Scotland has the opportunity to achieve “significant” reform of education but lacks vital information about how its teaching and learning system is progressing, according to Glasgow’s new schools boss.

Douglas Hutchison has suggested that ministers should look at bringing in a domestic, annual version of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The study, which is run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), previously revealed worrying performance declines among Scottish 15-year-olds in maths and science.

A former Catholic priest, Mr Hutchison also said his experience of working in the Church had reinforced the importance of “not trying to dictate” the direction of travel.

“Headteachers are the key stakeholders,” he told The Herald. “It’s for me to work with them on the big strategic issues that take Glasgow to the next level.

“I have a view on what might work but that won’t be imposed on the system. The days of Strathclyde, almost, where there was that rigorous approach of ‘we make the decisions, you implement them’ don’t exist anymore.”

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Mr Hutchison has taken over as Glasgow Council’s executive director of education following the retirement of Maureen McKenna, his highly regarded predecessor.

The change comes during a period of unprecedented upheaval, with schools battling to secure learning recovery in the wake of Covid-19.

Major reform efforts are also under way after the OECD published a report that highlighted major flaws in the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence. These include a failure to align the broad general education – which is delivered between the ages of three and 15 – with the senior phase in S4-6. The analysis – particularly its reference to “19th century” assessment practices – has resulted in plans to replace the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and remove inspections from standards body Education Scotland.

Mr Hutchison said there were some effective arrangements for providing teachers with information about how pupils are progressing and argued that the often-criticised Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSAs) were a good “diagnostic” tool. But he added: “We don’t gather in that data and compare schools with schools – or use it at system level to say how well is the system performing.”

Mr Hutchison said he would “personally” go back to the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN). This was an annual sample of P4, P7 and S2 learners that was discontinued in 2017 as part of the shift to SNSAs and the process through which teachers judge pupil performance against key milestones known as the Curriculum for Excellence Levels.

Douglas Hutchison recently took over from Maureen McKenna as Glasgow Council's executive director of education.Maureen McKenna, Glasgow Council's former education director, has retired.

Elaborating on the idea of returning to the SSLN, Mr Hutchison said: “That’s largely what the OECD said. They questioned using a census approach when a survey approach would be fine.

“So, you’ve got a statistical model that says, if we’ve got this number of young people, and we do some kind of test, that gives you an indication of whether the system is going up or going down. And it’s an objective measure because it’s a standard test.

“At the moment, [with] SNSA, there’s nothing published nationally. The deal is that this is for schools to use as a diagnostic tool. For me it should be called the Scottish National Diagnostic Assessment. But it’s for individual classes and individual teachers as a diagnostic tool, and I don’t know what it gives us at system level.

“We need some measure of how well the system is progressing. So, I would like some kind of survey. We’re doing PISA this year. We take part in an international survey – why would we not have a national [survey] on an annual basis?”

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On the issue of wider education reform, Mr Hutchison said: “Scottish education seems to be inherently conservative.

“So, there’s an opportunity at the moment that change could be significant. But, at the same time, that conservatism might be well-placed, and it might be rooted in an anxiety about the system’s ability to deal with change while protecting young people’s education.

“It might be about not wanting to jeopardise what’s going on for young people who are in the system at this point in time. But I do think this is an opportunity.

“I think reform of the SQA is a good thing. I think reform of Education Scotland is a good thing. I think there’s a real opportunity but we all need to be part of that.”

Douglas Hutchison recently took over from Maureen McKenna as Glasgow Council's executive director of education.Mr Hutchison said there was an opportunity for significant reform of Scottish education.

Mr Hutchison, who was previously depute chief executive at South Ayrshire Council, said collegial decision-making and collective responsibility would be central features of his tenure. He said: “I think I have a sense of responsibility for all the young people in Scotland because I think Glasgow can be a leader in terms of making a difference for the most deprived children, young people and families.

“I think Glasgow is already leading the way. And, to that extent, I think I’ve got a responsibility wider than Glasgow in the same way I would expect headteachers to see themselves as responsible beyond their school gate.”

Mr Hutchison also said there were echoes between education leadership and being a priest. “Faith by definition is a voluntary activity,” he added.

“I’m not saying taking responsibility for the children and young people of Glasgow if you work in education is a voluntary responsibility. But it wouldn’t be my intention to operate in a context where diktats come from the centre and people follow them. There has to be an element of bringing people with you.”