Scottish education is stagnating and needs an injection of outside expertise to achieve better outcomes for pupils, a major report has warned.

Analysis published by the Social Market Foundation and campaign group ScotlandCan says the schooling system is “cautious, conformist, risk averse and stuck in its ways".

And it claims those in senior positions are rewarded because they are likely to avoid "rocking the boat".

Outlining a range of recommendations - among them an "innovation fund" for sponsoring novel projects - the research stresses that a "shift in culture" is needed to secure real and lasting improvement.

READ MORE: Education 'trapped in the iron cage of its own bureaucracy'

Ministers, however, have insisted the Scottish curriculum is fit for the 21st century.

It comes amid intense political debate over education policy and, in particular, the structure of key national agencies.

Last month saw opposition MSPs team up to back a motion calling for the break-up of watchdog Education Scotland (ES) and a governance overhaul at the SQA.

"It is easy to get the impression that Scottish school education is in deep crisis, with politicians and commentators quick to condemn the system as 'failing'," the report states. 

"Such narratives of decline can be overstated. To a large extent, they are based on apparent (and not always statistically significant) decreases in Scotland’s scores in PISA, the OECD’s international benchmarking exercise.

"Yet while Scotland’s PISA performance on reading and maths did fall in the early 2000s, it has been fairly stable since 2006; with only science scores dropping in recent editions. 

"Even so, Scotland remains around the OECD average for maths and science and above average for reading. Trends in other measures - such as qualification attainment and progress to further and higher education - have been positive, if not dramatic.

HeraldScotland: Education Secretary John Swinney.Education Secretary John Swinney.

"A better characterisation of the situation is one of 'stagnation'... Scottish school education is functional, it is not on the verge of collapse or disaster, but there is little sense that things are likely to change dramatically or get better quickly."

The report, which was written by SMF Chief Economist Aveek Bhattacharya, describes a number of barriers to progress.

These include a culture of micromanagement that has led to teachers being overloaded with bureaucracy, senior personnel who are too insular and defensive of the status quo, and an overly rigid inspection process.

It also draws attention to the role of the system's "middle layer", with councils seen as a break on developing new approaches and the Regional Improvement Collaboratives (RICs) - which bring together neighbouring local authorities and ES staff - yet to achieve their potential as drivers of improvement. 

READ MORE: OECD education report - Conservatives and Lib Dems under fire

The report's recommendations say ministers should make innovation and experimentation an explicit part of the remit of educational bodies, diversify hiring and appointments to key roles in government and agencies, support forums for the exchange of ideas, and invest in research and knowledge exchange. 

Mr Bhattacharya, who was taught at Cults Academy in Aberdeen, told The Herald that drafting in outside expertise could boost progress.

“In terms of bringing outsiders and disruptors into education policy formation and decision making, it could be helpful to get people who have fundamental criticisms of what is being done and have them on the inside, learning from them and having a productive tension there," he said.

"Or it could be bringing in educationalists from other countries, as has happened with the [Scottish Government's] International Council of Education Advisers (ICEA).

“But, more broadly, are there people from other areas of government, such as the health, business or arts departments, or from the private sector, who could have a role in education policy and decision-making?... Just opting for having the maximum number of people with teaching experience in these positions is not the only measure of success and might even have drawbacks when it comes to providing new ideas, approaches, perspectives.”

Mr Bhattacharya also said he supported moves towards reform of Scotland's examinations and testing system.

HeraldScotland: Mr Bhattacharya indicated he was supportive of efforts to reform the exams and assessment system.Mr Bhattacharya indicated he was supportive of efforts to reform the exams and assessment system.

“We should be look at having more continuous assessment, trying out different types of assessment and moving away from a single, high-stakes exam at the end of the year," he added.

“There’s a jarring shift as pupils move into S4 and the influence of that bleeds down into S3 as well, which in some places is like a sort of prep year for the national qualifications.

“Post-pandemic, and after the exam results fiasco last year, I think it’s impossible that there won’t be some sort of review of assessment procedures in Scottish schools.

"But it’s hard to say how deep or far-reaching that will be, or whether it’ll just be papering over cracks."

READ MORE: Headteachers brand proposals a 'non-starter'

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Scotland’s curriculum is a curriculum for the 21st century. 

"It places learners at the heart of education and all children and young people in Scotland are entitled to experience a coherent curriculum with opportunities to develop the knowledge, skills and attributes they need to adapt, think critically and thrive in our interconnected, digital and rapidly changing world. 

“The pandemic has not changed that and while our schools and teachers are rightly prioritising the safe return of pupils and their health and wellbeing, they remain empowered to provide a flexible and enriched curriculum that is adaptable and responsive to the diverse needs of individual learners and which reflects the uniqueness of their communities."

She added: “The OECD is currently reviewing Scotland’s curriculum and we look forward to its conclusions and recommendations informing a dispassionate discussion about the future of Scottish education.”

HeraldScotland: Aveek Bhattacharya.Aveek Bhattacharya.


Aveek Bhattacharya, Chief Economist, the Social Market Foundation 

Depending on who you ask, you’re likely to get quite different impressions of the state of Scottish schools. Some portray a deep crisis, with standards going backwards. Others argue that the system is founded on sound principles and, though imperfect, basically works.

Despite these passionate disagreements, having spent the last few weeks speaking to experts – academics, school leaders, activists – I found a surprising degree of consensus on one point: Scottish education has a cultural problem.

Almost everyone I spoke to described a system that is cautious, conformist, risk averse and stuck in its ways. Not every teacher, school and local authority, of course, but overall, there is a sense that new ideas are resisted rather than encouraged, that people lack permission to try new things.

Given the challenges we face as a society, highlighted and exacerbated by the pandemic – inequality, technological change, economic disruption – this will not do. We need to find ways to unlock and support the creativity and dynamism of our schools, to experiment with different approaches, in order to build a system fit for the years to come.

There are a number of factors that contribute to the relative stagnation in Scottish schools. Pressures on time and resources limit heads and teachers’ ability to learn about and invest in new approaches.

There is a tendency towards micromanagement rather encouraging teacher discretion. Local authorities are often perceived as stifling diversity to enforce a ‘lowest common denominator standard. Regional Improvement Collaboratives, intended to bring together local authorities within an area to share good practice, are overly bureaucratic and insufficiently creative spaces.

Too often those who achieve senior roles in the educational establishment get there by hewing to consensus, creating an atmosphere that is insular and defensive rather than open and critical. Assessment and inspection practices can be unduly conservative and not flexible enough to deal with non-standard approaches.

There is no lever marked ‘culture’ that policymakers can pull to change all this overnight, but certain measures could help. Fostering innovation and experimentation could be made an explicit part of the remit of educational agencies.

Efforts could be made to seek out dissenting voices and hire more ‘outsiders’. There should be more support for forums where school leaders and teachers meet to exchange ideas, such as TeachMeet, which organises ‘unconferences’ run by teachers for teachers.

A particularly clear way to signal a shift in priorities would be the creation of an ‘innovation fund’ to sponsor schools embarking on particularly novel projects. That would create an immediate incentive for schools to cultivate new and exciting ideas. There could even be a prize to recognise the most effective use of this funding – perhaps presented by a high-profile figure such as the First Minister.

On there own, these measure risk being mere gimmicks. But as the most visible icons of a broader cultural shift, they could form the basis for a more open, dynamic and inventive system, more suited to Scotland’s future needs.