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Muir education review submission

The report of the Education reform consultation on behalf of Professor Ken Muir, University of the West of Scotland and Independent Advisor to the Scottish Government was published on 9 March 2022. On behalf of the Jimmy Reid Foundation, Brian Boyd and Henry Maitles made a submission to the review in October 2021 based upon their earlier paper on the state of education in Scotland for the Jimmy Reid Foundation. Here, we publish – with thanks to them – their submission in full now that the Muir review has been published.

Rethinking Scottish Schooling

Brian Boyd and Henry Maitles


Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) offers an inspiring and widely supported philosophy of education. Its framework allows for effective curricular practices and for the possibility of a truly fulfilling education for learners. Building upon its commitment to education quality, Scotland can make adjustments within CfE’s flexible framework to achieve its potential for learners present and future. (OECD 2021)

When A Curriculum for Excellence was published in 2004, it sought to look at schooling holistically, from age 3 to age 18.  Such a view had not been taken since the Advisory Council’s reports after the Second World War. However, the three sectors involved, Early Years, Primary and Secondary, have not, as yet, found a way to work together coherently.  In addition, the four capacities – successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens – have not been given equal attention; successful learners has dominated, especially in the secondary sector, where examinations have continued to dominate.

Building on an earlier, widely reported JRF education paper (JRF, 2021), this paper will look at the sectors and will make suggestions as to how the “inspiring and widely supported philosophy of education” (OECD) can come to fruition.  It will examine how Early Years can be the starting point for closing the achievement gap; it will make the case for smaller class sizes, in Early Years and beyond; and it will argue that the goal of Curriculum for Excellence can only be achieved if education is fully resourced.

Early Years and Primary schooling; the place of play, outdoor learningand creativity.

Early Years education in Scotland has grown both in terms of its availability (to all 3 and 4 year olds and some 2 year olds) and its contribution to the closing of the attainment gap. The most recent publication (2020) from Education Scotland, Realising the Ambition; Being Me, is ground-breaking, drawing on international research evidence. However, it is unclear as to whether this heralds a radical reform.  Not until the publication of Curriculum for Excellence (2004) has early years been seen as being important in its own right.

Realising the Ambition: Being me is a substantial and, in many ways, ground-breaking document. It is well produced with copious photographs, mainly of young children learning and playing. It also has references to books, academic papers and other articles to substantiate its arguments.

However, early in the document it is stated that “this guidance does not support any particular theory of child development.” This is a strangely tentative statement for a document which looks at research and practice. Staff working in the Early Years sector might have found a critique of theories of child development useful. 

It lays out 5 dimensions of early years learning: self-regulation; communication and language; confidence, creativity and community; movement and coordination; and self-and social development. However, these are followed by some 8 pages of ‘indicators’ expressed in the voice of the child. The concept of indicators is one which many teachers associate with bureaucratic approaches often promoted by the Inspectorate.

There is a welcome guide to the ‘importance of play’. It references Froebel in this context; a proponent of play in the early 19th century and highly influential in Scotland in the later part of the 20th century. There is a discussion about ‘schematic play’ and references the national strategy for play in Scotland published in 2012. This is a very positive section of the report, covering the ‘pedagogy of play, child-centeredness and play, the role of the adult and guided pedagogy’. It also proposes outdoor play and makes reference to the 4 capacities of Curriculum for Excellence

There are signs that the straitjacket of central imposition is disappearing; there is less pressure on having learning rigidly timetabled; and ‘creative learning’ is now to the fore. Outdoor learning is widely welcomed and many pre-schools and primary schools have already embraced it. Internationally, outdoor play-based learning is being championed by Pasi Sahlberg (2014), highly regarded for his book, Finnish Lessons, and for the part he played in structuring education in Finland. He would go further than the Scottish report. He argues that play should be a core part of learning throughout primary – and indeed secondary – schooling. Time should be built into the school day for play. Sahlberg cites three core elements of Finish education: addressing inequalities early; trusting teachers and other professionals; and building ‘self-directedness’ in learners.

The fundamental argument he makes is that educational excellence will be achieved through greater social equality. There are signs that some schools in Scotland are taking on these ideas and extending them into primary education. However, there is a strong case to be made that early years, should be free and state run, paid for out of general taxation.  It needs to be recognized by Government that “schools cannot compensate for society” (Bernstein, 1970) and that simply giving schools money to spend on closing the gap – without any research as to the efficacy of individual programmes – will not have the desired outcome.

Closing the achievement gap

Policy-making in Scottish education has long had a neo-liberal side. On the one hand, there has been a number of radical and progressive reports; on the other, few have been implemented and some unceremoniously dumped. The heavy hand of politics, fueled by neo-liberal ideology and the desire for centralised control, has put paid to a number of promising initiatives.

Teaching unions, local councils (though COSLA) and parents should be part of the process of policy-making. Covid-19 has initiated a process of change which we all hope is continued when the pandemic is under control. We need an early years and primary education which is inclusive, democratic, collegiate and child-centred. The signs are that early years and primary education will be at the forefront of the movement towards child-centeredness.

It seems self-evident that if Early Years are to play a pivotal role in Closing the Gap then the sector must be well resourced and well staffed.  A reduction of class sizes at this stage is much more likely to help closing the gap than at any other in the child’s development.  There is a compelling case for Early Years to be extended to include children from three / four years of age until the send of P2.  If this is supported by the increase in staff required, it can potentially make a huge impact on closing the gap.

Primary education, from P3 onwards would be where more formal education would begin. We know that, from a parental point of view, this is a key element in their children’s growth and development. Parents often become very supportive and possessive of their primary school. Any attempt by a local authority to close a primary school inevitably meets with a fierce reaction. The fact that children have one teacher for all subjects, the emphasis placed on ethos and nurture and the openness of schools to parents, add up to a strong bond.

Scottish primary education is highly regarded across the world.  This is based on a number of factors, including the generalist nature of the teachers, allowing inter-disciplinary learning to take place and the effort and creativity which goes into the planning of lessons,. Above all else is the awe, often articulated by visitors from countries where the gap between rich and poor is lower than in Scotland, of the teaching approaches and the pedagogy employed to help the poorest pupils to learn with their peers. 

However, we have real concerns about the quality of initial teacher education at the present time in some Universities where there appears to have been a diminution of the numbers of tutors who have had extensive and recent experience of teaching.

Primary-Secondary transition

In Scotland, there have been several attempts to address the concerns around primary-secondary transition. Notably, in the 1980s there was the ill-fated 10-14 Report, which was deemed too ‘teacher centered’. Its promotion of ‘autonomy within guidelines’ for teachers, did not find favour with Government.

Recently, a review of research was published by the Scottish Government in 2019, looking at evidence from around the world. Its conclusions indicated that there had been little improvement. Decline in educational outcomes after pupils moved from primary to secondary were found in 14 studies. However, in the main, pupils responded positively in social terms to the move to the secondary school. While concluding that more research is required, the single most significant issue was that transition was a challenge which no country appears to have handled satisfactorily.

Curriculum for Excellence tried to create a coherence across P7 and S1, by introducing current Broad General Education phase which was to be sheltered from the downward pressure of exams. Teachers, in primary and secondary, must be enabled to collaborate across the sectors. This will involve additional staffing and creative time-tabling. And, above all, the pupil voice should be listened too; primary 7 pupils have been in the system for nine years by the time they reach secondary. Their views are worth listening to. The transition from primary to secondary schools is neither coherent nor progressive, and pupils are let down by the lack of continuity and lack of responsibilities in secondary schools.

The role of play within this structure needs a stronger requires more early years teachers and support staff.  This is, of course, associated with smaller class sizes. Indeed, the issue of class sizes cannot stop at Early Years or Primary. The same kind of increase in staffing in early years as that which is being proposed for the NHS should be considered.

A comment made by Jerome Bruner who addressed an audience of educationists in Glasgow in 2008 gives an inkling of how CfE is regarded. A renowned educational theorist and writer, he was regarded by many as one of the greatest educational and learning process thinkers of the 20th Century. His opening remark was ‘I have just received and read A Curriculum for Excellence of the Scottish Curriculum Review Group. All I can say is that Scotland can thank its lucky stars … a brilliant and ambitious document, and a bold and creative one’.

Comprehensive secondary education

Reconstructions of Scottish Secondary Education (Gray et al. 1983:67) examined the impact of selection on secondary schooling, observing that: “selection limited the areas of human experience, and the proportion of pupils, to which terms such as ‘broad’ and ‘common’ were in practice applied; and by influencing what was taught, and to which pupils, selection thereby entailed explicit judgements of who and what were valued.”

Selection was not just a process of organising or managing schooling; it was an ideology and one which limited the potential of working-class pupils. The mechanisms by which selection was undertaken was the 11+ in England and Wales, and the Qualifying Examination in Scotland. Both were crude instruments of selection. They were based on age-old, but nonetheless, misleading theories. The assumption was that there was a single entity called ‘intelligence’ which could be measured by a test and which could predict how successful people would be in their education (and, indeed, their lives). It was also assumed that intelligence was fixed and unalterable to the extent that pupils of different levels of intelligence could not be educated in either the same schools or in the same classrooms. The vast majority of pupils selected for grammar/senior secondary schools came from middle-class households. The process was elitist and discriminatory mainly because the tests had an in-built bias in favour of middle-class pupils. Paterson (2003:137) pointed out that research showed that ‘allocation to senior-secondary courses was often unfair in meritocratic terms. As a result, the pressure for the introduction of comprehensive schools became irresistible’. Pedley (1979), writing about the English system, argued that the comprehensive school implied ‘richer and broader provision for all pupils than was previously available.’

Internal selection – inimical to closing the gap

While selection has effectively been abolished in Scotland as far as state secondary school intake is concerned, internal selection, setting (by ability in individual subjects), continues in secondary schools. In 1981, Strathclyde Regional Council published a report into the first 2 years of secondary school. It came down strongly in favour of mixed ability teaching in S1 and S2 but included an equally strong Note of Dissent from a group of head teachers and elected members on the committee. The dissenters argued that “there is no mass of incontestable evidence to the purely educational advantage of mixed ability organization”. What they omitted to include in their note was that there was no research evidence whatsoever from around the world that setting or streaming improved the learning of all pupils, not even the most able.

The concentration on exam targets also affects virtually any attempt to develop better rounded people. Thus, initiatives, however supported, such as Education for Citizenship or the Curriculum for Excellence are always couched in terms of their impact on school targets and, indeed, often arguments are heard that these initiatives are a waste of time as they do not help the school, or the teachers, make their targets. Gillborn and Youdell (2001:199) commented that ‘… our case study schools have responded by interrogating virtually every aspect of school life for the possible contribution to the all consuming need to improve the proportion of pupils reaching the benchmark level of five or more higher grade passes.’ MacBeath (2004) argued that this kind of school evaluation and approach can lead to a culture where profoundly undemocratic, rote learning schools with ‘good’ exam passes can be gauged as effective, as the measure of success is usually passes in maths, language and science. In this atmosphere, ideas of creativity and citizenship are only gauged as useful if they aid the exam results. Indeed, teachers who complain that active learning does not develop students for the rote learning Highers are correct – and if they are gauged on the latter, why use the former? So, the narrative of good learning is subsumed by the needs of the exams. The tail wags the dog. Something teacher colleagues find very strange when moving from the school sector to the university sector is that the upper high school is completely dominated by exams and there are virtually none in universities. Indeed many students can go the full 4 years and 24 modules without taking an exam. Almost all modules are assessed through assignment or presentation or course work or other creative approaches, moderated by external examiners. Hard work for the academics – much easier to have an end of year exam – but a truer reflection of students’ ability to use knowledge rather than just regurgitate. It develops deep learning, rather than exam shallow learning.  About time this was introduced in schools. For 2 years now exams have required to be replaced by teacher professional judgment.  It has been instructive to witness the confidence and trust put in internal teacher led assessments by students and their families, compared to the whole scale rejection of the SQA’s algorithm-driven system and its in-built bias against schools serving the poorest communities.

The curriculum in Scotland also needs a root and branch examination. Where is the citizenship learning that will encourage debate about the legacy of slavery in Scotland? Where are students urged to consider the impact of colonialism and empire? Students should leave school with an understanding of our heritage – positive and negative. If this were to be a legacy of BLM, then it should be welcomed. The Welsh Government has intimated in March 2021 that in the Welsh curriculum the teaching of BAME histories will be mandatory. This has the likelihood of being a welcome priority across all the nations of UK and sectors of education. We would urge the Scottish Government to enable this. Secondly, there is an urgent need to tackle the issue of misogyny and sexual violence and inappropriate behaviour. The recent evidence from ‘Everyone’s Invited’ website (tens of thousands of testimonies) has suggested a rape and misogynist culture in schools and in at least 80 British universities (Herald, 2021). The sectors and the government must ensure that this is stamped out. Thirdly, the climate change movement, the galvanization of large numbers of young people in activism, needs to be reflected in the curriculum.

Closing the education gap: impact of the global pandemic

The pandemic has highlighted the inequalities which exist in society. While living in poverty was known to be bad for your health long before Covid-19 appeared, it has become all too clear that those in the lower economic strata are likelier to catch the disease and indeed die from it. This in turn leads to the worsening of educational outcomes; poorer children are more likely to have to self-isolate and to miss in-school learning. Their ability to take advantage of ‘blended learning’ is less than middle-class children and their support structures at home are not as robust.

The examination system has shown that it is inherently biased in favour of more advantaged schools and more advantaged pupils. The use of algorithms which take account of the previous performance of schools simply make it less likely that pupils in schools in disadvantaged areas will achieve grades which seem out of keeping with previous years’ achievement.

What we need to focus on now is poverty; its causes, its impacts and its eradication. The pandemic has brought some uncomfortable truths to the fore, in society and in schooling. It is often said that we will not be able to return to the old normal, and education is one of the arenas in which radical change will be needed. If, indeed, we wish to become more equal (or, at least, less unequal) then schooling needs to be at the forefront of this change.

Making schools more comprehensive.

The comprehensive school in Scotland is alive and well but needs updating. The most recent publication on comprehensive education in Scotland was published in (Murphy et al, 2015): Everyone’s Future: Lessons from fifty years of Scottish comprehensive schooling. It suggested a success but that there is still more to be done, not least the creation of a school system (and, indeed, an education system), which is true to the ideals of the founders of 1965. Others, notably the Nordic countries, have embraced forms of comprehensivisation which go far beyond our system. Sahlberg (2014) records that when Finland suffered a severe recession in the 1970s, it took the view that schooling should be at the heart of its recovery. It was determined to ensure that education would be equally available to all and that it would be seen as a common good. There was no role for private schooling and the state system should be based on the concept of trust. While accountability was necessary, it would be intelligent accountability, and teachers and schools would have a level of autonomy within guidelines which would not require an external inspectorate.

An important element of the Finish system is governance. There are 310 councils which have responsibility for schooling. In a country with roughly the same population as Scotland, this level of local governance is remarkable and indicates a level of involvement which underpins the importance of education to the country’s wellbeing. We would argue that a system of governance based on clusters of schools would be possible in Scotland. The structure already exists; every secondary school with its associated primary schools, nurseries and additional support needs (ASN), already form clusters. The problems, however, are that the structure is loose and does not involve parents or trade unions or school students or other stakeholders except at the level of the individual school. In addition, the existing local authorities control not just the budgets and staffing, but the policy-making too. There is a legitimate worry that delinking schools from local authorities can lead to an ‘academisation’ process (the policy in England and Wales) that can exacerbate the inequalities. But it is not impossible to have strong local governance within a democratic local authority structure.

Even more importantly, in Finland, a decision was made to put creativity and problem-solving at the heart of the curriculum and to ensure that all pupils had equal access to it. In Scotland, we need to break free from the hegemony of testing and examinations. Testing from the age of 5 to 17 or 18, dominates and distorts the curriculum, creates hierarchy among subjects and stifles creativity and child-centred learning.

Resourcing Scottish schools

Class size

Reducing class size has already been mentioned, especially in Early Years.  However, there is a strong case for reduction of class size, or as one might want to put it, the increase in teacher numbers, in all sectors of schooling.  The Pandemic has had a number of unexpected consequences. Firstly, blended learning opened the eyes of parents to the job teachers do.  Finding it difficult to manage the at-home learning of two children, has made parents much more sympathetic to the job teachers do with classed of thirty.

Let us think of what happens in our schools.  In primaries, a teacher might be in charge of a class of thirty pupils each day, on their own, delivering the whole curriculum.  In the secondary, a teacher might have 5 classes in one day, each with thirty pupils, i.e. 150 pupils each day, if we factor in non-contact time.  Teachers, we now know, are front-line staff.  This level of class contact cannot continue.  There is no research evidence to support such levels of contact.

Continuing Professional Development

There have been calls for recalibrating the curriculum by introducing more inter-disciplinary learning, including throughout the senior phase.  This is the only way which some of the big issues such as climate change, black lives matter, antiracism, misogyny and the eradication of poverty, can be dealt with effectively.

However, there are three major challenges.  First, the profession cannot be expected to take in these changes without Continuing Professional Development and the support of parents and carers. It has already been suggested that education cannot take on the problems of society by itself. Second, a major barrier to the continuation of inter-disciplinary learning into the senior phase is the current exam system and the demands of universities.  At present individual subjects dominate the curriculum, and there is a hierarchy which needs to be challenged. Third, there needs to be intelligent accountability within education which includes the teaching profession being included in decision making and being trusted to assess their pupils’ work. External inspection is not the best way to improve education; it needs to be done through a dialogue of equals, including young people, parents and carers, teaching unions and local authorities.


1. A starting point would be to revisit the principles of our current curriculum and to ask whether or not all of the so-called four capacities of A Curriculum for Excellence (2004) – successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens – are equally valued. These were drawn from the 1996 UNESCO aims for education worldwide; learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together and learning to be. We would argue that the UNESCO principles be in reverse order, putting the individual student first and foremost.

2. We must recalibrate the curriculum and remove the hierarchy of subjects. Inter-disciplinary approaches are needed if the curriculum is to enable learners to address issues such as climate change, Black Lives Matter, anti-racism, misogyny and the eradication of poverty. There needs to be a larger emphasis on active learning – not just at younger levels but at all levels throughout the secondary curriculum.

3. Accountability must be based on trust, and the role of testing and exams needs to be examined. The exams at the end of secondary education need to be completely rethought. External inspection needs to demonstrate how it can contribute to intelligent accountability. Governance of schools should be at the most local level which is feasible.

4. All education should be provided free, from Early Years to the senior phase.

Brian Boyd is Emeritus Professor of Education at University of Strathclyde and Henry Maitles is Emeritus Professor of Education at University of West of Scotland.


Bernstein, B (1970) New Society , 26 February, 344-351.

Curriculum for Excellence (2004), Edinburgh Scottish Executive

Education Scotland (2020) Realising the Ambition: Being Me

Herald, (2021) ‘Students lift lid on campus misogyny’, April 15, p5.

Gillborn, D. and Youdell, D. (2000), Rationing Education, London: OUP.

Gray, J., McPherson, A.F. and Raffe, D. (1983) ‘Reconstructions of Secondary Education: Theory, Myth and Practice since the War’

JRF (2021) Liberal Education in a Neo-liberal World

MacBeath, J. (2004), ‘Democratic learning and school effectiveness: Are they by any chance related?’, in MacBeath, J. and Moos, L. (eds.) (2004), Democratic Learning: the challenge to school effectiveness, London: RoutledgeFalmer, pp. 19-51.

Murphy, D; Croxford, L; Howeison, L.; Raffe. D. (eds.) (2015) Everyone’s Future: Lessons from fifty years of Scottish comprehensive education Trentham Books

OECD (2021), Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence

Paterson, L. (2003) Scottish Education in the Twentieth Century, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.

Pedley, R. (1979) The Comprehensive School, London, Pelican Books

Sahlberg, P. (2014) Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland Columbia, USA: Teachers College Press