During her speech at the SNP party conference, education secretary Jenny Gilruth announced the establishment of a new organisation in Scotland: the Centre of Teaching Excellence.

She told the party faithful that this centre would be “co-designed with our teachers and professional associations” and that it “will put Scotland at the forefront of innovative research.” She then went on to claim that the creation of the new body would allow the government to “work together with Local Authorities in our shared, national mission to close the attainment gap and delivery truly excellent learning and teaching to all of our children.”

It was all fairly brief and understated, and the minister didn’t get into why a body like this one could be so valuable, but the idea of reshaping our education system with a focus on the quality of teaching taking place, and the support available to teachers to help improve their practice, would arguably represent a significant departure from recent years, when boosting stats and chasing positive headlines seem to have been the real priorities.

“On the face of it,” one expert told me, “a Centre of Teaching Excellence which involves teachers and professional associations sounds like a very positive step forward, although I’d like to see more details of what this will actually involve.”

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And that, it turns out, is the problem, because for all that talk of co-design, collaboration and partnership, it quickly became clear that “teachers and professional organisations” – the ones the government desperately needs on-side after years of animosity, and who had been promised a new relationship when Jenny Gilruth took office – had been left in the dark over the detail of this policy announcement.

The day after Gilruth’s announcement, EIS Assistant Secretary Anne Keenan released a statement advising that her organisation had “read with interest the comments made by the Cabinet Secretary” during her conference speech. She added that it was “unfortunate that in seeking to promote empowerment, the Scottish government had not consulted the professional organisations about these plans in advance.”

Keenan went on to argue that, while the new body “may” offer support and advice to teachers in terms of their classroom practice “it will not address the impact of rampant and increasing poverty or of the chronic under-resourcing of ASN provision”.

The union’s General Secretary, Andrea Bradley, echoed those points as she confirmed that the establishment of the Centre of Teaching Excellence was not something her members had been calling for. She added that “a full collegiate discussion about the government's proposal would perhaps have been more consistent with the Cabinet Secretary's previous indication that she wishes to reset the relationship with the profession.”

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Several academics from universities that run Initial Teacher Education courses, and which have the strongest links to the sort of ‘research and innovation in teaching practice’ that the government says it wants to facilitate, also confirmed that they were not aware of the plans prior to the minister’s speech.

The same is even true of the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS), which registers and regulates the teaching profession.  In a statement issued several days after the initial announcements, the organisation’s Chief Executive, Dr Pauline Stephen, pointed out that the GTCS has legal responsibilities with regards to the quality of teaching in Scottish schools. She also insisted that the GTCS would have a “vital role to play in the development of these plans”.

However, a spokesperson subsequently confirmed that the organisation only found out about the plans “through [their] media monitoring service, which picked up the Scottish Government’s press release.”

They continued: “We have no further insight into the role of the Centre beyond what was included in the Scottish Government’s press release. We will be seeking a meeting to discuss the new Centre with the Cabinet Secretary.”

The Herald: School classroom

The Herald can also confirm that the Scottish Government did not inform parliament of this policy announcement prior to Ms Gilruth’s speech at party conference.

A spokesperson for the Scottish Parliament said: “The Presiding Officer has made clear on previous occasions that all significant government announcements should first be made to the Parliament.

"During recess, the mechanism for making announcements to Parliament is through written questions initiated by the Government.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson told The Herald that “the Education Secretary will update Parliament on education reform later this year.”

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Following the Education Secretary’s announcement I spoke to Billy Burke, one of the members of the 2022 Muir Report which kicked off the current process of education reform. He argued that the government’s latest proposal falls well within the remit of their work and should, therefore, be focused on delivering their recommendations, especially in terms of slimming down the management structures in Scottish education.

“Teachers told us they would welcome more support which delivers for them in the classroom, particularly by freeing space and time for them to plan and implement high quality teaching and learning experiences. The Muir Report recommended a simplification of the ‘middle’ of the system and called for more teacher voice in directing its work. It is unclear if the new agency is to be the replacement for Education Scotland, and I would hope it does not form another separate part of an already cluttered landscape.”

He added that the group “did not want to see the functions of pedagogy and curriculum separated, as they are co-dependent and intertwined in practice.”

Similar concerns have been raised by Professor Mark Priestley, who is a Professor of Education at the University of Stirling, as well as the Director of the Stirling Network for Curriculum Studies. Writing on his blog, Priestley identifies potential positives outcomes from the government’s new policy, most notably that it could help to create a new space for teachers to develop their technical and professional abilities while also creating shared resources.

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However, he also identifies a number of significant “bear traps that are associated with the development of the new centre.” The government has, he argues, delivered “essentially a detail-free announcement”, making firm conclusions impossible. He also points to the ‘narrow’ focus on schools and the “danger that this will be a top-down initiative”, no matter what the government says about its intentions.

Priestley also raises the government’s recent decision to cut all funding for teachers’ Masters level study, describing it as myopic and raising questions about whether “in-house training in existing agencies and the proposed Centre will provide the same benefits.”

Ultimately, he concludes that improving teaching depends upon providing “the time and space for teachers to work in more constructive ways as curriculum makers.”

In an attempt to fill in some of the blanks around this policy announcement, we approached the Scottish Government with a number of questions about the proposed new Centre of Teaching Excellence.

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We asked officials to confirm which organisations or individuals had been informed of the plans prior to the conference speech, and whether their failure to consult unions represented the government trying to reset and rebuild its relationship with teachers.

We also asked whether the Centre of Teaching Excellence will replace an existing organisation, such as Education Scotland, or become an additional body overseeing schooling across the country.

Finally, we asked how much the government expected the creation and running of the new body to cost, and how long they thought it would take to set up.

The Scottish Government refused to answer any of our questions or to provide any comment in response to these queries. Their spokesperson simply directed us to the ‘background’ section of their press release, which states: “Next steps for the creation of the Centre of Teaching Excellence will be announced in due course, after engagement with teachers and professional associations.”