, an existing body which has been heavily criticised for its part in the development of Curriculum for Excellence, Education Scotland, is to be given a 'revitalised' role under the new regime. There is a real tension between the language of liberation, encouraging more involvement by parents and listening to student 'voices', and the familiar language of control, evident in the emphasis on 'delivery' and the requirement that headteachers (not officials or government ministers) should be held responsible for closing the attainment gap. What is being devolved to school level appears to be responsibility rather than power. Time will tell whether more staff are encouraged to apply for headteacher posts. In recent years, attracting good applicants has not been easy.
The main losers in the new arrangements will be local authorities. Many have been struggling to provide support services for schools, partly because of budget constraints. They will have a largely administrative function (covering such things as buildings and human resources) while the new Regional Improvement Collaboratives will take the lead in relation to curriculum and professional development.
Mr Swinney's reforms rest on the belief that organisational restructuring is the way forward. But some of Scotland's educational problems are cultural and intellectual, rather than structural. While the latest document cites some important evidence about how to improve the system, the overall strategy remains questionable.