GTC Scotland

The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Opinion: The Empowerment Agenda

Will the current emphasis on empowerment really allow teachers to exercise their own professional judgement?


Do you feel empowered in your professional work? This question is worth asking because ‘empowerment’ has become the latest buzzword in Scottish education. In Empowering Schools, the Scottish Government’s 2019 progress report on its reform programme, the words ‘empower’, ‘empowered’, ‘empowering’ and ‘empowerment’ appear a total of 115 times. No definition is offered. Empowerment is presented as self-evidently good. On closer inspection, however, it turns out to be rather ambiguous.

Definition

Something approaching a definition can be found in the National Improvement Hub of Education Scotland. Here we find the following statement: “An empowered system is one that grows stronger and more confident, working in partnership to lead learning and teaching that achieves excellence and equity for all learners. Empowerment and collaboration for improvement happen at all levels in an empowered system.”

Several aspects of this statement invite critical comment. Firstly, it links empowerment with other terms, notably ‘partnership’, ‘collaboration’ and ‘improvement’, which are geared towards the achievement of ‘excellence and equity’. In other words, it is presented as a natural addition to words that already have wide currency in Scottish education, thus making it harder to challenge. Secondly, it is an aspirational, not a descriptive, statement: it simply asserts that greater strength and confidence will automatically follow from empowerment. Thirdly, there is a degree of inelegant circularity in the final sentence which declares that “Empowerment . . . happen[s] . . . in an empowered system”. Interestingly absent is any reference to the notion that empowerment might involve teachers being able to exercise their professional judgement in making decisions about curriculum, pedagogy or assessment. It seems that individual freedom is to be constrained by ‘partnership’ and ‘collaboration’.

Despite the problematic nature of the Education Scotland definition, empowerment is regularly invoked by politicians and senior officials. Anyone who looks at the discussions of the Scottish Education Council, the body that was created in 2017 to provide strategic direction for the Government’s reform programme, will find that it features regularly in the minutes of that body. The Headteachers’ Charter is presented as an opportunity to devolve decision-making from the centre to local communities. It is made clear, however, that, while being encouraged to act as leaders of learning and to build the capacity of their staff, headteachers remain first and foremost officers of the council, subject to contractual obligations as local authority employees. The suspicion arises that what is being offered is the devolution of responsibility, not power. If national policies turn out to be ineffective, it becomes easier to spread the blame from those who devised them.

Origins

The history of education policy is, in part, a story of how certain key concepts have come to dominate professional discourse and thinking. When new terms appear, certain questions invite reflection:

  • Where has the discourse come from?
  • Whose interests does it serve?
  • How has it been promoted?
  • How does it shape professional thinking and practice?

There are grounds for thinking that the appeal of empowerment can be traced to comments on Scottish education by international agencies. In its 2015 review of Scottish education, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development called for “a strengthened ‘middle’ operating through networks and collaboratives among schools, and in and across local authorities”. It also suggested that there should
be less emphasis on system-wide leadership and more on “professional leadership focused directly on the nature of teaching, learning and the curriculum in schools”. This message was reinforced in the 2019 report of the International Council of Education Advisers which recommended a move away from a “hierarchical culture” which relied heavily on “bureaucratic, managed organisations” towards a more “egalitarian culture”, in which professional learning opportunities at all levels would help to bring about improvements. The setting up of Regional Improvement Collaboratives (RICs) can be seen as a response to these observations. RICs are intended to encourage cooperation across local authorities and allow staff in schools to identify priorities, initiate projects and share expertise. Such developments can be presented as a form of empowerment.

But does the reality match the rhetoric? It is too early to judge the success of the RICs, but there were some warning signs in the 2018 interim report commissioned by the Scottish Government. It stated that most regional stakeholders felt that the process of establishing them felt “top-down” when what was needed was a “local, bottom-up approach”. One respondent feared that the RICs might turn out to be simply “another layer of bureaucracy” when they should represent “a creative space, an experiment . . . a test bed for innovation”.

Education Scotland has appointed Regional Advisers for every RIC and the extent of school empowerment will be subject to inspection. This suggests that the traditional agencies are reluctant to move from hierarchy to greater democracy. They will no doubt present their role as supportive, but it may seem more like challenge or direction to those on the receiving end.

In conclusion

The language of educational policy always deserves to be interrogated closely. There has been a tendency in Scottish education to accept too readily the discourse of officialdom. Look at the speed with which the terminology of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), most notably the four capacities, was taken on board. It has been central to professional thinking and practice for 15 years. But the word ‘capacity’ was not a coinage by professional educators. It was introduced at a very late stage in the CfE review group’s deliberations by a senior civil servant. Several members did not like it, but their concerns were disregarded.

Political considerations trumped educational arguments: capacity was judged to fit well with the economic functions of schools, linking learning to employment, teamwork and flexibility. We might ask whether there is a similar political agenda underlying the promotion of empowerment. Will it really involve a significant devolution of decision-making from national agencies such as Education Scotland? Or is it merely the latest example of a disarming form of discourse being deployed to give the impression of responding to a teaching force that has become increasingly dissatisfied with many of the policies its members are expected to implement?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Walter Humes is an Honorary Professor in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Stirling. Read Walter’s paper on the policy landscape in Scottish education at bit.ly/WalterPolicyReport