The future of education in Scotland

Scotland must embrace comprehensive education reform to maintain its global standing and ensure a skills and learning system that is ready for the future.

Dr Janet Brown FRSE, Non-Executive Director, Edinburgh Science Ltd; RSE Education Committee Convener.

Scotland has a proud history of high-quality education and training recognised worldwide. It has prepared our people for successful futures enabling the development of our economy through the changes of the 20th century. However, we cannot rest on our laurels. Education systems around the world are reforming and Scotland must do the same or risk falling behind.

The pace of economic and social change will continue to accelerate dramatically, and the current programme of reform is attempting to ensure our educational and skills system continues to deliver the relevant knowledge and skills to support Scotland’s future success whilst enabling individuals can achieve their full potential.

Recently, there have been multiple reviews of education and reports published. In the school sector they have centred around assessment and qualifications¹, resulting in around 130 recommendations for reform. Economic and environmental policy documents² from across the Scottish Government also include recommendations for the skills and learning agenda.

However, there appears to be no overall strategy or policy that links these recommendations – often seeming disconnected or even in conflict with one another – with little practical action taken. In the face of calls for clarity and action from educational experts and from the sector, further consultations and engagements have continued rather than decision and action.

The recent debate in Parliament and the survey of school and college teachers commissioned by the Scottish Government following the Independent Review of Qualifications and Assessment¹ only serves to highlight that a consensus on reform does not exist. There was no consensus as to whether or when to adopt the recommendations, and no detailed indication of the government’s plans for providing clarity on the way forward or an action plan.

As we move into the second quarter of the 21st century, it is critical that the Scottish education and skills system delivers for learners and for Scotland

The education and skills system are a continuum, stretching from the early years to lifelong learning. It supports initial learning, reskilling, and upskilling at all life stages. Learning occurs in nurseries, schools, colleges, universities, training, workplaces, and in many other domains. Changes introduced to one aspect of this intricate whole can have profound and sometimes unintended impacts on other parts of the system.

As we move into the second quarter of the 21st century, it is critical that the Scottish education and skills system delivers for learners and for Scotland. We need an overarching, long term vision that is developed into an achievable policy with measurable impact and which recognises the interdependency of the system and enables it to be flexible and responsive.

The time has come to reconsider how society defines success for the system

Experience has shown us that achieving consensus on the purpose of education is easier said than done. In its last review of the Curriculum for Excellence³, the OECD noted that education is heavily politicised in Scotland and suggested that it has tended to revert to structural reforms in place of the deeper and often more impactful cultural reform that is most needed to improve outcomes. If current progress is any indication, such cultural reform remains far off.

The time has come to reconsider how society defines success for the system. National rhetoric often focuses on traditional qualifications and the university pipeline, continuing to overlook – or undervalue – alternative forms of learning and attainment such as apprenticeships and wider achievement awards.

Recognising the importance of the education and skills system and the place that it holds in the wider economic, social, and environmental policy agenda, the RSE Education Committee remains focused on several key priorities: promoting early years’ education, engaging with the Scottish Government’s reform agenda, sparking dialogue on the future of Scottish education, and assessing the coherence of existing policies and emerging recommendations across the education reform landscape and other policies. Furthermore, by promoting parity of esteem across a diversity of pathways, Scotland can ensure that learners are directed towards destinations that align with both their individual interests and the broader needs of the economy.

The RSE, with its independence and multidisciplinary expertise, is well-placed to engage with this challenge and explore what Scotland needs from its education, skills, and assessment system and how it’s best delivered. To find out more about our work on education and skills.


Dr Janet Brown FRSE, Non-Executive Director, Edinburgh Science Ltd; RSE Education Committee Convener.

This article originally appeared in ReSourcE summer 2024.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.


References

¹Scottish Government reviews – education: bit.ly/SGrevedskills

²Scottish Government reviews – economy and environment: bit.ly/SGrevedskills

³Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, OECD: bit.ly/OECDcurrexc

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