20 years of scrutinising school education policy – a learning experience.

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As part of the programme to mark 20 years since the creation of the Scottish Parliament, SPICe has been publishing twenty “20 year” blog posts on SPICe Spotlight over the course of 2019.  This is the latest in the series and covers 20 years of devolved education. Our earlier post sets out more information on the programme and the series of blogs.

School education policy is never far from the headlines or the top of the political agenda.  After all who is not interested in our kids’ education?

Scotland’s education system has always been distinct from other parts of the UK.  It is an area which is wholly devolved.  Prior to devolution, national policy was led by the Scottish Office.

This blog looks at the approach to policy making and delivery of school education and how the Parliament has responded to this.

Who is accountable for the teaching in our schools?

One of the tensions in this policy area is around accountability.  National policy is a matter for the Scottish Government.  However, local authorities have the statutory responsibility for the provision of education (along with parents/carers) and schools themselves have a great deal of responsibility over what is taught and how it is taught. Much of school education policy is developed collaboratively through high-level policy forums and delivery is localised.


The collaborative nature of policy development and delivery makes lines of accountability unclear, indeed the concept of accountability is complex in this policy area.  The OECD’s 2015 review of Broad General Education argued that governance in school education has two aspects, a vertical hierarchy running from the “minister downwards” and a “horizontal logic” which is about professionals’ networks of sharing knowledge and collaborative support.

Some argue that, of those, the collaborative “horizontal logic” is critical. For example, a recent think piece for the Association of Directors of Education Scotland said:

“It is helpful to think in terms of collective responsibility rather than individual accountability.  If we can foreground collective responsibility as the key check and balance within our collaborative, networked endeavour then individuals will be less likely to revert to past behaviours when they meet challenges that require risk taking and innovative practice.”


Within the policy landscape there are many organisations and bodies, of whom only some are directly (i.e. the Scottish Government) or indirectly (i.e. national agencies) accountable to the Scottish Parliament.  This poses a problem for the Scottish Parliament – how to scrutinise a policy which cedes power to local authorities, the profession and national agencies, and rarely sets firm, specific policy at a national level?

Curriculum for Excellence

Arguably the major policy development in the past 20 years, has been the development of the Curriculum for Excellence.  The Curriculum for Excellence is a 3-18 curriculum which intends to help “our children and young people gain the knowledge, skills and attributes needed for life in the 21st century”.

It could be characterised as an outcome-based curriculum, with little prescribed content. “CfE” has been central to school education policy debates for over ten years, but if you were to search for a Curriculum for Excellence Act or even a Curriculum for Excellence Order, you would be searching in vain.  No such thing exists.

If there is no law, how did the policy develop?

In 2002, the then Scottish Executive launched a “national debate” on Scotland’s school education. The consultation received over 1500 responses and it was estimated that 20,000 people took part (including participants in events).

The national debate took place in parallel with a wide-ranging inquiry by the Education, Culture and Sport Committee into the purposes of Scottish education.  The Committee’s report into the inquiry was published in early 2003 and set out ten objectives “that ought to guide educational policy over the next two decades”.  These ten objectives included:

  • recognising education has differing objectives
  • reducing the influence of assessment
  • reducing centralised policy-making and inspections
  • developing a more individualised service
  • giving young people a say.

These themes remain familiar in the current policy landscape.

Following the National Debate, the Scottish Executive established a Review Group in November 2003.  The Review Group published its report, A Curriculum for Excellence, in 2004 and CfE was born.  There was no direct reference to the Education, Culture and Sport Committee’s parallel work in this report – this is not to say that it was no influence, just that any influence is not apparent.  Indeed, one of the authors of A Curriculum for Excellence, Keir Bloomer, was also an advisor to the Committee during its inquiry.

The development of CfE from 2004 to its implementation from 2009-10 and beyond was characterised by high-level policy documents – the Building the Curriculum series – and detailed consultation on the Experiences and Outcomes of CfE.

In other words, CfE was, and still is, developed incrementally with a strong focus on consultation and collaboration and an absence of new law or legislative approval.  The Executive’s (and later Government’s) approach to education policy is a partnership approach and changing policy administratively.  This has been reasonably consistent across the Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition executive and the SNP governments since 2004.  In relation to CfE, there hasn’t been a specific subject of scrutiny for the Parliament to get its teeth into. Slow administrative progress agreed by consensus around a big table in private meetings may be effective, but it is hard to scrutinise.

Since 2004 there have been, however, regular parliamentary debates on school education. Successive committees undertook work which looked at CfE, but these pieces of work tended to be one-off sessions or part of another aspect of work like budget scrutiny.


As well as a collaborative, or networked, approach to policy development.  The Scottish system, at least on paper, is characterised by localised autonomy.  Local authorities are responsible for the provision of adequate and efficient education in their areas.

Government policy for many years has been that schools should have a level of autonomy in making decisions about teaching and learning at the school level.  Devolved school management was introduced back in 1993, which moved aspects of schools’ budget control to heads.

Headteachers are employees of local authorities which are in turn directly accountable to their local electorate, not the Scottish Government nor the Scottish Parliament.  Of course, the majority of funding for local authorities comes from the Scottish budget and therefore the Parliament has a legitimate interest in the performance of local authorities.

In this session the Government initially sought to back this agenda of devolution to the school level with new law.  The Scottish Government criticised the apparent inconsistent performance and approaches taken by local authorities and planned to introduce a Bill providing for school-level responsibilities and a “headteachers’ charter”.  In the face of limited support within the Parliament, the promised reform Bill has not been introduced. Instead, the aims of the Bill are being pursued, once again, through partnership, away from the legislature and its powers to reject or amend.

The policy landscape remains relatively light in terms of specific legislative duties. This provides space for flexibility and local decision-making in policy and delivery.  There are a few areas of school education which have more prescriptive legal frameworks.  For example, in relation to additional support for learning which also has a dedicated legal remedy for some aspects of provision.

The value placed on flexibility by local government and its aversion to prescriptive legislation might be summed up by Maureen McKenna, Executive Director of Education Services at Glasgow City Council who said:

“I worry about [a headteacher’s charter] being put in the bill; as soon as something is put in legislation, many things very quickly get battened down and the risks increase.”

So what can the Parliament do?

Parliaments can influence policy in a number of different ways which can include generating ideas and critiquing policy.  An absence of scrutiny of draft laws does not equate to an absence of scrutiny.  Debates, questions and the work of committees explores and challenges policy and impacts on public discourse and the policy focus of the Government.  What parliamentary committees look at, civil servants and Ministers are forced to consider and provide a rationale for the Government’s position.

Importantly, the Scottish Government is responsible for the overall performance of the education system.  The Scottish Government is, of course, accountable to the Parliament.

Measuring performance

One way for Parliament to scrutinise the education system and indeed the impact of CfE would be to look at national measures of performance.

The Scottish Government will point to, for example, improved numbers of people staying on in school, improved positive destinations of young people leaving school and greater numbers of young people attaining at least one qualification at SCQF level 6 (e.g. a Higher).

However, it remains difficult to determine from national data sets whether, for example, CfE has had an overall positive impact on teaching and learning due to:

  • the changing structure of secondary education
  • changing qualifications and types of qualifications taken in schools
  • changing wider performance measures
  • the breadth of the ambition of CfE.

Added to this, it is difficult to evaluate a reform whose implementation coincided with a period of tighter budgets.

Focus on agencies

The current Education and Skills Committee and its predecessor committee, the Education and Culture Committee, have examined the performance of Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority (“SQA”).   Education Scotland is a Scottish Government executive agency responsible for supporting quality and improvement in Scottish education, including the inspectorate.  The SQA is a non-departmental public body responsible for developing and delivering sub-degree qualifications in Scotland. These bodies are influential actors within the policy landscape and the collegiate decision-making process in Scottish school education and have been influential in the development and the implementation of CfE.  From a Parliamentary scrutiny perspective, these bodies have the added benefit of being accountable to Scottish Ministers and therefore, indirectly, to the Scottish Parliament.

Appearances of these bodies at the Education and Skills Committee have been somewhat uncomfortable viewing over the past few years as the Committee has sought clarity on their role and the added value they provide in supporting teaching and learning in classrooms.  The Committee has become impatient with appeals by these bodies to collective responsibility and devolved decision making when asked questions of their role in significant policy decisions (e.g. structure of the senior phase of CfE).

Role of a scrutinising Parliament

Parliament has never strongly opposed the broad approach of the Government – the collegiate, collaborative approach which seeks to bring the profession and local authorities into both the development and delivery of policy and of CfE.  Education policy is not unique.  In all fields, policy-making and delivery is a collaborative, complex and uncertain endeavour.  It is difficult; probably more difficult than scrutiny.

Arguably however (and this is a generalisation) the big-tent approach risks narrowing public discourse in a small nation.  The Education and Skills Committee has independently (albeit imperfectly) sought to collect its own data from teachers, parents/carers and young people in an effort to broaden public discourse.  The Parliament is therefore both an independent voice and acts as a megaphone for other independent voices.

The Education and Skills Committee has consistently challenged the Scottish Government, including on the quality of national performance data.  The Scottish Government, for its part, has become more responsive to this scrutiny.  Perhaps not as responsive as Parliament would like and it remains, as you would expect, bullish in its defence of its performance. Nonetheless there has been policy movement in several areas, for example, the recently announced independent review of the senior phase.

The Parliament, largely through the work of its Committees, has asserted itself as an important policy actor challenging and scrutinising the broad consensus.  It is focusing not only on the policies, outcomes and budgets of school education, but it is also taking steps to scrutinise national agencies’ roles in the policy process.  It is also actively broadening discourse, particularly by seeking views from teachers, parents and young people directly.

Ned Sharratt, Senior Researcher
Education, Children and Young People, Culture