Join us to discuss the future of Geography in Scotland

On 25th February we are hosting a conference to discuss the future role of geography in Scottish Education, in order to build its relevance throughout school and university and into lifelong learning. Discussion will focus on increasing access and inclusion, modernising the skills and content, recognising wider achievement and improving the articulation between secondary and tertiary education. Speakers include Ken Muir, Emma Wotherspoon, Louise Hayward, Victoria Vardy and Alan Kinder.

Register for the conference now. 

By Professor Ken Muir, independent reviewer, and RSGS Trustee

In 2020, Scotland invited the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to assess progress in the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) in primary and secondary schools. The OECD report, Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence: Into the Future, was published on 21 June 2021. In the autumn 2021 edition of The Geographer, Alastair McConnell, RSGS Education Committee Chair and Head of Geography at Dollar Academy, provided a useful overview of the report.

The OECD report made a number of recommended ‘next steps’, including the reassessment of CfE’s ‘aspirational vision’ against emerging trends in education; the consolidation of a common base of knowledge, skills and attitudes by the end of Broad General Education (BGE); the simplification of policies and institutions to provide greater clarity and coherence; and improved alignment between curriculum and qualifications.

On 22 June 2020, Shirley-Anne Somerville, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, gave a statement to Parliament on the OECD report. She announced that she would: replace the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA); consider forming a new curriculum and assessment agency; remove the inspection function from Education Scotland (ES) and consider further reform to ES. I was commissioned from August 2021 by the Scottish Government to take forward the work relating to these announcements, and to report to the Cabinet Secretary with my recommendations by the end of January 2022.

Although my remit appeared on the surface to be tight and quite ‘ring fenced’, it was apparent from the outset that the implications of replacing SQA, removing the Education Inspectorate from Education Scotland, and reforming Education Scotland would clearly impact, to a lesser and greater extent, on many parts of the wider education system beyond schools.

As a result, I felt I had to engage extensively with as wide a range of groups and individuals as I could within my six-month timescale – particularly with teachers, practitioners, parents. This was largely achieved through a public consultation exercise which ran from the end of September 2021 until the end of November; one-to-one meetings with stakeholders; various public webinars; and engagement with a Practitioner and Stakeholder Advisory Group comprising over 40 organisations representing all parts of Scottish education.

As the so-called ‘clients’ of our education system, it was also vital to explore the views and experiences of learners, from early years to the senior phase and beyond. To do so, I engaged the Children’s Parliament, the Scottish Youth Parliament, and the charity Together to help me access the critically important views of children and young people. I also undertook many interviews with groups of school-age and post-school learners.

Responding to the specifics of my remit and the call for simplification and greater clarity on the roles of national bodies, my recommendations include the separation of SQA’s Awarding function into a proposed new body, Qualifications Scotland, with its current Accreditation/Regulation functions being moved to an external body. This is designed in part to help rebuild trust and confidence in our qualifications body, which many respondents indicated had been lost in recent years.

I have recommended that a National Agency for Scottish Education be created as part of the reform of Education Scotland. As a means of providing greater coherence, it is proposed that this body will liaise closely with various parts of the education system, such as the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework Partnership, the online tool Insight, and Scottish Government policy Directorates to ensure that advice and guidance are well aligned and readily understood. In doing so, it is intended that levels of bureaucracy will be reduced and any misunderstanding of expectations will be minimised. The Agency will focus largely on providing responsive, bespoke support and professional learning at local and regional levels, working closely with local authorities and other providers, and promoting regional collaboration. It may not see a return to the provision of ‘Subject Advisers’ in local authorities – something that many secondary teachers have called for – but it should ensure that support and guidance is more readily available from subject experts than many teachers report has been the case in the recent past. The Agency will also create and sustain a forum for ongoing and proactive discussion on curriculum, assessment, learning, teaching, professional learning and leadership, gathering views from practitioners, national bodies, think tanks, research and practice to inform a ‘bottom-up’ approach to policy formulation. Such an approach is intended to allow closer engagement of expert subject practitioners in decision making and ongoing monitoring of what is working well and what needs to change, with outcomes informing potential changes to National Qualifications and informing potential policy developments.

An important message I heard from engagement with teachers was the value and significantly increased use of resources during the pandemic provided by local networks and national bodies, such as the RSGS Chalk Talks and those from the Scottish Association of Geography Teachers (SAGT). It is expected that the proposed National Agency for Scottish Education will work closely with such national bodies and networks to ensure that the provision of high-quality resources and support can be available to all schools, thus reducing the need for duplication of effort.

The removal of HM Inspectors from Education Scotland is something that has been warmly welcomed by many respondents to my public consultation and among those with whom I engaged. My report sets out proposals for the roles and functions of an independent Inspectorate body that provides evaluative reports, gives assurance nationally, locally and at school levels about the quality of education, and promotes improvement and capacity building.

It was difficult to separate responses from geographers from those of other respondents during the consultation and engagement processes. However, there are a number of specific areas which are likely to be of particular interest to teachers of Geography.

  • A strong message emerging from children and young people, as well as from parents and carers, was that more needs to be done to focus attention in the school curriculum on the increased profile and relevance of climate change and learning for sustainability. The work RSGS has done on Climate Solutions and the resources it has produced have the potential to play a key role in this area.
  • Allied to this, many practitioners in early years settings and primary schools were keen to see a greater emphasis on outdoor learning and active play-based learning.
  • Many practitioners commented on the need for greater emphasis being given to interdisciplinary learning to help make connections across learning. As the original ‘interdisciplinary subject’, there is undoubted potential for Geography to benefit from such an increased emphasis.
  • There was a clear call for a wider range of opportunities for learners making their subject choices on entering the S4-S6 Senior Phase.

As I make clear in my report, the structural changes being proposed for SQA and ES, together with my other recommendations, offer important starting points for change and reform in Scottish education. However, they can only be a start. For Scottish education to meet current and future challenges will need the establishment of a shared vision that all parties, political and otherwise, can sign up to. It will require cultural and mind-set shift from individuals at all levels of the education system and more generally in society. It will require strong leadership and, as I stress in my report, an unwavering focus and commitment on meeting the needs of all learners and supporting the teachers and practitioners who support their learning in an ever-changing world.

The first recommendation in my report highlights the need for the Scottish Government to initiate a national discussion, involving all stakeholders and interested parties, on establishing a compelling and consensual vision for the future of Scottish education. Preparation for such a discussion is already underway and I anticipate news on how this will be carried out before the school summer holidays. It will be important that geographers take the opportunity, individually and through bodies such as RSGS and SAGT, to engage in any discussion sessions to ensure the voice of Geography is heard and acted on.

Following on from my work, Professor Louise Hayward of Glasgow University is leading an independent review of qualifications and assessment, which will last until the end of 2022. Given the concerns expressed by many geographers about National Qualifications in the subject, I am sure many will wish to engage with Louise and her team when opportunities become available.