Glasgow-based education specialists argue that top-down reform efforts will not help Scottish education.

Instead, Professors Chris Chapman and Graham Donaldson make the case that those closest to the classroom – teachers themselves – must be allowed to drive the country's reform efforts.

This will require what they called a "culture change", and a shift from training teachers to perform in a specific way. Instead, teachers need continued professional learning so that they can implement reform in their unique contexts and adapt to future challenges.

Their recent paper ‘Where Next for Scottish Education: Leading from the Classroom’ is the latest publication from the university’s Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change.

In it, Professors Chapman and Donaldson draw on studies which show that teachers account for more variation in student performance than any other factor.

"Put simply, an education system cannot outperform the quality of its teachers. Teachers and classrooms do make a significant difference," the paper states.

“It is clear that, not only do teachers and classrooms matter, they matter more than schools, local authorities and central government in terms of ensuring that children progress well in their learning and in reducing variations within the system.”

To "unlock the potential" in Scotland's teacher workforce, they make the case that teachers should be the ones to implement change.

They argue that teachers need continued support for professional learning, collaboration and training. This is particularly important during periods of review and reform when classroom conditions and curriculum expectations can change quickly, they said.

“These conditions should be seen as an obligation not an opportunity and should be protected, particularly when resources are scarce.”

Education services shouldn't be a "sacrificial lamb" during difficult financial times, Professor Donaldson said. Teacher learning and development can pay dividends, as long as local authorities are willing to invest.

The paper also raises questions about the future of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE).

When the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results were published, Scotland had slipped in maths, reading and science.

And yet, when the Scottish Government published its Achievement for Curriculum for Excellence Levels (ACEL) data, the numbers showed a slight improvement in literacy and numeracy for Scottish students.

Read more: Scotland's literacy and numeracy statistics explained

Some of the variations can be explained by the different ways that PISA and ACEL statistics are calculated – the former is measured by a standardised assessment and the latter by teacher judgment.

However, Professors Chapman and Donaldson questioned whether these “incongruent” outcomes are part of a bigger issue with CfE.

“CfE was a radical departure from accepted forms of curriculum design, but it is now nearly twenty years since its development began and the world is very different.

“Despite continuing strong support across the teaching profession, questions must be asked about how far its current shape is still relevant and working in practice.

“We need to promote an honest conversation about what counts as success and to reflect on whether we have the best possible measures and indicators in place to support a system underpinned by high expectations.”

One of the first steps should be to engage regularly with teachers, they argue.

Read more: Hayward Report explained: What is a Scottish Diploma of Achievement?

Since 2020, there have been at least six major reviews of Scottish education, including Prof Ken Muir’s 2022 review of CfE, Prof Louise Hayward’s 2023 review of Scottish qualifications, and a National Discussion which consulted more than 38,000 students, teachers and parents.

Each of these used what Professors Chapman and Donaldson called “participative approaches” to engage teachers.

“If Scotland is to move to a more cohesive, collaborative and innovative educational culture, we need to establish such participative approaches as the norm rather than the exception.”

The Herald: Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth is expected to address the Hayward report's findings soon.Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth is expected to address the Hayward report's findings soon. (Image: PA)

This argument fits with recent comments from Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth and teachers themselves. At a recent conference in Stirling organised by Scottish Teachers for Enhancing Practice, Ms Gilruth spoke about the need to better engage with teachers.

Read more: Gilruth 'gets it' but after nearly two decades that just isn't enough

In order to break what she called Scottish education’s “perpetual change cycle”, in which changes are regularly discussed but rarely implemented, she said that recommendations have to make sense according to teachers’ classroom experiences.  

Ms Gilruth recently surveyed teachers across the country, asking their opinions on various proposals from the National Discussion and Hayward report. She is expected to respond directly to the findings and recommendations from the Hayward report soon, and this could kick off the next stage of education reform in Scotland.

For that next stage to be successful, Professor Chapman said that Scottish education will need to be able to adapt quickly.

“As academics working in issues of educational change, improvement and innovation across the globe, combined with a strong commitment to improving education, we are convinced that there is an urgent need for radical thinking about how best to support all of Scotland’s young people to learn and flourish in an increasingly challenging environment."

Professor Donaldson said that teachers need to be supported so that they can respond in real-time to future variables – including artificial intelligence, global warming and a shifting geopolitical and economic landscape.

“Decisions about how children learn are best made where that learning takes place. Putting professionals at the heart of decision-making will therefore better meet the needs of children and young people from all backgrounds. 

“Achieving the right balance between local responsibility and the need to make sure what is taught and learned is high quality is vital for keeping Scotland’s young people fit for the future, its society healthy and its economy strong.”