Plans for a national agency to improve Scottish education risk repeating past mistakes and perpetuating the system’s bureaucratic, “control from the centre” tendencies, a leading expert has suggested.  

Professor Mark Priestley also argues that, while change is “eminently possible”, the window for enacting it is “limited”.

His remarks come after the Government published a report by Professor Ken Muir, whose recommendations have resulted in plans to replace the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and standards body Education Scotland.

As well as making the inspectorate fully independent, ministers will create a new organisation with wide-ranging responsibility for supporting teaching and learning. It will also develop advice on curriculum and assessment policy.

READ MORE: Education super-agency will work to boost Scottish schools

Prof Muir’s report states that the agency should take on board the SQA’s accreditation and regulation roles. However, Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville last week told MSPs that additional consideration regarding where these functions sit would be needed.

She said: “Our renewed system must reflect the culture and values we want to see embedded throughout; it must be a system that puts learners at the centre and provides excellent support for our teachers and practitioners.

“But it must also be a system where there is clear accountability. Democratic accountability, organisational accountability but also accountability to the learners who have a right to expect the highest quality of learning and teaching while giving them the best chance of success.”

The Herald: Shirley-Anne Somerville said Scottish education had much to be proud of but would need to improve.Shirley-Anne Somerville said Scottish education had much to be proud of but would need to improve.

Prof Priestley, one of Scotland’s top thinkers on curriculum design and theory, has said that plans for the new agency will bring their own challenges.

Setting out his initial views in a blog post, he writes: “The [Muir] report neatly conveys the idea that changing the structures, while necessary, should only be a starting point for more wholesale cultural change. I strongly agree.

“A rebranding exercise will not fix the endemic problems that exist in the system, but structural change will provide the mechanisms, potentially, to address them, including decluttering the crowded and often incoherent landscape for curriculum making in Scotland.”

However, he adds: “I note here that the proposed national agency will have a very broad scope, creating the potential for yet another monolithic organisation, with rigid hierarchies, demarcations and communication issues. If this happens, then we will have wasted our time.

“There is an urgent need to tackle issues of hierarchy, bureaucracy, lack of trust, control from the centre, and the crude accountability and data mechanisms that are associated with current structures and systems. Simply changing the structures will not on its own address these issues.”

Prof Priestley argues that a more “holistic” understanding of what curriculum means will be crucial.

He writes: “If we take the view that the important curriculum is that experienced in classrooms and other educational spaces, then we should also take the view that the role of the system is to support this (with particular attention to professional learning), and the agency of staff and children.

“Too often, the inverse seems to be the case, with activity in schools being organised to support system goals, for example boosting attainment statistics. What matters are the knowledge, skills and attributes we wish to develop through education (purposes), how that is achieved in practice in classrooms, and how the system can best support this.”

READ MORE: Education Scotland to be replaced as part of education reforms

Prof Muir said last week that his proposed changes were designed to make Scottish schooling more learner-centred. “As our students and society change over time, so too do our expectations of what we want and need from our education system," he added. "It is important that Scottish education reflects and responds to those changes in ways that offer opportunities for all current and future learners to thrive.

“The recommendations in my report are designed to ensure that the needs of every individual learner lie at the heart of all decisions taken and all that we do. They are designed to ensure that the voices of learners, teachers and practitioners have greater prominence and influence in decision making and that teachers and practitioners receive the support they need in carrying out their challenging and critically important teaching role.” 

Prof Priestley’s full post can be accessed here