Efforts to drive up classroom standards and close the poverty-related attainment gap are being seriously hampered by the "iron cage" of institutional bureaucracy, according to one of Scotland's leading education thinkers.

Walter Humes has warned that a "lack of openness" to new ideas and resistance to deep change from bodies such as schools watchdog Education Scotland (ES) and the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) are likely to stymie attempts to boost pupil performance.

And, in a wide-ranging research paper which analyses reforms introduced since 2016, he argues that the "dominant ethos" in Scottish education remains "bureaucratic and managerial".

Mr Humes – who has been a professor of education at the universities of Aberdeen, Strathclyde and West of Scotland, and is currently honorary professor in the Faculty of Social Sciences at Stirling University – said John Swinney had made a "good effort" at trying to “move things forward”.

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But he told The Herald on Sunday that he suspected the Education Secretary had been left "dismayed" by the response of civil servants and officials at key institutions.

“I’m a bit gloomy about the prospects for Scottish education," Mr Humes said.

"Unless we address what I would regard as its intellectual and cultural aspects – its bureaucratic ethos, its lack of openness to new ideas – I don’t think we will make real, significant progress in efforts to improve education in areas such as closing the attainment gap, or performance in literacy and numeracy.”

He added: “Scottish education is trapped in the iron cage of its own bureaucracy … the big players in Scotland have become very entrenched and very adept at protecting their own territory.”

Providing scrutiny of official minutes, plans and other official papers, Mr Humes’ research discusses the various bodies created to drive progress. These include the Scottish Education Council, the Curriculum and Assessment Board and the Regional Improvement Collaboratives which bring together neighbouring local authorities and ES staff.

Drawing on interviews with a number of the individuals involved, the paper claims that, although the range of voices contributing to policy has been diversified, the scope for meaningful exchange of new ideas and intellectual approaches is limited.

Several interviewees said meetings were characterised by the “heavy presence” of Scottish Government officials, with the analysis noting that agendas are carefully controlled and bureaucratic conventions largely unaltered.

“To be fair to John Swinney, I think he is well intentioned,” said Mr Humes. “He has made a good effort at trying to move things forward but I suspect he has been dismayed by the degree of resistance he has met, not just from civil servants but also senior figures in bodies such as Education Scotland, the SQA and the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS). I think [he] got very frustrated with it all and tried to bring forward legislation to push forward the reforms but then had to retreat from that.”

Mr Humes said one move that could make a difference would be the dismantling of ES, although he acknowledged such change was unlikely during the coronavirus pandemic.

“One of my interviewees said he would break up Education Scotland, which I was surprised by because this is someone who is really quite senior and well informed about its operations,” he added.

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“The Scottish Government has put a lot of trust and resources into [it] but it’s too big and surveys show that its own staff are not entirely comfortable with the organisation – although the most recent one showed a slight improvement ... Many of my interviewees said there was a big conflict of interest in having the inspectorate within the organisation that’s meant to be driving wider policies on the curriculum and improvement. Essentially the organisation is then marking its own homework.”

An ES spokeswoman said: “Our strong focus on learning, teaching, leadership and empowerment, and our strengthened partnership working has contributed to our development of a range of programmes of support.

“Everything that we do is informed by the best available evidence… Most recently, we reviewed and adapted our work and how we deliver it, working in close partnership with others, to support the system through challenging circumstances, demonstrating clearly the agility, flexibility and responsiveness of the organisation.”

A GTCS spokesman said: “We reflect upon, adapt, modernise and develop our processes in response to feedback from our registrants and partners to ensure we continue to meet our core purpose of enhancing the quality of teaching and learning.”

An SQA spokesman said: “There have been significant developments in the design and delivery of qualifications in Scotland in recent years. The whole system of National Qualifications has been reformed, to align to Curriculum for Excellence, which is itself a significant reform. Further changes are being made this year, to respond to the challenges of Covid-19, and deliver for learners.”

A Government spokeswoman said closing the attainment gap remained its “defining mission” and that its focus on “equity and excellence” would continue.

“We are investing £182 million from the Attainment Scotland Fund in 2020/21 and, for the first time, more than £250m in Pupil Equity Funding will be made available to 97 per cent of head teachers over 2020/21 and 2021/22,” she added.

“The Scottish Government remains committed to empowering schools… to make the key decisions which affect the educational outcomes of children and young people.”