Navigating the Reform Agenda: A Few Considerations for Government’s Role

Children painting on a messy paint covered table

Education: a crucial public provision which receives a great deal of attention and regular debate, even in a comprehensive and well-designed system. Regular topics of contention continue to emerge regarding the preparation of teachers and their readiness to meet the responsibilities they encounter in classroom (Torres, 2023). Enquiries are brought forward regarding content of the national curriculum as well as the teacher education curriculum, scope of preparation programmes, entry requirements to university-based teacher education programmes, level of student completion, quality standards, evaluation methods, alignment with school practices, meeting the needs of all learners, and a seeming lack of clear consensus about precisely what the teaching profession entails.

In the midst of these debates, Scotland is experiencing a significant education reform agenda as evidenced in the myriad of recent independent, national, and international, and reviews, reports, and recommendations:

  • Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence: Into the Future (OECD, 2021)
  • Additional Support for Learning Action Plan A Progress Report (Morgan, 2021)
  • Putting Learners at the Centre: Towards a Future Vision for Scottish (Muir, 2022)
  • It’s Our Future – Independent Review of Qualifications and (Hayward, 2023)
  • All Learners in Scotland Matter a National Discussion on Education: Final Report (Campbell & Harris, 2023)

For many stakeholders the complexity of the policy sphere is difficult to understand and nothing short of a quagmire. In response to multiple recommendations, the Scottish Government has set out that “nothing short of holistic reform across the education and skills system will deliver what is needed” (Scottish Government, 2023c). This statement raises the question, ‘What is the government’s role in relation to the evolving needs of the teaching profession’?

We must consider the local and national government and several political aspects including tax policies, rules, regulations, and funding when examining the role of government (AASPA, 2023). Government factors impacting on education include debates on hot topics and controversial issues, the use of education as a political platform during election cycles, political instability of boards of education, current and future political support and funding for education, shifts in the degree of local and national control, structure and purpose of organizations that provide oversight for education, and potential disconnects between national and local needs.

In light of these aforementioned reports, a major restructuring of key agencies is underway which will see a merging of the curriculum and assessment function of the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Education Scotland, and a separation of the development and support functions from the inspection function for which Education Scotland has had responsibility (see Muir, 2022). The Scottish government has indeed noted in the recent Education Bill consultation the question as to if teacher education programmes, located in institutions of higher education, should fall within the scope of government inspection (Scottish Government, 2023c). The General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS), the teaching profession’s independent registration and regulation body is responsible for quality assurance of teacher education through accreditation, as well as for teaching standards covering all stages of the professional continuum (GTCS, 2020). GTCS are independent from government and receive no funding for their role of registration and regulation; their work is funded by the fees teachers and lecturers pay.

Sometimes the exact demarcation lines of responsibility in Scottish education is not obvious. This brings forward an important question as we grapple with educational reform: is there a perceived problem with teacher education and teaching quality, is there a perceived problem with a particular stakeholder group agency, or is it how systems are being implemented? To this end, we will consider three suitable roles for government through education reform: resolving external challenges for teachers and teacher educators, guiding systems change, and leveraging capital towards teaching as a profession.

Resolving External Challenges
One key role that government plays in education is to remove barriers that can limit progress of reform. In Scotland a major barrier remains childhood poverty; one in four (250,000) of Scotland’s children are officially recognised as living in poverty, which increases to 32% of children in the Glasgow local authority (Scottish Government, 2020). The highest rates of relative child poverty within these priority groups are for children from lone parent households and for children from ethnic minority households; around 44% of children from ‘Asian or Asian British’ and from ‘Mixed, Black or Black British, and other’ households were living in relative poverty in Scotland between 2015 and 2020 (Glasgow Centre for Population Health, 2023). The detrimental effects of child poverty remain an ongoing cause for concern and have wide-ranging effects in terms of health, social and economic outcomes. Growing socio-economic inequality poses great challenges to the UK society, and especially to young people. As Cremin (2016) remarked, “the educational gap between the rich and the poor in the UK … is one of the most significant in the developed world”. In addition, Glasgow experiences violence due to sectarianism (McBride 2020) and gang and knife crime and faces extreme health and socio-economic inequalities (Coid et al. 2021).

It is in this space that government can work to address the pressing issues impacting on pupils and teachers. A few current examples of efforts include addressing food instability through free school meals for all pupils in Primary 1-5 (Scottish Government, 2023b), ending period poverty through free provision of products (Scottish Government, 2022), and pupil equity funding which is aimed towards closing the attainment gap. All 32 local authority areas share £43 million annually of strategic equity funds to invest in approaches to achieve the mission of the Scottish Attainment Challenge (Scottish Government, 2021); the use of funds is decided at the local authority level. We can improve teacher’s ability to impact pupil attainment when social issues are addressed and when we address root causes of perceived underperformance.

Furthermore, an investment in resources to accomplish school improvement plans could help reduce challenges. Simply put, provide schools with the resources they need to accomplish their goals; elevate school improvement as an urgent priority at every level of the system and establish for each level clear roles, lines of authority, and responsibilities for improvement. It is useful to examine improvement plans collectively to identify themes and common resource needs. Schools prepare annual improvement plans with proposed actions and measures of success which are submitted to Education Scotland and are a part of inspection reports. On the national level, inspection themes are identified, and thematic reports generated (Education Scotland, 2023) which can inform collective efforts and priorities for funding. International evidence suggests that centrally managed, top-down approaches to change tend to limit, and in some cases inhibit progress (CCSSO, 2017). We must keep in mind that the most effective change happens at the local authority level (Chapman & Ainscow, 2021).

Next, consider transparent and equitable total rewards systems that invest in teachers and their professional capacity. In a traditional call to action, this would be phrased as increase educator pay, however Scotland has already taken this step when in April 2023 teachers received the largest pay package in over twenty years. Funding of master’s level professional development has also been supported in recent years in an effort to emulate countries such as Finland and Norway (Cochran-Smith, 2021). However, two months after pay packages were announced earlier this year, Scottish government announced they were unable to offer financial support for teachers to engage in master’s level learning during 2023-2024. When queried, officials noted they were open to considering reinstating funding for this programme should future budget provisions allow (McEnaney, 2023). The term ‘total reward’ looks at compensation along with other incentive, rewards, and benefits (AASPA, 2023). The top priorities for Gen Z and Millennials when selecting employment are work-life balance and learning and development opportunities. Furthermore, more than 60% expressed a preference hybrid work that would allow them to split time between remote and on-site work (Deloitte, 2022). We could consider the challenges which might possibly be addressed in a revised approach to investing in teachers’ professional capacity.

And government can support research that seeks to answer the questions being asked to build an evidence-based teaching culture, even if they are hard questions to ask. The evidence-based around effective teaching and teacher preparation continues to grow but requires a high degree of rigorous, context-specific research given the complex ecologies in which it occurs. It requires partnership of schools and researchers in co-production of research that addresses the challenges and needs identified by those closest to it, the pupils, and teachers (UNESCO, 2021). This could be advanced though investing funds to support researchers to deliver high-quality knowledge exchange activities and impact generation. Research impact implies research making a difference – beyond any academic borders, out in the society and world in which we all dwell. Thus, consideration can be given to investing in research-practice partnerships (RPPs) of universities and local authorities (McGeown, 2023). This collaborative research structure seeks to improve educational experiences and outcomes by synthesising the cumulative knowledge, expertise, and experience available from both research and practice. With funded support, we can address research priorities that match the areas of greatest interest and greatest need in local schools. These might include investigating the impact of play pedagogy, examining effectiveness of literacy approaches and what interventions are working, and overall, to research the effectiveness of school improvement efforts.

Additionally, support local authorities and teacher preparation programmes to make data-based decisions together. The ability to identify root causes and garner support can be inhibited by a lack of actionable data. Create mechanisms to collect, evaluate, and communicate preparation and workforce data; needed is a greater transparency about data that exists within the system so that the spotlight can be shone on where we can learn, and where we need to support and catalyse improvement based on the best available evidence (NExT, 2018). The government’s role can be to facilitate opportunities for sharing findings. It’s about developing knowledge of the data and giving stakeholders the trust and autonomy to make informed improvement decisions.

Reducing barriers to careers in education while preserving standards of excellence is another way governments can seek to resolve challenges. Assist education organizations with understanding how existing funding can be used to attract and retain educators – this could be summarized as talent acquisition and talent development. Re-examine criteria for becoming a registered teacher that may limit diversification of the teaching workforce (Scottish Government, 2023a). In a broader consideration, this can also include transparency in workforce data, increasing affordability, and supporting preparation programmes in the development of multiple pathways. Focus especially on ensuring the highest need schools have great leaders and teachers who have, or develop, the specific capacities needed for advancing improvement efforts.

Guiding Change
Any change the reform agenda produces will be altering a multifaceted system – unintended consequences are frequent in the space of complexity. Routine is comfortable, and thus the more complex the issue, the more likely change will receive pushback. To that end the Managing Complex Change Model (Knoster et al., 2000) outlines five key challenges that can hinder successful change and offers potential solutions for each which we would be wise to consider.

Figure 1
Managing Complex Change Model

Note. From Knoster et al., 2000

The first challenge to reform-driven changes is confusion due to a lack of vision, thus it is vital to establish a comprehensive and understandable vision which provides a rationale for change. We must consider that when everything is a priority, nothing is. The second potential hindrance is anxiety due to a lack of skills. To overcome this challenge, investment in skill development and training is needed to ensure educators are well-prepared to navigate the change. When the necessary skills are found wanting, it can lead to anxiety and conflict. Third is resistance cause by a lack of incentive; resistance to change often arises due to the inertia and fear of the unknown. Providing incentives, both tangible and intangible, in a total reward system can encourage individuals to embrace change and overcome opposition. Fourth is frustration caused by insufficient resources. Inadequate resources, whether practical or time-related, can impede progress. And the absence of an action plan can cause false starts stalling change efforts. While action plans don’t need to be overly complex, they should provide structure and designate a leader to drive the change forward. And remember, what gets measured gets done (CCOSS, 2017). Establish clear expectations and report progress on a sequence of ambitious yet achievable short- and long-term improvement benchmarks that focus on both equity and excellence. Addressing these five key challenges during the educational reform can increase the likelihood of successful transformation. Recommendations are only as good as they are implemented.

We must also consider subtractive changes instead of additions and amendments – the default mode of human problem-solving is to add rather than subtract complexity (Adams et al., 2021; Klotz, 2021). Instead, we should contemplate how to make this simpler and how the number and specificity of national regulations and guidelines might be reduced. As Cochran-Smith (2021) outlined in recent reforms in Norway, consider how can we move towards accountability that relies on professional responsibility and agency rather than surveillance and monitoring, fosters empowerment and local innovation rather than compliance and uniformity, and takes an inclusive approach to collaborating with stakeholders rather than relying on the top-down imposition of numerous regulations.

Which brings us to the next point, don’t legislate what shouldn’t be legislated. The political system often moves too slow to respond to educational needs. Educational leaders can’t wait for policy intervention to improve and stabilize social issues and attainment challenge that exists. When schools have strong, well-informed ideas about what success should look like for themselves and their pupils, they need latitude to act on these ideas; one size does not fit all. In this space we can aim for sustainable solutions that capitalize on what we know works. This requires a look towards the post-critical in an attempt to depart from the repetition of criticality in education to a commitment to go past critique, a movement towards recognising what is good and valuable in existing practices (Anderson & Tonner, 2023). We risk destroying morale and educators’ commitments as well as potentially overlooking potential solutions when critique is used to find fault in everything (Hodgson, et al., 2018). A critical tradition might actually work against possibilities for reform. The post-critical offers an opportunity to rethink approaches, an opportunity to consider the extent to which we make attempts to pluralise thinking instead of reducing alternatives (Biesta 2020). Guiding change must be a collective, strategic endeavour.

Foster Professionalism – Promote the Profession
Government is also situated to promote the profession. According to Danielson (2007), a framework for professional practice [standards] with essential criteria is what distinguishes teaching as a profession. A definition of high-quality teaching that is both clear and succinct is useful to help teachers and teacher educators develop a strong idea about what successful living out of the GTCS professional standards looks like (GTCS, 2021). While broad statements in standards policies allow for contextually appropriate application, actionable descriptors could further give teachers direction throughout their career as well as establish a mark of assurance. Standardization Danielson (2007) claimed, is the process of legitimization of the profession.

Professionalism can be fostered by investing in school administration and administrative support, including middle-level leaders (Kavanagh & Fitzsimmons, 2021). Also, by securing support of key players at the local and national levels – progress was more evident where those leading the improvement efforts had the backing of key players. There is a need to identify and work with those who can make things happen, as well as those who might block things from happening. In the Scottish system, where local authority officials have considerable autonomy (Chapman, 2019), their partnered support is particularly crucial.

The profession could be advanced through development and support of teacher expertise. We look towards strong, partnered induction programmes, investment in sustained mentoring programmes, and opportunities for data-informed, ongoing professional learning, including support for masters level learning. Expertise can be conceptualized by what Thoren (20109) termed ‘T-shaped’ employees. Educators who have a depth of skills and expertise in a single field and the knowledge of areas other than their own specialism; teachers who have a focus both on deepening professionalism as well as exploring new terrains.

Professionalism can also be gained through supporting collaborative action research to stimulate collective action. As an exemplar, here in the School of Education we are engaged in a research-based knowledge exchange activity amongst university staff and teachers at a local high school who have sought resources and co-production of collaborative cycles of practitioner enquiry (GTCS, n.d.) as a part of school improvement efforts. This project supports teachers to make research-based decisions about their practices and deliver the greater collective impact of practitioner enquiry across the school.
And finally, ensure mechanisms for offering feedback and dialogue with teachers and those who prepare them are in place. If we want to go far, we go together. Form feedback channels, hold listening session, and meet often. Failure of decision-makers to recognize and listen to teacher expertise can hinder progress (Hsieh, 2023).

Final Provocations
There are numerous ways that governments engage in supporting education and working with stakeholders. To help build a unifying, collective vision for teachers in the context of great reform, it will be helpful to identify shared aspirations. Thus, we might consider a few concluding provocations:

  • What are the hopes, dreams, and aspirations we have for teachers?
  • What are the skills and mindsets our teachers actually need for success in this rapidly changing, complex world?
  • What are the implications for the design of learning experiences in teacher education —and equitable access to those experiences—we provide throughout the continuum of teacher education?

Effective teaching and teacher education does not let itself be contained in a unidimensional definition. Education is ‘complex, messy, and often inflexible’ (Chapman & Donaldson, 2023). Through a time of reform, a vision of what constitutes a good education and a well-prepared new teacher is needed. We would do well to consider that perhaps the most enduring and powerful influences on educators are those that enrich images of the possible.

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