The red roundel logo of the Children and Young People's Commissioner Scotland.

Education Reform Consultation

November 2021. The Commissioner and our Young Advisers responded to Professor Ken Muir’s consultation on reforming aspects of education in Scotland, including the roles of the SQA, Education Scotland and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.

Key points

  • Culture change is the objective. Rather than taking a narrow starting point in which the structure of agencies is reviewed, the conditions required for systemic reform should be the focus.
  • The opportunity of reform must be used to close accountability gaps in the education system. Clarify roles and responsibilities system-wide, embed a rights-based approach, involve children and young people in the design and ongoing delivery of reform, improve accessibility, choice and remedy.
  • Changes to national education agencies must improve their direct accountability to the wider community – including children and young people.
  • Sharing of good practice and high-quality professional learning for all staff is an important part of improving achievement and attainment for all children and young people.
  • Space must be created for children and young people’s ongoing input into curriculum reform.
  • Children and young people need to be involved in all levels of governance, decision-making and scrutiny in education.
  • Variance in quality and disparity in provision, experience and opportunities in education (depending on the needs of individual child and where they go to school in Scotland) has been further exposed by the pandemic.
  • Scotland’s education system must respect, protect and fulfil children’s human rights. It must be able to develop every child’s “personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential”.[1]

The UNCRC recognises the importance of children’s right to an education, as outlined in Article 28, but also elaborates on the form that education should take, in Article 29. It is a reflection of the importance that the UN Committee on the Rights Child places on education that its first ever General Comment, in 2001, was focussed on Article 29 and the aims of a children’s rights compliant education. The General Comment recognises Article 29 as a core value of the Convention and directly links it to the realisation of the child’s human dignity and the full breadth of their rights as contained within the convention. The Committee states that an education must be child-centred, child friendly and empowering and also that “educational processes must be based upon the very principles it annunciates”.[2]

Our response to the Priestley Review of national qualifications in 2020 highlighted the importance of recognising children and young people as rights holders, indeed as the most important rights holders within the education system. We also outlined the human rights framework underpinning education and specifically national qualifications, with reference to the UNCRC, the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.[3] We highlighted the key ways in which the processes surrounding the 2020 SQA exams had failed to fulfil young people’s rights to participate in decision making and lacked accountability, for example a right to remedy where they disagreed with decisions made about them. Professor Priestley recognised the importance of working with children and young people as stakeholders and rights holders in education in his recommendations.[4]

The experience of 2020 and 2021 has thrown light on a long term disconnect between Curriculum for Excellence and Scotland’s national qualifications, particularly the reliance on high stakes terminal exams.[5] This disconnect was identified by the OECD, in their review of Curriculum for Excellence[6], resulting in the commitment from the Scottish Government to reform both the SQA and Education Scotland.

It is important not to lose sight of the importance of ensuring that children and young people’s participation not just informs, but is at the heart of decision making on the creation of the new inspection and curriculum and examination bodies.[7]

Our office has engaged in several recorded discussion sessions as part of the Practitioner and Stakeholder Advisory Group to the Education Reform consultation. In preparing this written response we consulted with a group of our young advisers, all of whom are senior phase students. We based our conversation with our young advisers on the questions in the consultation paper itself, rather than the young persons questionnaire, but for reasons of time we did not discuss all the questions with them. The discussion was free flowing and in some cases multiple questions were addressed together. Below is a summary of their answers, including direct quotes.

Q1: The vision for Curriculum for Excellence reflects what matters for the education of children and young people in Scotland.

Q2 Curriculum for Excellence provides a coherent progression in the journey of learners (3-18 and beyond) that gives them the best possible educational experience and enables them to realise their ambitions

“Going into S1 from P7 was very very different. Trying to learn a different way that was more to the book than it previously was”.

Our young advisers discussed a disconnect they felt between the way they had been taught in primary school and secondary school. They also said that the school environment was very different:

“It was the jump from P7 to S1 that I found a wee bit staggering.”

Their discussion concentrated on their experience of whether the education they were receiving lived up to the vision.

“Skills for work, for traditional jobs, things that don’t require your own opinion or being expressive.”

Our young advisers didn’t feel that what they were taught necessarily prepared them for the breadth of opportunities available in the 21st century. And they were clear why this happened:

“If people want to go into creative jobs, they might not have those skills taught to them, because they don’t get assessed on them.”

“Instead of you need to memorise this and regurgitate it for the exam, it should be more retaining-that-knowledge driven.”

The young advisers reported that they were discouraged from broadening their knowledge and being creative – key skills for 21st century life. One had been told, having asked a question in class, “Oh you don’t need to know that in Nat 5.”

There was agreement that the education they received was far from the vision of Curriculum for Excellence.

“It’s very restrictive. You’re learning something just to get to an end point – not because they want you to have the knowledge, because it’s going to help you in life, just because you need to know it.”

“I do enjoy what I’m taught, I find it pertinent but its more the teaching to the test, the examination, where you just learn something, rewrite it and then forget it that I have the issue with.”

Q5 The full breadth of existing SQA qualifications play an important part of the curriculum offered by secondary schools.

Our young advisers generally did not feel that the full breadth of qualifications were available to them.  

“There’s restrictions on what you can take, you can’t take three sciences or two languages – that starts quite early (i.e. S3).”

Subject choice was an issue at all levels – whether because of student numbers, scheduling clashes or subjects simply not being offered, though reduction in the number of subjects was not always a negative experience.

“[Higher subject] choices depend on there being enough people taking it and if there is not enough people they will cut it out.”

“I didn’t have the classes I wanted at the times I picked them, they had all been moved about.”

“We cut back a lot of subjects in S3. In S2 to S3 I cut back a lot of the subjects I didn’t enjoy.”

It wasn’t unusual for changes to be made to timetable – without consulting the young person – after the start of the school year. Some young advisers reported that they were able to do specific subjects at Higher or Advanced Higher online or at other schools, but that it was up to them to do their own research of what was available.

“Some of my friends go to college some days a week – for example to do engineering.”

Subject choice issues also lead to ‘crashing’ Highers (studying a subject at Higher that was not studied in National 5) – “a whole other thing that’s not good.”

Awareness of vocational qualifications was low amongst the whole group, although some were aware of friends who were doing courses at college as well as school.

Non-SQA achievements, such as Duke of Edinburgh or Saltire awards weren’t available everywhere and not an option for everyone – one young adviser reported that at their school “you have to qualify for DofE, with certain standards of how you’re doing in school.”

Q6 Technologies are fully and appropriately utilised as a support for curriculum and assessments.

Our young advisers had had mixed experiences of using technology in schools. They recognised the impact that digital exclusion had had on their peers not only during periods of school closures but when technology was used in the classroom, if not everyone had access to a device. Some of the online systems which were developed as a result of the pandemic were still in use, such as submitting work via Teams or Google Classroom. Two of the group had received iPads from their school as part of a school-wide roll out and all had some experience of using technology in the classroom.

“We use them pretty much every day… for things like quizlets, kahoots. They try to integrate them as much as they can now that we’ve got them.”

“They use apps and websites to help further our knowledge, so that we can prepare for assessments and help with the curriculum.”

But the young advisers said that some teachers did not trust them when using their devices – even school supplied devices – in class.

Q11 There is sufficient trust with all stakeholders, including children, young people, parents & carers, so they are genuinely involved in decision making.

“SMT will ask the teachers but it’s only a request, it’d be good if they’d ask students.” (on timing of prelims)

“I don’t believe I have very much choice in decision making.”

“There’s barely anything we have power over.”

Participation in decision making in schools was, in the experience of our young advisers, not widespread. When they were consulted by individual teachers or by the school, they didn’t always know whether their input made any difference.

“My school put out a survey during lockdown … and we put down suggestions on the Microsoft form but it’s really not been spoken about since.”

Individual teachers, in some instances, allowed young people to participate in the way classes were run, but not on what was taught or broader decision making about the school.

“I think the only level of decision making we really get is that you’ll have the occasional teachers that will ask you … what you want out of this or what is the best way you learn and they’ll look at them and see what the most common threads are.”

National Qualifications

The group also discussed their experience of National 5s and Highers, in the context of discussion about the future of the National 5 exams in the OECD review. Generally the group felt that an examination element in National 5 was a good thing in some ways, but that there might also be benefits to having a longer period for Highers.

“Having a National 5 is quite good because it introduces you to a standardised exam that isn’t the be all and end all.”

“Highers is a whole lot of stuff crammed into one – it’s not always building on something you already have, its sometimes totally different things that are completely new.”

“I would like to have more time with Highers but I don’t think it would be a good use of time to do Nat 5s earlier.”

For further information, please contact Megan Farr, Policy Officer at or 07803 874 774

[1] Article 29 UNCRC

[2] UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. 2001. General Comment 1. The Aims of Education.

[3] CYPCS. 2020. Rapid Review of National Qualifications experience 2020 – submission.

[4] Priestley, M. 2020. Rapid Review of National Qualifications experience 2020. Recommendations.

[5] Our other work on this issue can be found on our website

[6] Stobart, G. 2021. Upper-secondary education student assessment in Scotland: A comparative perspective. OCED.

[7] Our previous education governance review work called for Government to put the right to participation of children and young people in education on a legislative basis, as it is for parents.

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