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When former headteacher and SecEd editorial board member Alex Wood met Scotland’s cabinet secretary for education, topics for discussion ranged from the Curriculum for Excellence and wellbeing to inspection and recruiting new school leaders. 

Alex Wood (AW): Most teachers seem enthusiastic about the principles underpinning Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), but are uncertain about how it should look in the classroom and key aspects such as assessment and reporting. What real evidence is there of its success in improving outcomes?
Mike Russell (MR): “I am already seeing evidence of improved achievements by pupils. Our annual sample survey – the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy – monitors national performance in literacy and numeracy in alternate years for school children at P4, P7 and S2. The results from the latest survey show that national performance in reading and writing skills is very good in both primary and secondary schools.
Evidence of improvements can also be seen in inspection reports, with a number of schools having received excellent ratings.
CfE aims to raise attainment and achievement and improve performance across the board. We are seeing from inspections increased opportunities for personalisation and choice in learning which is motivating, building on pupils’ interests and abilities and helping them to develop a range of skills.
In terms of assessment and reporting, I know that Education Scotland staff are working with stakeholders, including education authorities and the teacher unions, to support teachers in these aspects of CfE. This support will continue to be available.”
AW: “Health and Wellbeing are now high on the Scottish educational agenda. What should schools be prioritising to make wellbeing a reality?”
MR: “A shared understanding across all staff and stakeholders of the mental, emotional, social and physical wellbeing of the children and young people they work with is crucial. Responsibility of All will reinforce this shared understanding and help embed health and wellbeing as part and parcel of everyday life in the school.”
AW: “Given the experience of many international education systems, is Education Scotland’s accountability model the best means of raising standards – or could our schools operate more creatively without inspectors?”
MR: “While models may vary, the truth is that all successful education systems have rigorous processes in place to quality assure what happens in their schools. These processes may not be called inspection in places like Finland and Ontario, but they serve the same purpose as inspection, that is to support improvement in learners’ experiences and achievements.
Inspections often identify aspects for improvement in schools which had not been identified either through school self-evaluation or education authority engagement with their schools. This shows the importance of external inspection to complement self-evaluation and support improvement.
Inspectors now take a proportionate approach, starting with a school’s own self-evaluation and focusing on the things which really matter – pupils’ learning experiences and achievements. And we know that inspection promotes creativity through stimulating discussion and reflection with teachers, and through identifying and sharing innovative practice.”
AW: “What is your view of Aberdeen Council’s decision to offer additional pay to attract teachers? Would you be concerned if other councils followed suit?”
MR: “Teacher recruitment is a matter for local authorities as employers and it is not uncommon for local authorities to offer financial relocation packages to employees, including teachers.
The Scottish government does have responsibility for workforce planning across Scotland. Employment prospects for NQTs have been steadily improving since autumn 2010, following action by the Scottish government to address over supply of teachers. We have increased the number of student teacher places in the last two years and we are working closely with councils, who are responsible for recruitment, to make sure we have enough teachers to meet the demands of primary and secondary schools across the country.”
AW: “Many teachers see high stress levels, increasingly tight budgets and the persistent drive for even greater results as disincentives to entering school leadership. How would you attract the best candidates to our most important school leadership roles?”
MR: “With our partners, we have developed a new leadership framework, which enables teachers to work towards headship. We are also taking forward a number of improvements to support headteachers. We are also currently engaged in a major review of routes to headship, which is investigating the qualifications and pathways to headteacher posts in Scotland.
All teachers have a role to play in leadership, for example in curriculum development. It is really important therefore that we encourage people to take up leadership roles, including formal leadership positions, and give them the support that they need.
I established the National Implementation Board to take forward the recommendations from (Professor Graham Donaldson’s report) Teaching Scotland’s Future and the National Partnership Group.
We are scoping options for a possible Scottish College of Educational Leadership and are currently evaluating the Scottish Qualification for Headship and the Flexible Route to Headship.
This is all part of a wider package of measures to support career-long professional learning for all teachers. It is important that teachers have opportunities to reflect on their learning and to identify priorities for future development, including the possibility of leadership responsibilities, and that they receive appropriate support through learning opportunities, mentoring and where appropriate accredited CPD.
AW: “Are learners well-informed about previous referendums in this country and abroad?”
MR: “Education Scotland is working in close partnership with the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, School Leaders Scotland, the Electoral Commission and others to ensure that young people are well-informed about the forthcoming referendum. This is being done through CfE which provides the context for all young people to learn about political literacy, including the referendum.
Political literacy is embedded across CfE, not only as knowledge and understanding, but equally importantly as the skills and attributes that ensure young people can engage in reasoned and evidenced debate and discussion so that they can make up their own minds.
Education Scotland is also providing resources for teachers to help them prepare young people for the referendum, and these will include reference to previous referenda. These resources will be published online during the autumn.”
AW: “If the vote in next year’s referendum is ‘yes’ – what will our education system look like in five years’ time?”
MR: “Education is already fully devolved and through the powers we have in this area we are improving our education system through CfE.
This aims to raise attainment and achievement and improve performance across the board rather than in narrow areas of learning and we are already seeing evidence of its impact. But only with independence will we be able to make the links between taxation, benefits, labour market regulation and education that can drive up attainment and increase educational equity. Without control of these matters through independence, we will not be able to realise our full potential as a learning nation and our young people will still suffer disadvantage.
We will continue to support and drive forward CfE so that in five years’ time, our education system becomes renowned for its innovation, ambition and performance and gives pupils the skills they need for learning, life and work.”

  • Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University. You can read his regular SecEd column, Once a Teacher, at

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