In recent months, a number of calls have been made to radically reform Scottish education. There have been calls to abandon exams, abolish the SQA and end Education Scotland. Few of these will happen as Scottish education has not just one gap, but three.
The equity gap is the main focus for education – apparently. However, there was a rhetoric and reality gap when kids were almost let down by algorithm in the SQA crisis of summer 2020. Furthermore, there is a long-term implementation gap in Scottish education. All the ideas are there but the willpower, ability and improvement methodologies are all sadly lacking. Nothing is likely to change any time soon – certainly not the radical reform and significant improvement many aspire to and hope for. Even less so when the most senior education leaders attempt to portray current critique of the system as 'attacks on teachers' in the media. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Teachers' work should be commended whilst the system-wide malaise is called into question. Attempts to shift the emphasis forms part of worrying trends with facts in the post-truth world. It also shows how those leading the system in education have become out of touch with the challenges faced and the need for change.
However, one reform has been pushed through in recent weeks and it now needs a major effort to ensure it works. The UN Convention on the Rights of a Child (UNCRC) has been enacted in Scottish law. Ironically, all of this sits amidst a toxic underbelly of bullying, fear and harassment in Scottish education. In many respects, this is because education has assumed political focus and become a lever for political gain. Some of it is nothing new – Professor Walter Humes laid out his views on the system in The Leadership Class
More recently, Alex Salmond pointed the finger at issue in the leadership of many Scottish institutions. That same toxicity diminishes the progress of Scottish education. That toxic culture is not only destroying the very fabric of trust in Scottish politicians and institutions, but is also percolating through other aspects of Scottish civil society, including education. Where role modelling and culture is poor at the top, it descends to all levels. As a local authority improvement officer, I watched the threat of 'the inspection box' sent to a school being used to enforce power. I was also able to raise the grade of an inspection report as the inspector's evidence was not in place fully and the downgrading was part of a power game to pressurise a headteacher to conform to a certain approach – and an unproven one at that.
These issues continue to this day, with senior figures in education sometimes exercising power beyond policies laid out. There are many cases 'live' today which shed light on the culture of control and coercion that exists in Scottish education. Sadly, elected members are often unaware or have the wool pulled over their eyes by bullish or persuasive officers. Too often, the allure of trust is not interrogated deep enough by those whose duty it is to critique, interrogate and seek assurances. There are many cases where it just takes one person at that assurance level to ask the question or to say 'stop'. It does not happen often enough as spin takes over from solid fact and group think from good questions.
In the NHS, we have seen cover-ups and whistleblowing that is required to protect people from wrongdoing, abuses of power and safeguarding concerns. Now the NHS has a whistleblowing watchdog. It seems that a similar body is required across all public services in Scotland. This needs to happen urgently, especially given what we have seen from the most recent Holyrood inquiry. There needs to be established mechanisms for people to speak out and an assurance of independence in the bodies receiving such claims. It is the only way for people to have confidence that their voice will be heard and taken seriously by a body autonomous from the 'cosy consensus' who are so often cited as the issue with Scottish education.
We know the importance of leadership, and the belief that improvements and standards comes from the top. The Salmond inquiry has revealed what is going on at national level and what is deemed acceptable in public life. That percolates to local authorities and right down to the front lines of public service. The toxic nature of education does not just sit at a governance level though. It goes from the board rooms to the whiteboards. Sadly, many of our classrooms still hold to traditional pedagogies and punitive approaches.
In the year of UNCRC being passed into legislation, there are many examples of things like students being shouted at, even physically manhandled and degraded. That is not me sharing this – it is young people themselves at a recent event looking at reform education. UNCRC posters and group work might cover up some aspects, whilst putting symbolic flags at the front gate looks good for photo opportunities. However, if it is not embedded in every classroom, it needs to change.
The key question is, who is able to stand up against the poor behaviours and crass cultures? All too few sadly, and they are often marked out as 'maverick', 'renegade' or 'barking mad'. We have seen abuses of power at all levels of Scottish society. We must remind ourselves that it was only in the 1980s that the belt was banned in Scotland. During that era, progressive educators like R F Mackenzie were cast out by traditionalists as mad. They were fed to the lions. There are modern-day examples of him across Scottish society. Perhaps only history will judge them well.
Scotland needs to remind itself of the roots of its historic success – critical thinking, challenging norms and established patterns of thinking whilst forging progressive paths – Thomas Guthrie, Robert Owen and R F Mackenzie to name but a few. In the words of Kenneth Roy: 'Challenge everything: that matters. Question authority: that matters. Scrutinise established ways of thinking and doing: that matters'.
Fish rots from the head. Is the head about to come off the long-term toxicity that has poisoned progress in Scotland? It is in the will of the people to decide what they deem acceptable. However, it is also in our classrooms that real shifts in Scottish culture will take place. First, we need to allow people to ask the questions. Those questions might reveal the answers which help Scotland return to a culture we aspire to, not the toxic and political one we currently inhabit.
Neil McLennan is an education leader, former Young Programme delegate and previous Institute of Contemporary Scotland Young Scot of the Year