National discussion on education

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) welcomed the national discussion on education undertaken by Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (CoSLA). It is critical that the future vision of Scottish education is informed by the views of learners and other system stakeholders to ensure it can deliver on their varying needs, expectations and aspirations, as well as those of wider society. The findings of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) review of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) as well as the Muir review clearly suggest the need for a paradigm shift in Scottish education and assessment in order to modernise the system, reduce inequalities, promote social inclusion, and contribute to a just transition.


Subject-specific knowledge is no longer the primary determinant of suitability in the majority of graduate recruitment. What matters more are transferable skills and attributes, breadth of knowledge and experience, cross-disciplinary thinking, and problem-solving capabilities.

While immediate, incremental change is necessary to avoid overwhelming the system, Scottish socitey should challenge itself to conceptualise the education system of the future (say, from 2030). By opening up a more speculative conversation, we are better placed to embrace its opportunities and get ahead of potential problems.

Our young people should expect an education that prepares them to engage with the major social, economic, cultural, personal, and political challenges that face society in the 21st century, for which many of the fundamentals of our current education system remain ill-suited.

As the world steps further into the so-called fourth industrial revolution, marked by increasingly sophisticated and integrated technologies, the way in which education is delivered could drastically change. However, there is an inherent tension between technological progress and equity: unless everyone is afforded access to the same digital infrastructure, some children may fall behind.

Scotland has never critically reflected or reached agreement on the purpose of either assessment or qualifications. The RSE will engage with the Hayward review and wish to preliminarily signal our support for a more holistic and flexible system of qualifications and assessment that allows learners to demonstrate their understanding in a variety of ways and is more in tune with the needs of employers and the skills required for the future.

The expansion of funded early learning and childcare in Scotland has been an important and welcome development. However, there remains concern in some quarters that early years policy is increasingly being used to deliver economic outcomes, primarily to facilitate parents returning to the labour market by providing child care.

Scotland is fortunate to have the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF). It remains a world-leading model for how different learning outcomes can be recognised and awarded, building on direct inputs from thousands of different programme owners. The SCQF is unique in that awards and qualifications from schools, colleges, universities and in-work training can be placed on the framework to facilitate progression and career change. The RSE would like to see greater visibility and promotion of the SCQF going forward which could contribute significantly to achieving parity of esteem between different learning pathways.

The future system must be founded on a more expansive definition of academic and personal success. Education should encourage and balance the dual aims of self-development and wellbeing, in whatever form they take. All aspirations should be respected as equally valid, rather than forcing learners down certain pathways to suit a particular narrative about what constitutes ‘success.’

Teachers must be afforded the time and space to reflect critically on their practice and to work collaboratively with their peers to share knowledge, experiences, and advice.

Dominant pedagogical approaches are predicated on a particular understanding of cognition. However, research in psychology, neuroscience, and other disciplines is exploring new theories for how humans learn which, if applied, will have impacts on how teaching is delivered and how learners with different cognitive styles are supported.

Twenty-first century grand challenges are largely inter- and cross-disciplinary. To provide relevance, education must provide much greater breadth of skills, knowledge, and understanding. More generally, much greater attention should be paid to contexts for learning, both to the four Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) contexts for learning – not least of which is interdisciplinary learning – and to the contexts in which knowledge is developed and delivered.

We need to revisit and agree the purposes of education as a starting point for reform and curriculum-remaking. Scotland as a society must agree what constitutes success – for the individual and for the education system as a whole. Only then should we define what measures should be in place to monitor progress and improvements over time.

The RSE supports the need for more systematic, integrated, and robust data-gathering which adequately captures the full breadth of learning and attainment, from formal qualifications to more qualitative markers of personal development.

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