In October of last year, education secretary Jenny Gilruth used her speech at the SNP party conference to announce a new education policy – a Centre of Teaching Excellence.

It would, we were told, “support research and innovation in teaching practice for all children and young people, with the aim of making Scotland a world-leader in teaching practice”, and would be “developed in partnership with teachers and professional associations”.

We gave the announcement some coverage at the time, exploring the response from the education sector and reporting that questions had been asked of the decision to ‘bypass parliament’ and instead break the news at a party-political event.

We also asked the government some questions in an attempt to fill in the considerable gaps in the details about the CTE. How much was it going to cost to establish, and how much to run each year? How long would it take to set up? Did the government speak to any other organisations before deciding to go ahead?

After all, this was being presented as something transformational for Scottish schooling, but hadn’t appeared anywhere in the manifestos from which the current SNP/Green government is deriving its mandate.

Sadly, but unsurprisingly, things didn’t start off very well. As we reported at the time, the Scottish Government refused to answer any of our questions, or to provide any comment in relation to them. You might have thought that they’d be keen to talk, in depth, about a new, headline-grabbing policy – but apparently not.

Clearly, just asking wasn’t going to be enough – we’d have to try using transparency laws instead.

Five FOIs and a matter of 'complexity'

The Herald: Education secretary, Jenny Gilruth

On October 19, I submitted five Freedom of Information (FOI) requests about the Centre for Teaching Excellence.

The first asked for information about the timeline of the policy’s development. Request number two focused on the expected costs of setting up and running the CTE. Number three asked about the remit of the proposed body and whether it would replace, or sit in addition to, any existing education bodies. The fourth and fifth requests were concerned with any meetings held to develop the policy, and any government communications – including internal emails and, at least in theory, Whatsapp messages – about it.

Public bodies are legally required to respond to FOI requests in a maximum of twenty working days, which gave the government until November 16 to gather the relevant material and send it to me.

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Instead, I received an email on that date telling me that the response would not be provided within the legal timelines. This was due to the apparent “complexity of the information involved”.

On November 24 I received another email. This one didn’t contain any FOI responses either – just further notification that the legal timeline would not be followed.

After I contacted the government to ask for an update, I received further emails on November 29 (“I would like to reassure you that we are working hard to respond as quickly as possible and that issuing a response is a priority for us”), November 30 ("We are aware of our statutory responsibilities under FOISA and are working to have the response issued to you as a matter of urgency”) and December 6 (“We are treating it as urgent and continue to work to have the response with you as promptly as possible.”)

The response and associated documents finally arrived on December 11, complete with extensive redactions, using five different legal exemptions, in an attempt to keep a significant amount of material a secret.

The 'trawl' and building of a time line

The Herald: Herald education writer, James McEnaneyHerald education writer, James McEnaney (Image: Colin Mearns)

The standard response to any Scottish Government FOI disclosure is, unfortunately, to exercise your right to a review, to ensure that everything has been made available to you. Over more than a decade I’ve learned that when you challenge exemptions, you almost always get more material released to you, and that it’s not uncommon for new, relevant documents to appear, as if by magic, when you insist that they check their records again.

Having reviewed its handling of my original requests, the government decided to stand by most of the secretive redactions. In several instances, they realised that their argument wouldn’t stand up based on the exemption that had been applied, so they simply decided to apply a different exemption instead, safe in the knowledge that this action couldn’t be challenged without a months-long (if I’m lucky) appeal to the national regulator, the Scottish Information Commissioner.

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The review response also acknowledged that I had asked “a number of questions about the specifics of how the response was managed”. The official even helpfully listed these questions before unhelpfully deciding to refuse to answer them.

But I’d been down this road before and knew another way to find that information, whether the government wanted to share it or not.

Freedom of Information legislation allows anyone to request material held by a public body. What most people don’t know is that documents, case files and communications related to FOI requests also count as FOI-able material. That means that you can submit what is sometimes called a meta-FOI, allowing you to see for yourself at least some of the details around how your request was handled, and the responses to these can be fascinating.

It took three further FOI requests to get a hold of the materials I needed but, in the end, I was able to construct a timeline of the handling of my initial FOI request. Doing so involved trawling through around 300 pages of documents.

So far, so good. Until...

Reading through the email chains it looks as though officials were doing everything right. An initial deadline for departments to respond to the requests was set for November 1, giving a two-week window in which to collate materials, apply redactions, get the release signed off and send it on to me. So far, so good.

A week after that, on December 9, a draft response was sent to Clare Hicks, the government’s Director of Education Reform. Some material appears to have been removed at this stage, and a new response is then sent for clearance from the Special Advisers.

It seems that further changes were requested at this stage after an official confirmed that they had “reviewed both documents in light of SpAds’ views”. An email detailing their comments has, however, been redacted almost in its entirety, so it is impossible to know exactly what they were up to.


All the officials needed now was for Jenny Gilruth to sign off the response, a step required because my requests were deemed to be ‘sensitive’. There is no legal requirement for ministers to sign off FOI responses, nor is this done in all cases.

The documents were sent “for clearance” to the education secretary on November 21.

It is at this point that everything seems to have ground to a halt.

“And once again I’ll confirm I am aware of this”

The Herald:

The day after the materials were sent to Jenny Gilruth’s office for clearance, an official attempted to contact her in order to “get a broad idea of when Cab Sec might have space to look at this and a response might come.” Two days later, Gilruth’s deputy private secretary confirmed that the material was “currently with the Cab Sec and marked as urgent”, but added that a response before the following Monday is unlikely.

Four days later, on November 28, officials again contacted Gilruth’s office about the case. The deputy private secretary initially responded by advising that “Cab Sec is at a conference all day but I’ll follow up again when Ms Gilruth is back which should be shortly after 4pm.”

At 4.30pm, the officials asked for a further update but received a one-line response from Gilruth’s private secretary: “We are fully aware of this.”

Officials tried again on November 30, advising that it would be “helpful” to be able to send the response “before the end of the week.” They received another one-line response from Gilruth’s private secretary: “And once again I’ll confirm I am aware of this.”


In response to a further attempt to move the process along, this time on December 4, Gilruth’s private secretary advised that the FOI response was “still in hand.”

Then, on December 6, an unidentified official engaged with the government’s specialist FOI Unit. They stated that the response was already “overdue by around 3 weeks” and added: “It is sitting with Cab Sec and we are pushing for a response but nothing yet…”

Two days later, yet another request was made for the education secretary to deal with the outstanding FOI response, with an unidentified official pointing out that “it would be really helpful” if the material could be “reviewed and cleared by the Cabinet Secretary as soon as possible.”

Finally, on December11 , Jenny Gilruth was “content to clear the response”, which was then sent to me at quarter past five that evening.

More than just a germ of the idea?

So, after all that, what have we managed to learn about the Centre for Teaching Excellence?

The first mention of the CTE seems to have taken place on September 22, when Special Adviser Sean McGivern asked two high-ranking education officials – Graeme Logan and Clare Hicks – to “work up some high-level, preliminary advice on what this might look like”.

Some material in the original email, and Clare Hicks’ subsequent response, has been redacted, and the method for doing so makes it impossible to know just how much has been kept secret. The email’s subject line, however, is “Advice – centre for teaching excellence”, so although there are no other documents available, the plan certainly seems to have been more than just the germ of an idea.

As for the role and remit of the CTE, the government would only say that this sort of detail will be worked out “as part of the co-design process” – this means that, vague platitudes aside, we still don’t really know what the new centre will actually do.  

Of the likely cost, we know even less, and in all the hundreds of pages I’ve scrolled through, I didn’t find anything to suggest that even a ballpark figure has been calculated. This would be incredible and deeply irresponsible at the best of times, but it is completely indefensible for a government currently overseeing financial cuts that are doing major damage to Scottish education.

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As for the process involved in investigating all of this, the government has clear questions to answer.

The response to my FOI requests – which were only submitted after officials had refused to answer some straight-forward questions – was nearly a full calendar month late, which is bad enough, but the role of the education secretary in apparently causing that delay must be the subject of further investigation.

Responding to this story, a Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government handled more than 5,500 FOI requests in 2023, a significant increase since 2022. In his most recent update report the previous Scottish Information Commissioner recognised the significant progress the Scottish Government had made on responding on time to requests.

“In the second half of last year, 95% received a response within the 20-day timescale.  Ministers have published a refreshed Freedom of Information Improvement Plan this month.”