Reform Scotland

Structural & bureaucratic obstacles in Scottish comprehensive education – Euan Mackie

In Scotland, we have become very good at aspirations in education. However, we should be learning that we don’t address long standing structural deficiencies because of endemic bureaucratic mindsets.

The outcomes for Scottish Education through the Curriculum for Excellence (2004 and reaffirmed in 2019) are articulated by the four capacities:  successful learners; confident individuals; effective contributors; and responsible citizens. These worthy aims are to ‘fully prepare today’s children for adult life in the 21st century’.

The Review of Qualifications and Assessment (2023) asked stakeholders their thoughts on reporting the outcomes of education at the senior phase. Young peoples’ voices came through clearly in this review, like the expression of the four capacities, that they understood how education should value their personality and achievements. Should it be captured in a Diploma as suggested?

Unfortunately the argument about the timing and nature of senior academic examination qualifications continues to play a dominant role in how our mindset regards the performance of Scottish education, rather than addressing the structural issues which would better deliver competence and wellbeing for all young people at 16. It’s a long-standing failure, particularly, for disadvantaged young people in Scotland and arises from ‘colonial’ mindsets.

I use the term ‘colonial’,  as used by young African students I work with, to describe the impact of hierarchical education on ordinary young people 1. It is a mindset of those, who have some kind of authority over others, to exert control on those below them, by all manner of means. The result diminishes the agency of those it affects and their growth as independent thinkers, actors and citizens.

The domination of such individuals or bodies in authority may be well intended, but it makes the recipients passively compliant and reliant on others for validation. To envisage a Diploma which tries to capture personal achievement would be another outstandingly time-consuming colonial approach and add a further bureaucratic and psychological intrusive demand on individuals.  This would also favour those who already have advantage in opportunities and give them further plaudits from the system.

I reflect on how these colonial hierarchical mindsets have gradually pervaded the whole Scottish educational establishment, from government agencies to the classroom. It involves the paraphernalia of all who wish to make their mark on the system, from politicians, directors, managers, inspectors, administrators and into the school’s hierarchy of promoted posts and trade union rules. They dominate attention within the system, often for their own sake and benefits.

I’ve seen how the status and agency of young people and their families, the supposedly main recipients of education, social services and health, are marginalised, while teacher’s workload and expectations have grown. All the bodies, behind their work, have increased in their power and influence, yet they face no question on their collective impact. The Scottish set up is one of empire building at all levels, and rules (just look at the folders in administrators’ offices) on how everything has to be done, rather than the prime focus on nurturing personality of young people, family efficacy and community empowerment.

Ask well-intentioned and hard-working head teachers and teachers about their workload and ninety-five percent is of an accumulation of processes which are secondary to relationships with young people in their charge. Ask ordinary Scottish adults and they will tell you of their perception of their failures in education and of being labelled by teachers. The Pisa study reflects this continuing failure of meaningful educational experience for many fifteen-year-olds in basic things like literacy.

Those engaged at the classroom level have their enthusiasm exhausted and feel undervalued in their roles and function.  The colonial onslaught nurtures shame, guilt, defensive passivity or rebellion, and has impact on wellbeing for even those who seem successful.  Professionalism has become more about protocol compliance than an ability to nurture the young.

The most disadvantaged young people are left at the starting post in school at an early age of 4 ½ and are managed through the system in a resilient attainment gap. The labelling, tracking  and target setting of these young people against curriculum levels throughout their school careers (which takes up huge amounts of teacher time and workload) has turned what should have been an enlightened curriculum of experience and mastery of skills, into wasteful treadmills for these young people and their teachers.

So while qualifications and awards of all kinds are indeed important, we need to look at the fuel behind them of young people’s sense of meaning and purpose. This is the approach recognised by UNESCO and the OECD in emphasising agency and empowerment of families and young people in their communities. It is often associated with aspirational energised education found in Asia.

Those young Africans, I work with, are full of hope for brighter futures but, interestingly, they don’t trust politicians or the establishment to deliver opportunity. They tell me of a new Competency based system of Education in Kenya 2, moving away from teacher and academic dominance towards the needs of ordinary Africans – To focus what ordinary young people can be enabled to do, rather than know. Is this also salient for the Scottish context?

Parents have at their heart, a strong desire for their children to have  rich, safe, social experiences  with others, along with a growing mastery of their life skills. These are the essential component parts leading to maturity and agency. This is what over bureaucratic and colonial Scottish Education fails to do for a significant group of our young people.

In 2024 we need to analyse and focus on reducing the colonial and top-down thinking in Scottish Education at all levels.

Then we need systemic reform for better pre-school environments, a later entry to primary school with more emphasis on literacy and communication skills for all, an early secondary experience overseen by fewer class teachers and with stronger pastoral experiences, and post 16 senior secondary phases having professional, academic and vocational lines linked with tertiary institutions. These changes to be made relentlessly to work better for all young people’s social experiences, skills development and personal agency. Supporting families and re-energising teachers’ capacity to do this, should be in tandem with this focus.

Euan Mackie has wide experience of working with children in leadership roles from nursery education through to young people at primary, secondary and university level and has spent over ten years coaching and supporting school leaders. He is currently an Education adviser for the African JED Child Trust Foundation and the Alternatives to Violence Project.

1 The Jed Child Trust Foundation, Education for every African Child,

2 The Why, What, and How of Competency-Based Curriculum Reforms: The Kenyan Experience, UNESCO International Bureau of Education (2017).