Scottish education: sleepwalking into the abyss


by Gary Walsh

I am writing this post as a challenge to the narrative developing in Scottish education circles at the moment. I believe that we are in danger of sleepwalking into an abyss of ill-conceived reform based on an impoverished understanding of the purposes of education, confusion about the meaning of equity in that context, and a politicisation of the education system the like of which we have not seen in generations.

The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence was developed and indeed heralded as a radical programme for educational transformation. The original CfE document (published in 2004) remains the most purposeful document available to us. I would like to suggest that now would be the perfect time for the underpinning values of CfE and the Four Capacities to be reviewed and updated.

A lot has happened since 2004 and indeed the ‘National Conversation’ that preceded the CfE document. The global economic crisis of 2008 happened. The 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum happened. Now Brexit and Trump have happened. All of these represent key challenges that have tested and will continue to test Scottish society. The world is going through a phase of mass disruptive change: politically, socially, ecologically, economically and culturally. We are faced with some of the greatest challenges of our times including global inequality, climate change, social conflict and lack of cohesion, a failing economic system, as well as rises in global terrorism and right-wing political agendas.

This presents many challenges for education and lifelong learning, not least in terms of uncertainties about funding, leadership and administration, but it poses fundamental questions that have a direct impact on the purpose and meaning of education and learning itself: what is worth knowing and doing? What kind of world should we be trying to create? In an age of anger, mistrust and fear, how can education and lifelong learning help to cultivate compassion, trust and collective action? If ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, what kind of village, and how can it be done? What is the vision for society that we are aspiring towards?

The values that are inscribed onto the ornamental mace at the Scottish Parliament that apparently define not only CfE but the principles of society and democracy itself –  wisdom, justice, compassion and integrity – are fine words. I am astonished however by the number of people I have spoken with in recent years who do not know where these words came from. In a 2006 paper entitled A Curriculum for Excellence: A Question of Values, Donald Gillies points out the truth which is that the values were chosen by the silversmith who designed the mace. Gillies suggests that this puts the whole basis of CfE, and the claims that it is designed around the principle of democracy, in doubt.

The slogans we call the Four Capacities – confident individuals, responsible citizens, effective contributors and successful learners – are certainly not beyond question either. Where did they come from and what do they mean? What vision of society are we expecting children and young people to confidently, responsibly, successfully and effectively contribute towards? Without a coherent vision for the kind of society we are aiming to create, the Four Capacities are meaningless.

Donald Trump arguably possesses all of the Four Capacities. He is certainly a confident individual. He is extremely effective in what he contributes. He has successfully learned how to do so. Is he a responsible citizen? A majority of the American electorate seem to think he is.

Mark Priestley and Walter Humes simply ask this of the Four Capacities: “Would it make much difference if the capacities were given as effective learners, responsible individuals, successful citizens and confident contributors?” (Priestley & Humes, 2010: 351)

It seems vital that we continue to develop and further embed CfE. The first step should be to scrutinise the Four Capacities (if not drop them completely) and re-visit the place of values by opening up a long-term dialogue about the meaning and purposes of education in Scotland.

There are many sources of inspiration that could help us to do just that. Professor Stephen Ball articulates the requirements for educative schooling and the education of democratic citizens as being “concerned with literacies for active, local and global citizenship, including a critical view of the world of work”, a “responsibility to contribute to the development of “high energy democracy” (Unger, 1994) in ways which draw upon ‘narratives of human possibility’” and a rethinking of “the relationship between education and opportunity, equity, and wellbeing”. (Ball, 2013: 26)

I would add social justice to that final list. We haven’t even begun to tap into the possibility of developing a shared understanding of these kinds of ideas. We could open up an empowering dialogue around the question of purpose, principles and values in Scottish education, and it would be especially fascinating to learn what children and young people think. Having developed a shared sense of purpose, we should then put our trust in the professional abilities of teachers, researchers, youth workers and lecturers to help us realise our ambitions, instead of allowing a situation to develop where they are completely entrapped by top-down bureaucracies. I am advocating that everybody – educators, children, young people and communities – can bring their collective knowledge, experience and expertise to the table and that together we can ignite education from the ground up.

Instead of clarifying our thinking around CfE and the purposes of education, we are currently doing the opposite. We are getting further and further away from the original intentions of CfE: so much so that its principles can scarcely be located in the National Improvement Framework. We are no longer engaged in a process of radical transformation – if indeed we ever were. Instead we are set to become entangled with a shambolic programme of standardised assessments and yet more benchmarks that will attempt to specify everything but will ultimately mean very little. 

A recent Statement for Practitioners from Education Scotland references the CfE principles and values, unchanged from the original 2004 document, in the appendix! Make no mistake about it: the bigger picture is not at the forefront of policy-makers’ minds. We have moved on from discovering and questioning the principles of education. We are now dealing in a crude game of gaps, numbers, graphs, comparisons, data and outcomes, all of which are politically driven and motivated by a desire for marginal gains designed to appease voters, in which the principles and purposes of Scottish education could be lost for a generation.

Which leads me on to the issue of equity. The narrow focus we currently have on the ‘Attainment Gap’ rather crassly presents poverty as a technical challenge to be counter-acted by increasing the effectiveness of teaching and assessment strategies. There is no doubt that effective teaching is part of the solution, but it must be understood in the overall context which is that teachers and pupils are working in the some of the most socially unjust circumstances in Western Europe.

Educational equity does not simply mean that everybody should get five Highers. If we are serious about equity being one of the core purposes of education we need to think way beyond academic attainment. Equity is about fairness, justice and inclusion. It is about ensuring that education serves to enhance the wellbeing of all of us and not just a few of us. It is about understanding and challenging the broader structures of power that serve to perpetuate various categories of inequality.

How then do we achieve equity in education? Here are some thoughts as a starter-for-ten:

  • All educators should be empowered and encouraged to actively advocate and campaign for the rights of children and young people, illuminating and challenging the unjust circumstances in which so many children and young people are living. This would involve supporting teachers, for instance, in refining their understanding of children’s rights and social justice issues, and being equipped with an in-depth understanding of the material and psychological impact of poverty on children and families. I would argue that the contents of courses such as Edinburgh University’s BA in Childhood Practice and University of Glasgow’s MSc in Youth Studies should be standard issue for all educators.
  • We need to develop a broader narrative that goes beyond issues of effectiveness in education. The pressures and disadvantages of ‘performativity’ in education are well documented. This means constantly revisiting the values, principles, purposes and meaning of education – and trusting educators to act on the basis of those principles, not just in response to targets, benchmarks and/or Key Performance Indicators.
  • Education policy should be understood as part of a broader project of social change. This means aligning education policy in concert with other policies that are designed to create equity across the system more generally and, vitally, eradicating poverty. The only way to do this is by implementing progressive policies that are designed to redistribute wealth more equally across society. In keeping with that overall mission, education policy should be developed on the basis of a social, humanistic model rather than an industrial/accountability model (these points are further argued here as part of the Common Weal Policy Lab on education and inequality).
  • During a period of politicisation of education, educators should be free to ‘get political’ in their responses. We cannot escape the fact that public state education will always be political. There are many educators in Scotland who would quietly subscribe to the theories of Critical Pedagogy and Critical Democratic Education – but I would argue that the associated practices are notably absent in Scottish education. We have a well-meaning but ultimately subservient group of professionals who are desperately trying to make things better by working within the confines of the status quo. We need more people who are willing to speak out against injustices, mis-guided political tinkering and anything else that is clearly not in the best interests of the children, young people and communities that education is supposed to serve.
  • We need a much more diverse group of professionals working in education (institutions and policy making) and a more diverse educational offer. Teachers and education policy makers tend to be people for whom education has ‘worked’. They have made such a success of it that they return to it as a profession. There is a lot to celebrate here of course, but does it not make the task of meeting the needs of young people for whom the current system does not ‘work’ much more difficult? Who is there in the system that can really understand the situation of these young people and can act convincingly on their behalf?
  • The status and role of early years practice, youth work, vocational learning, adult education as well as ‘atypical’ models of education such as Folk Schools, Place-Based Learning and Kindergarten should be examined and strengthened where necessary. Scotland has typically developed its education policy by consensus building (noting the ‘con’ in consensus). The resulting one-size-fits-all approach may have worked for us in the past but now it seems outdated and, like many education systems around the world, in need of a serious rethink.

I said at the beginning of this post that I wanted to challenge the current narrative in Scottish education. I have argued that we should get back to the basics of values, principles and purposes and I have argued that we need to get serious about the issue of equity.

Comments are very welcome below as are online responses to this post using the hashtag #ignitingeducation – let’s spark a more open and meaningful dialogue.

Thank you for reading.

About the author

Gary is the creator of the Curriculum for Equity website. He is a freelance facilitator with particular interests in values, character development, social/emotional skills and social justice. He is a founding editor of #scotedchat (a weekly chat on Twitter about Scottish education) and the co-author of Speaking of Values. You can use the contact page to contact Gary directly.

Curriculum for Equity is a collaborative blogging platform – if you wish to write a blog for the website please get in touch.

15 thoughts on “Scottish education: sleepwalking into the abyss

  1. Well said Gary. I don’t think we are as much ‘sleepwalking into the abyss’, but are being taken there by design and by policy. The profession, and everyone with an interest in education and the development of a fairer society needs to speak up and not be cowed by the hidden pressures that can be put upon them, especially when working within the system. We owe it to our learners and our society to make our voice heard, and make this one which is informed by research and evidence. The changes we seek and need, cannot be mandated or micro-managed from above. They can only come from the values and intrinsic motivations of all in the system, informed by sound research and evidence, not political whim or ideology.


  2. Well said and important article. This sums up exactly how I felt following sitting through another Understanding Standards event about yet more changes to bring us into line with other subjects. Standardisation and assessment does not close the gap. Equity, fairness, tolerance and respect help do so. Funding and supporting learners from early years on helps. Not closing libraries or losing educational psychologists. We are drowning in anacronyms and SALS and Benchmarks and seem unable to see the wood for the trees.


  3. Thanks George. You’re probably right about the ‘sleepwalking’… I wonder though how many parents and wider public know or understand the implications of the reforms being rushed through just now.

    Making voices heard vital of course but it’s not obvious how to do that. Twitter and blogging only go so far! Do we need a stronger and more visible platform?


  4. Thanks – seems so important to share these thoughts especially when they strike a chord with others. I had moments of doubt writing this piece along the lines of ‘is it just me?’. Totally agree regarding funding and resources too – we’re spending huge amounts on standardisation, attainment advisors etc while losing other important resources. Priorities seem pretty clear.


  5. Hi Gary, there is much here that I firmly agree with. You’ve given lots to think about.
    I personally think one of the most powerful and radical ways we can challenge the system is by giving more credence and meaningful opportunity for pupil voice, in all its many forms.
    However, assessment of learning is vitally important. We must be careful not to dismiss it out of hand. But it’s the process and manner in which we use assessment that is important. Benchmarks diminish the need for moderation and lessen the validity of professional judgement. Standardised assessments are a poorly conceived short term and desperate political measure.
    I openly subscribe to Critical Pedagogy but I think you’ll find not every teacher in Scotland will know what it means. Therefore, I would be wary of passing judgements such as “We have a well-meaning but ultimately subservient group of professionals who are desperately trying to make things better by working within the confines of the status quo.” An awakening of critical consciousness is less likely if we are labelled and judged (poorly) as ‘subservient’. Also, many teachers are studying for Masters and Diplomas out of their own pocket. And there are plenty of other excellent courses on offer from Universities. But teacher leadership needs investment and the will to do so. We are a long way from an effective model of CPD in the Scottish system.
    Also, my experience of working in a number of different authorities is that we don’t have a one-size-fits-all approach. The exact opposite. In fact, if we had more of a joined up approach many of the problems with CfE might not have materialised. Effective cluster working and transitions between feeder primaries and secondaries are still massively inconsistent and irregular across the country, to highlight one example.
    I also disagree with the premise that if you are not from poverty yourself then you are less likely to understand or be compassionate for those that are. As a generalist, there are many things I teach and many pupils I teach that I am not an expert on. I am not a lived expert on a whole host of ethnic cultures, different religions, learning difficulties etc. However, through training and teaching experience I build the professional skills to understand and apply sound teaching strategies, values and ethics to whatever challenges face me in the classroom or community. This would be the same of any professional, would it not? This is not the same argument to widening the pool of teachers. Which is what I think you are driving at and I agree wholeheartedly. As a male primary teacher I would love to encourage more men into the profession, for instance. And especially men from a wider range of demographic and ethnic backgrounds.


  6. Thanks Athole for such a considered reply and for unpicking this further. Lots for me to think about here too.
    I agree regarding pupil voice and assessment (although I wonder if we should be looking more at inclusion and participation instead of ‘voice’ per se).
    You are right to challenge my use of ‘subservient’. Hopefully I have put it in context of trusting the profession, meaningful empowerment, capacity for critical responses etc. It wasn’t meant to be a negative judgement of teachers themselves but exposing a general culture of compliance, for which there are many reasons (not to forget of course that compliance is not always bad!).
    On your last point I am not suggesting that “if you are not from poverty yourself” you are less able to meet the needs of pupils experiencing poverty. It’s a point about the diversity and knowledge of the workforce (and not just teachers). We have a very long way to go on that and of course it’s not unique to education!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I don’t know if you have come across the book ‘In and Against the State’ by the London Edinburgh Weekend Return Group. It talks about these tensions you mention from the view of public sector workers committed to social justice who are required to implement state policies. These tensions arose in particular from their commitment to promoting social justice and challenging capitalist systems and policies for the people that they worked with, whilst simultaneously being held accountable to state policy and processes. I studied it as part of my Community Education course in the 80s but it’s probably out of print now. If you can get a hold of it, it’s worth reading as not much has changed in that regard.


  8. Gary, you have certainly struck a chord and it most certainly isn’t ‘just you’, much of what you write captures the essence of recent professional discourse, through LfS Practitioner Network and recent teacher enquiry events. It feels that Scot Ed has two faces/personalities at present; one which has rightly put social justice at heart of professional teaching standards and highlights the significance of learning for a better world, the other – hell bent on producing benchmarks and tests without allowing time/funds/effort for positive action towards social justice and equity. Millions poured into LA Challenge Authorities targeting lowest attaining pupils with teaching strategies and methodologies when in many cases the same pupils have less support from learning assistants, longer waiting times for psychological support, poorer quality free school meals and more chaotic lives when leave the school gates due to benefit cuts, etc.

    Sad to hear that the values inscribed on the mace in the Scot Parl were created by the craftsmen who inscribed them!


  9. Thank you for this insight Claire.

    It’s great that teaching standards are front-loaded with professional values, learning for sustainability, social justice etc but those values need a congruent, supportive and protective ecology around them to make them meaningful. How can it be that an entire profession can demonstrate commitments to social justice on paper, while the circumstances around them tell such a different story? It’s just not tenable. However it provides a useful political soundbite ie “we prioritise social justice” and this serves as a box ticked.

    Nothing wrong with values on the mace as such but entirely wrong of policy makers to claim that they are representative of democracy.

    Thinking about what to do next with all of this – various ideas on the go – would be good to discuss sometime!


  10. This needs to form the basis for urgent discussion by policy makers and practitioners in Scottish education. I have written to John Swinney about our need to step back from the abyss. I got no reply.
    I hope he listens to you.


  11. Gary: much of interest in your well written post. But also some ideas I see as rather dangerous. Is the purpose of education to build a better society (as you seem to think) or is it to serve its customers, the young people of today? The problem with society buiding is assuming that we know what the best sort of society is. Christian missionaries used to think this way.
    Similarly, there is a current crusade to get more ‘disadvantaged’ folk to go to University – without considering whether they want to do that with their lives, rathet than get a productive job. Teachers are required to have University degrees. They are not required to have experience of working outside of academia.
    Another current mantra is closing the attainment gap. Yes, IMO something seems wrong when comparing Higher pass rates of neighbouring schools. But it is naive to believe that this difference can be eliminated by pouring money into target schools. This has been tried many times, with little success. The difference (which is stark) arises not in the schools, but in the society around the schools.
    Equity is a better target that equality of attaiment. Particularly when attainmnent is measured only in terms of academic success.
    David Craig


  12. Thanks for your comment David. Struggling to understand what exactly you see as “rather dangerous” – is that the right phrase to use? I would accept that these ideas could be criticised as utopian perhaps – but I still think it is needed, now more than ever.

    Is the project of building a better society unrelated to serving the interests of children and young people? Lots of them (including the youngest) have very strong and clear ideas about the kind of world we should be creating, what rights and social justice means for them etc.

    I would argue that society building is a continual process of dialogue (including everybody, faith or not) rather than indoctrination of any kind – but this dialogue isn’t happening. Since the 1970s, neoliberal policy making has sought to ensure that society building is left to free-market economics. It seems clear that this is a failed project, so how do we respond? And what is the role of education in doing so?

    I agree that equity is an appropriate aim for education – hence the call for greater diversity in the system. Equality important too especially in terms of access and rights.


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