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Structure and systems versuses learning, teaching and leadership

A couple of days ago Education Scotland announced that they planned to make changes to how they carried out school inspections as, 'the first step in a radical new way Education Scotland will work to support and drive improvement in schools.' This new 'radical' approach was to carry out more inspections, coupled with employment of new HMIEs and 'associate assessors' so that they could raise the number of inspections from the 180 expected to be undertaken this year, to a target figure of 250 for the following year. Amongst their stated aims was a desire to engage with every school in Scotland each year in order to support schools, teachers and school leaders and to drive forward improvement. They will also seek to include the 'younger voice' in inspections and include more use of learners in the inspection process, aiming to produce a How Good Is Our School (HGIOS) for young people to help them become engaged. (give me strength!) In addition, they will be seeking to co-ordinate a 'single approach' to the inspection of early learning, nursery, settings, through collaboration between themselves and the Care Inspectorate.

As usual, this is a bit of a mixed-bag from Education Scotland. Some of these steps may be welcomed by schools and their staff, especially if they emphasise the 'support' element of inspections; meaningfully engage with learners and really listen to what they have to say; and especially if the demands on early learning and childcare centres can be changed so that they are part of a single process and are not subjected to a 'double-jeopardy' inspection regime from both Education Scotland and the Care Inspectorate.

However, what difference are these changes really going to make? Graeme Logan seems convinced that the organisation, that he is currently leading, has to drive educational improvement in order to provide 'excellence and equity' in Scottish education. I do wonder if he felt the same way when he was a school leader? I am not sure he waited around to be told what he needed to do to improve outcomes for the learners in his school, nor that he and his staff did not pay enough attention to the aspects that really made a difference for all his learners.

The first time I met Graeme was at an event which showcased some of the strategies he and his staff had been using to improve learning and teaching in his school. He was a bit of a disciple of Alastair Smith at that time, and was heavily involved in his 'Accelerated Learning Programme'. Turns out, this programme was all about good learning and teaching practices and the application of many of the strategies identified by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, as well as other research emerging at that time, or earlier. My reminder to him and others would be that this is still where all our attention should be, instead of being fixated on changing structures and systems, or ramping up accountability, in the hope that this will have major impacts.

The Scottish Government's own panel of international education advisors published a short report earlier this summer about their findings and recommendations at this stage of their engagement. In this they warned that one of the key areas of Curriculum for Excellence, the development of the 'whole child', could be missed by the way plans to drive up performance were being implemented. They cautioned about undue attention and significance being given to changing systems and structures at the expense of developing teaching, leadership, and the promotion of cultures of collaboration. Culture and capacity were  more important in helping us achieve our aims, and that is where attention should be directed. That was their advice.

Was anyone listening? It would seem not, because announcement after announcement from Scottish Government and Education Scotland still focuses on structures and systems. No-one would argue that these are not important to education systems, schools and classrooms, but there is a wealth of research which points to teachers, their practice, leaders and cultures of collaboration and trust, as the prime factors for improving outcomes for all learners, and it is there that we should maintain our focus. John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon have both stated the desire for us to be informed by research, as well as from what is working elsewhere. However, the actions of the government and its quangos continue to betray that desire. It seems that they will ignore research if it goes against political ideology or decisions already made, and they continue to adopt policy and practice that has been demonstrated to have been unsuccessful in other systems.

Graeme Logan is between a rock and a hard place in many respects. He is trying to re-brand education Scotland, and put his stamp on the organisation. Count how many times you see this in a presentation or press release, 'Education Scotland is a partnership of people who believe passionately in the power of education to change lives.' Oh really, Graeme. Every school in Scotland is full of staff who believe the same, and who are working day by day to deliver that. What they need, and deserve, is Education Scotland and Scottish Government to support and trust them with this, not add to the pressures by ratchetting up accountability agendas, or trying to micromanage from above, with thinly veiled threats. It would  be great if an Education Minister or head of Education Scotland came out and said something like,

'We have fabulous teachers and schools in Scotland, and I trust them to deliver for every one of the learners, in every one of our schools. My job is to support them in this, by listening to what they require, then providing them with the resources to achieve even more for all our learners, and ultimately our society. Teaching is not easy, it is complex and demanding. Our schools and teachers deal with this professionally and compassionately every day. The wider community should value and support them too, and recognise that teachers and schools often have to address individual issues for learners and families before they can begin to properly address the learning ones.  They, and we, want to help develop and educate the whole child, whatever their background and context, recognising their unique individuality. Not everyone learns at the same rate, but our teachers recognise that everyone can and will learn, and I am proud to support them in any way I can. We should all do the same. Education is too important for it to be a political football, and I trust the experts we have in every school.'

Then, they would need to match their actions to those words, which they would need to keep repeating at every opportunity and to every audience. Perhaps then, we would start to establish a different culture and narrative around education, which would really help us to tackle the issues that have grown and persisted over many years. Teaching, leadership, cultures and collaboration cannot be improved by imposition and mandate. They can be developed and improved through support, time and access to research and researchers, which can help in every area. When that happens, we will truly see a sustainable and deep change across the system and in all our schools. We may even find headteacher recruitment and teacher retention are not the issues they currently are.

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