A bureaucracy working group?!


The Scottish government is committed to tackling bureaucracy within Curriculum for Excellence, so it has set up a working group. You couldn't make it up, says Alex Wood.

Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) was initially welcomed by countless teachers. It has increasingly been mired in disputes.

Workload and resource issues have particularly enraged teachers, who are reeling from reduced funding, new examinations, faculty systems and the abandonment of traditional subject departments.

Against this background the latest, glossy Scottish government publication would be risible were it not deadly serious. 

Schools recently received Curriculum for Excellence – Working Group on Tackling Bureaucracy. This document started by quoting Albert Einstein: “Bureaucracy is the death of sound work.” It then proceeded to announce the formation of the working group on tackling bureaucracy.

Working groups are at the very heart of every modern bureaucracy. That tautology however, had gone totally unnoticed by those responsible for this appalling piece of propaganda.

Having quoted Einstein, Alasdair Allan, Scotland’s minister for learning, science and Scotland’s languages, offered candy-floss optimism: “The sound work that teachers and local authorities are accomplishing through CfE must not be stifled by unnecessary bureaucracy.” Such statements dodge the real issues.

The local authorities and Scottish government are utterly committed to intensive managerial processes, constantly checking on how schools and teachers work, demanding countless, detailed statistical returns but seldom offering clear guidance on the big strategic directions which are beyond the capacity of individual schools.

The EIS, Scotland’s major teaching union, welcomed the report: “Pointless paperwork and dubious auditing around CfE implementation has created excessive and unacceptable workload burdens for teachers and stolen time from teaching and learning. The EIS will be using this report to advise members on taking the necessary action to tackle bureaucracy.”

For the EIS, reducing workload is the key. The main drivers of bureaucracy identified in the document certainly have massive workload implications: over-detailed planning processes, assessment and reporting processes which are not fit-for-purpose, unnecessary auditing and accountability, and unclear expectations.

The working group may or may not resolve these immediate problems facing Scotland’s teachers. A far bigger problem is the culture which, from the outset, burdened a new curriculum (which had initially excited enthusiasm) with excessive planning, micro-management, unfit assessment processes, and an onerous, complex auditing juggernaut.

Such approaches are not unique to CfE. They characterise contemporary Scottish educational leadership and management. Ironically, proposals such as “challenging bureaucracy in education services and schools” and ensuring that “audit and accountability arrangements focus only on the most valuable information”, run entirely contrary to the professional cultures of the local authority directorates and the inspectorate, the very organisations which have endorsed these proposals. 

Bureaucracy is not a new, unique virus which has, unusually and unexpectedly, affected the delivery of CfE. Bureaucracy rather is the contemporary managerial norm. Micro-management and an obsession with statistics (with quantity rather than quality) have driven the current leadership culture in education as much as in other areas of public service. The price has been the systematic de-prioritisation of learning. Establishing a new bureaucratic working group to challenge a bureaucratic culture will be a futile initiative. The problem is far more deep-seated. It is embedded in the very culture of those who have led Scottish education into its current morass.

There is no evidence that those who created that culture are prepared to change it. Learners in our schools will pay the price unless teachers, teachers’ unions and school leaders challenge that mind-set. Such a challenge will not be welcomed by the power-holders in Scottish education.

  • 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.


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