Niall MacKinnon, Social Analyst and former head teacher

Niall MacKinnon
August 2020

The Scottish Government agency Education Scotland was formed in July 2011. It merged the functions of audit, development and support into one body for Scottish schools and further education. The two bodies which came together were Learning and Teaching Scotland – the curriculum support and development agency, and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate for Education –  the audit and scrutiny agency. This merger offered a great opportunity of new ways of operating, thinking and learning to coordinate the major changes underway in modes of education. These derive from deep changes in society. But my evidenced view is that the potential of these new ways of agency working across functions and roles has not not been realised. The hitherto functions and remits of the two predecessor organisations were not harmonised and integrated.

So too Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), which launched in 2004, has not had an easy ride. I consider that for a number of years it has been undoing itself, de-developing. From my experience as a class-committed primary school head teacher bringing in the initiative over many years with colleagues, this is because it was held back, hemmed in by fixed measures and judgemental imposition to outmoded notions. Self-evaluation, which was envisaged to guide professional and organisational learning, and mediate a phase of major change, ceased to be a means of empowerment, but became a means of control.

The criteria of (self-)evaluation were micro-specified and standardised across all Scottish school types and contexts, from the smallest one-teacher rural primary school to the largest urban high school, with the same audit instruments and audit descriptors. As we self-graded ourselves to these imposed, one-size-fits-all specifications then ‘self’ vanished. This has had major consequences for effectiveness as the audit process ceased to drive or moderate real learning. A siege and defence mentality came to enshroud the teaching profession in Scotland. We came to stack reams of evidence to satisfy auditors, but in so doing the system lost the plot. What is all this stuff for?

Tighter controls and specifications supposedly ‘drive up’ standards. But they have been driving us all mad. The CfE curriculum approach and framework arose in reaction, yet has not been able to breathe. Its essence is The Four Capacities of: confidence, contribution, responsibility and learning, realised through seven principles of curriculum design of: challenges and enjoyment; breadth; progression; depth; personalisation and choice; coherence; relevance. The curriculum was reframed as looser experiences and outcomes, originally envisaged to offer learner integration. But contradictions of ideology and method have prevented this – fixed programmes of jargonised ‘Es and Os’ (as these experiences and outcomes came to be termed), top-heavy tracking schedules, narrow summative standardised testing, and the final insult of turning the inspired Building the Curriculum professional implementation pathway for the incoming curriculum into a specification, with an imposed ‘right way’ (i.e. wrong way) of implementation.

Merging the review of quality and curriculum into one agency still offers a new prospect of doing things differently. But new conceptual pathways have to be opened up. I highlight systems-thinking and systems-learning principles as realised in public services through The Vanguard Method as a new means to re-enable change, development and enhancement in Scottish education, as well as maintain stability where appropriate. This is also necessary. Innovation must never be for change’s sake; it must serve purpose. This conceptual and operational re-think is the complete reversal of the command-and-control, specifications and inspection mentality.

As public services analyst and founder of Vanguard Consulting, John Seddon, has noted, systems thinking does not start with ‘plan’ but with ‘check’. This demolishes Education Scotland’s ‘Seven Required Characteristics of Successful Implementation’ for CfE at the first hurdle. Plan is about activity, but check is about knowledge. The core task at the outset is to ‘get knowledge’. The knowledge is of the organisational systems, at all levels, to find out ‘how the work works’, another phrase of Seddon’s, and how these articulate with context and demand. The core need is to understand the work ‘as a system’, the key feature of the Vanguard Method. This builds knowledge – organisational knowledge.

Such knowledge derives from purpose, matched to function, which derives from client needs. In school education, the clients are the pupils, but also the society they form and are part of, in close linkage with the constituencies of interest. For Scottish schools our key focus as educators pertains to pupil need and potential, framed as The Four Capacities – the personal confidence, active contribution, social responsibility and integrated learning that the curriculum initiative said it was all about. But it has not come about due to centralised standardisation and control, in particular inspection schedules which were and are framed to a different model of curriculum, that which Finnish educationalist Pasi Sahlberg terms a ‘product model’ of curriculum. Instead we need to open the capacities up, exploring and fostering their variety, which is the variety of the pupils’ dispositions via other models of curriculum, such as Sahlberg’s ‘process model’. I saw such conceptual and theoretical development as the essence of the CfE curriculum switch – not a switch of curriculum, i.e. altered content, but a switch to a new notion of curriculum itself: altered processes, structures and concepts, framed around capacity, hence: The Four Capacities. Once we understand needs and potentials, itself a complex and ongoing task and which are flip-sides of the same, we build the means, then the processes and can then construct content as learning activity, locally and situationally derived, albeit within overarching frameworks. Support systems can then emerge rather than be imposed. Governmental and politically mediated change needs to work very sensitively and contextually with such an approach, as also argued and demonstrated by Seddon and colleagues.

As case studies of the theoretical framework of The Vanguard Method demonstrate empirically, performance is a product of the system, and it is the system which determines performance. Thereby we must stop obsessing on performance but focus on capability, the capability of the system to enable performance, and wider attributes beyond performance, which in Scottish education constitute the capacities of the new curriculum. But it is the current measuring, audit and control regime which is disabling performance, and capability, imposing wrong notions and clutter. It is disabling the system. It is enforcing standardisation on a non-standard reality; it is tying down that which is under rapid change. It is seeking to judge by outmoded practice notions. The world is non-standard and changing. The current audit ideology is causing real harm as wrong conclusions are formed by invalid methods and imposed as absolutist determinations which come to mean nothing. But they do then mean something, something else entirely – control, as articulated in Seddon’s (2019) book ‘Beyond Command and Control’.

The key insight of management operating on systems-thinking principles, as analytically observed by Vanguard Consulting, is that the greatest improvement is to be gained from working on the system, not the individuals (people or local institutions). The core need is to learn as a system, enhancing the work by harnessing the potential and collaboration of the individuals (again people and local institutions) doing the work. This liberates those individuals (yet again staff and local institutions) by optimising their capacity so as to be enabled to apply their creativity and ingenuity in their contexts and circumstances through the application of their professional knowledge, now released by a system which is seeking to enable and support them, not confine and constrain them.

The inspection control practices in Scottish schools of ‘independent evaluations’, indicators and imposed commentary has us all looking over our shoulders, creating monstrous piles of waste – paper, e-clutter, time, health, morale. Their ‘evaluations’ are not processes but grades, to wrong notions which are fixed and immutable and formed of wrong suppositions – that of a standardised and non-changing world. The woefully misnamed local authority ‘quality assurance’ processes work to the same rationale and method.

Enormous new potential can be released at no cost or negative cost (elimination of waste and freeing up resources to new functions) once it is realised that most performance variation is contained in the system – principally context, demand, capability and process. Once this is understood – and this means of understanding is at the heart of The Vanguard Method – then managers, ‘leaders’, workers and external moderators can work collaboratively. The managers’ job is to adjust conditions for optimal performance, not performance-manage the workers through ‘quality assurance’, inspection and so on. Such a reframed management process drives out fear. There should still be external input but of a very different nature and ethos. Of necessity it would be reciprocal fostering two-way and multi-way information flows.

Within The Vanguard Method, the job of audit and management is to improve the work by understanding the ‘what and why’ of the work, as Seddon terms it, seeking the conditions which optimise work capability. This turns conventional performance management on its head, by stripping out all the ‘what are they looking fors’ – all the imposed measures, indicators, and endless ‘you do it like this or else’ edicts. But data is very important, if garnered and utilised non-judgementally and in situationally specific and relevant forms to locally mediated purpose. These form leading measures driving primary understanding, as opposed to lagging measures, such as aggregated statistics. A central insight of The Vanguard Method is that lagging measures must not drive local function which must focus on local need as informed by the leading measures. The distinction between leading and lagging measures is another central feature of the theoretical framework of The Vanguard Method. The failure to understand this distinction drives monstrous dysfunction and waste into a system as disembodied decontextualised targets are used to centrally ‘drive’ service direction. In school education targets through aggregated summative test scores are a prime example, and are a central policy and procedural imperative of governments in the UK under all political parties.

The aim under systems thinking is to reconnect with client need, for which very good communications processes must be in place. Processes of assurance as contact may ensure that this is so, but shall not determine method. A re-established professionalism focuses on purposes, but liberates method to realise purposes. Change is then rolled in, not rolled out, another reframed term of phrase of Seddon as utilised in The Vanguard Method. It is the front-line where the most meaningful and effective innovation occurs. That is where purpose is achieved and that is where a conjoined process of audit-management needs to do something quite different to inspection, which is instead to ‘study the work’. To understand successes or barriers to achieving purpose do not inspect, instead ‘go study’. This is a term and approach which I have only come across articulated within and as part of The Vanguard Method. To ‘go study’ reframes accountability, turning it from a one-way process of ‘holding to account’ to a reciprocal and mutual process, which I have termed ‘account ability’. An organisation which practices account ability becomes ‘account able’ and in so doing constructs itself as a learning system.

Altered purposes are at the heart of the CfE Four Capacities. Indeed they redefine them and are also why they have been so sidelined by indicators and inspection, including Scottish local authority ‘quality assurance’ which utilises the same method and audit instruments. That is why a new approach such as The Vanguard Method in Scottish school development and evaluation could re-invigorate the CfE Four Capacities curriculum approach. It would link the altered theoretical basis of systems thinking to generating organisational knowledge to the altered conceptual basis of the curriculum approach, which moved away from individualised attainment to wider and collaborative capacity development. Altered conceptual and theoretical practice methodologies can then come to the fore in school education – such as collaborative idea-centred learning, Knowledge Building, global citizenship, Ecoschools, Place-Based Learning, The Slow School approach, digital media literacies, Freedom to Learn and New Learning Ecosystems. These are all terms and practices which are emerging and are a world away from targetised attainment and its linear teach, learn, test, ‘next steps’ delivery approach, where the core imperative is to ‘drive-up’ standards, ‘raise the bar’ or micro-specify a ‘Journey to Excellence’, the name of the collective audit instruments of Scottish education. The aggregated output of this approach is aggregated performance/quality indicator scorings of inspections and aggregated summative standardised test scores of pupil ‘learning’, which of course drive unlearning in all senses as the foundations of real learning are non or uncomprehended. This world view fits within conceptual parallels termed variously performativity by Stephen Ball, learnification by Gert Biesta and the GERM (Global Educational Reform Movement) by Pasi Sahlberg. Together they turn school learning of pupils/students and institutions into what Michael Corbett has termed The Edumometer. Ben Williamson calls these ‘code acts’ as summative scoring becomes the sole mechanism of institutional learning, which of course destroys learning. It causes organisations and organisational systems to enter into a state of what Joseph Jablonski has termed a Cycle of Unquality. Stephen Ball and Antonio Olmedo call these processes neo-liberal governmentalities. Ben Williamson terms the whole entity datafication. But this is not the utilisation of data in the systems-learning sense, as leading measures, but as lagging measures, or even as non-measures as the methodologies have departed from their conceptual, theoretical, normative, operational and contextual grounding.

The conceptual and theoretical kernel of Curriculum for Excellence was quite different to this. It was about rehumanising education. It was an education innovation which would be built, not implemented, constructed not imposed. Instead the integral approaches appropriate to CfE need to be given the space to develop. Were such development to (be allowed) to occur in Scotland then The Four Capacities could become centre-stage as they were envisioned and be placed centre stage in the major reform of Scottish education founded in 2004 (yes 2004). These are all marginalised in a system orientated towards targetised attainment and performance indicator audit, particularly inspection and ‘quality assurance’ and test-based accountability. These stymie the CfE approach and marginalise or negate the new learning approaches and pathways. I know this from painful first-hand experience which I have extensively analysed, reported and complained of. It is why CfE has not succeeded or indeed thrived as it could have, or where success became an act of subversion where the evident means of achieving success were non-compliant in the dominant school education audit ideology in Scotland. Those who sought to operate in the CfE way – plan, practice, assess, evaluate, report, develop, manage, lead – were thwarted because their methods and innovations were devalidated. Innovation was annulled. That is why the linkage between audit, management and practice is so important. And it is where ethos as a concept comes in, particular collegiality, respect and mutuality. It is why I now urge systems thinking and seek a special place for the Vanguard Method in Scottish school education, which has focused on the public sector in the UK to very great success where applied. It has been utilised in people-centred services and its time has come for school education. Scotland could lead the way, being devolved for school education and with a distinctively different proclaimed curriculum philosophy.

Systems thinking is about connectivity – between agencies, institutions, people, ideas – towards achieving purpose. Evaluation then becomes an integral and reciprocal process, not an act of judgement. Set these up to operate organically and without fear to unleash a wave of creativity. This drives out waste. The concept of waste is at the heart of The Vanguard Method. Waste is any activity not directly focused on meeting client need. Those applying systems thinking and particularly the Vanguard Method have found that their services were mired in waste activity, deriving from specifications which no longer met their purposes, nor ever did because fixed specifications cannot ‘absorb variety’, a key analytic concept of the philosophy and approach.

I maintain, with evidence, which I have extensively analysed elsewhere, that the inspection and quality assurance procedures as currently operating in Scottish school education are the principal cause of work waste in this sector. They generate failure, placing a new form of demand on the system, created by the system itself – failure demand, another concept of Seddon’s, which is not articulated in the mainstream quality audit literature. But it certainly articulates in reality, most particularly in institutions which do not grasp it. As Seddon and colleagues in Vanguard Consulting have analysed, where manifest this normally causes organisations to increase control through compliance and heightened forms of audit based on specifications and impositional judgement. But analysis by Vanguard shows that the enforcers – command-and-control auditors, quality assurers and inspectors – are merely driving more and more waste into the system, and then more insidious effects such as demoralisation and on to abuse and then on to dysfunction, and then non-function as over-audit causes atrophy.

In its place systems thinking strengthens accountability by setting up strong links with clients, around purposes – theirs, what they seek the service to provide or enable. This does not derive from a specification drawn up by an auditor who does not do the work, let alone understand it. Systems thinking sets up new forms of linkage between system leaders, managers, the workforce and clients, probing the factors which dispose towards productivity and even breaking down the barriers of these roles.  Core work function is defined as achieving purpose in meeting needs from the customers’/clients’ point of view, not a specification deriving from an auditor’s and inspector’s point of view, or some other yet more remote operator, such as a politician.

A shift to systems learning is how to realise the plea of teachers and head teachers to “just let me do my job”. The Vanguard Method has developed systems thinking within the British public sector. It provides a means, method and rationale for Scottish school education to de-clutter, a professed aim of CfE, but which has no current pathway to achieve this. The current Scottish Government led anti-bureaucracy initiative in Scottish education has no chance of success whatsoever since it has no theory of action and will be thwarted by audit practices which have not altered as they need to in terms of their conceptual and theoretical assumptions. Mere modifications without this deep normative shift will merely ‘do the wrong thing righter’ which is another concept of Seddon’s. And as he adds, doing the wrong thing righter is still doing the wrong thing. The shift which is needed is to manage and audit, or as I now come to term it audit-manage, via systems-learning methods which do ‘the right thing’, which is to seek optimisation in terms of purpose, embracing its variety tempered by local context and the ‘what and why’ of organisational function.

The Vanguard Method liberates method, the method of those doing the work, restoring professionalism. But they do not do it alone. They do it in collaboration with clients and the constituents of interest. Those engagements define purpose. In school education the workforce can then focus on ‘what matters’ in achieving purpose, not worried by vague, irrelevant, outmoded specifications, written in such stilted form that they never had practical reality in any case, and are not understood by those who apply them in the endless rounds of audit. This is evidenced in vacuous unwarranted and unevidenced assertions in the audit reports, presented as slogans and exhortations and which are resistant to any forms of analysis, complaint or appeal and from which no organisational learning can be derived.

Were systems learning to be adopted in Scottish school education the repository of professional conduct and its means of assurance can remain in the General Teaching Council for Scotland  – its professional standards and update – a role which never needed duplicated anyway. The agency Education Scotland should be a sibling agency acting as a repository and network of systems learning focused on achieving purpose, identifying and fostering pupils’ needs and potentials and centred on their point of view, then releasing the workforce to focus on those. This would liberate the potential of The Four Capacities at the heart of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence. A change of name would also help, and is needed because it is not a curriculum, as Keir Bloomer noted in his 2008 article ‘The dangerous word is curriculum’ and it is not about excellence, as I noted in mine that year ‘The perils of permanent perfection’, both in The Times Educational Supplement for Scotland. It was once also called The Scottish Education Weave which would highlight its layered conceptual and operational components and establish a more appropriate guiding ethos. It is the name which I prefer, for this reason.

Given the unprecedented disruption to school education of the Covid-19 pandemic, Education Scotland has taken the decision to pause all inspection activity. This is expressly “to allow schools and education establishments to focus on providing support to their colleagues, pupils and local communities.” But why not make this permanent? As an agency, Education Scotland should not sit above schools and teachers – ‘inspecting’ or ‘quality assuring’ them – but work alongside them, generating organisational knowledge, coordinating support and understanding. I suggest that The Vanguard Method should be formally piloted in (and through and by) Scottish schools and its associated institutions as a means to enable this re-enabled vision. Via systems-thinking engagement such collaborative endeavour could transform the work, refocusing activity on purpose, or rather purposes, which are myriad in their variety and variation. If we set ourselves on this new course, who knows, we may even then learn something. We could then achieve so much more. Scottish schools would become places of nurture and potential not sanction and constraint. In the early years of Curriculum for Excellence and The Scottish Education Weave 2004-08 Scotland was a world leader in educational innovation. It is not now. It could be again. Scotland needs it to be.

As schools reopen from the pandemic shutdown there lies the opportunity. It is the schools who will work out the way forward, in partnership.

Biographical note

Niall MacKinnon is a social analyst specialising in education policy and practice. He lives in the Scottish Highlands where he was the head teacher of a small rural primary school for fourteen years. He took a particular interest in practitioner inquiry and action implementation research, working with many partner bodies and schools. He has also worked as a researcher, consultant and assessor. He has developed an interest in modes of institutional knowledge creation incorporating methodologies of management and audit. More recently he has presented and analysed widely regarding international education change.

Social analyst and former head teacher