Unfortunately, what followed only suggested that meaningful changes to Scottish education are still a very long way off. In fact, if we’re being completely honest, we can’t really be sure those changes are ever going to arrive – at least not as a result of this supposed reform process.
The cabinet secretary insisted that her plans are not about “re-badging organisations” and argued of the need for “systemic, cultural change which improves outcomes for our young people and which better supports the professionals we entrust in their care.”
Those are noble and ambitious goals, but what of the “tangible action” towards achieving them? What changes would be made in order to “bring greater purpose” to current efforts to improve Scottish schooling?
The answer is that the education secretary plans to “chair a ministerial meeting group which will” and “establish an Education and Skills Reform Chief Executive Forum”.
So more meetings. More reports. More of the same sorts of actions from the same sorts of people.
But there will different outcomes this time, of course. That’s a given.
There were a few other details here and there, such as Gilruth announcing that she would “anticipate” the new Centre for Teaching Excellence, announced to the recent SNP conference without discussion with teachers, academics or regulators, would be hosted by a university.
The only genuinely concrete announcement was the removal of funding from organisations called Regional Improvement Collaboratives (RICs). These bodies, which bring together several local authorities, were supposed to support teachers and help improve schools across the country; instead, the current government has decided that what was a flagship policy just six years ago has failed to deliver.
She also confirmed that another report, this one by the International Council of Education Advisers, had been published. In it, the expert panel warns that they “are concerned that the momentum of change” that is currently taking place “might not match the appetite for change within the system”. Their assessment is that “the time for commissioning reviews is now over.”
The education secretary, apparently without any hint of irony, also announced a new consultation. This one is for a grandly-titled Education Reform Bill that will in fact be limited to the establishment of a new qualifications body and the reform of school inspection processes.
And then, to wrap things up, Gilruth effectively asked parliament’s permission to put this matter to one side for now. She would, she said, “return to the Chamber in the new year to fully debate these proposals” having used the intervening period to “engage with Opposition spokespeople on the next steps
The government wants this delay to be interpreted as an attempt to get things done properly rather than quickly, but in reality it feels a lot more like watching the can get punted further down the road.
In the last few years we have had OECD reviews, ICEA reports, the Muir review, the Stobard review, the Withers review, the Hayward review and something called a National Discussion on Education.
What we now appear to have is a government increasingly paralysed by years of bad decisions and missed opportunities. What’s more, it is still being held hostage by the arrogance of Scotland’s previous first minister, who promised and failed to ‘close the attainment gap’, and whose overall policy direction in education will ultimately have to be reversed for real progress to be made. It is becoming painfully clear that there is nobody in government willing or able to take on that job.
In her speech, Jenny Gilruth also spoke about the need to have teachers “buy in” to a reform agenda, and suggested that many of them aren’t yet convinced that the time is right.
“For every ardent supporter of ‘radical reform’ tomorrow,” she said, “there are ten teachers telling me about the other challenges they face at the chalk face – challenges which Government needs to work with COSLA – and our Trade Union partners to resolve.”
After everything that has happened in recent years, that could only be seen as an indictment of a government that has very possibly done irreparable damage to its relationship with educators. The basic issue here is that there’s no reason for teachers to trust this government to get reforms right, and the goodwill bounce achieved by Gilruth’s appointment has long since dissipated.
The message from the Gilruth’s statement to parliament, whether she realises it or not, is this: although appointing a former teacher to the post of education secretary could have been transformative, the reality has been business and usual.