The Scottish education system has sometimes been criticised as being too consensual and lacking in urgency. However, coming from the aggressively partisan, political and relentlessly changing world of English education there were elements of today’s visit to the General Teaching Council Scotland which seemed positively utopian.

First, let’s have some context. Scotland has around 50,000 practising teachers, around 2,500 schools and has had a General Teaching Council since the 1960s which has more powers than any equivalent English body has ever had. This is a relatively small education system with well-established systems and networks. Generally, education is much less of a political football here – there is very little between the different parties and you tend to see less of the media tug-of-war than you do in England. As a result, there is a much greater sense of policy stability. In international rankings, Scotland performs broadly equivalently to England in PISA although worse in TIMSS (2008 – they didn’t participate in 2011). For me, however, a particularly striking comparison is around teacher retention. The now defunct TDA noted that England loses around 40% of new teachers within 5 years in England. In Scotland, while not a completely comparable statistic, around 90% of teachers remain registered with the GTC after 5 years. The suggestion is that Scotland’s greater focus on professionalism, early career support and collegiality encourages teachers’ sense of self-efficacy and control and, ultimately, leads to much improved retention. If anyone knows of some good comparative research of the two systems in this area, I’d be keen to see it. A final piece of context: every teacher in Scotland has a contractual obligation (and right) to engage in 35 hours of CPD per year. There is an acknowledgement that simply spending time isn’t enough, however, and the GTCS is increasingly focusing on promoting impact.

My generous and informative hosts for today’s visit to GTC Scotland’s picturesque headquarters were Tom Hamilton (Head of Professional Learning) and Gillian Hamilton (Head of Educational Services).  They kindly painted a picture of the different elements of the Scottish education system and how they work together. Tom and Gillian visit England frequently and receive delegations from all over the world who are examining the Scottish approach so they were well versed in highlighting key aspects of their work.

The picturesque headquarters of GTCS, just outside the centre of Edinburgh

If there was one word I would use to summarise what I found it would be coherence. While they were quick to acknowledge difficulties and areas that needed development, the overarching impression was of a system where threads are being carefully drawn together and where different elements of the landscape are gradually aligning behind a single vision. We spent much of the meeting discussing the enormous lengths that they have gone to in all their work to ensure that every stakeholder has a seat at the table: a space for debate, respectful disagreement and collaborative construction of system-wide standards.

As an example GTC’s professional standards  were revised over a long period until the end of 2012 and then adopted in August 2013. The organisation created several working groups: one main steering group and three smaller writing groups. Representatives from across the education sector were involved in each of these. They had originally planned to get the standards written across three days of meetings, but allowed the process to extend organically as they found that there hadn’t originally been sufficient time to reach consensus – I believe this eventually took as much as 27 days if my notes are correct. Once they had completed draft standards, they took pains to go out to even more teachers and stakeholders using social media, online and physical meetings across Scotland. Where they did receive negative feedback they invited critics to come and engage with them directly.

Once the standards had been finally agreed by all of these groups, they had to be ratified by the GTC Scotland Council. This consists of a number of elected members drawn from the teaching workforce, some nominated members from key organisations, and 7 lay members who are drawn from outside of education to ensure a voice for the wider electorate: parents, business, etc.

I think, quite fairly, the view at GTC Scotland is that their professional standards are significantly more robust and respected than anything in England which has had absolutely nowhere near the level of effort put in to them.

GTC Scotland has the power to determine standards in ITE (based on a unified, university-based route) as well as ongoing professional standards which ensures a continuity of approach which has wide buy-in from across the profession. The new standards are increasingly aligned with Scotland’s schools inspectorate and the HMI’s own framework, as well as the CPD services from the central body, Education Scotland. They also form the basis of the re-licensing system – professional update – which is being piloted and phased in over seven (yes seven) years. The thought of anything being phased in, in England, over this amount of time and with this care is, sadly, laughable.

I challenged Tom and Gillian as to whether the high level of agreement and consensus causes them to go for lowest common denominator standards but they felt that there was strong buy-in to the overall system’s goals as laid out in the all-important Donaldson review in 2011 and this drove collective high aspirations. I also asked them what evidence there was for these standards impacting on pupil outcomes. Not surprisingly, there is nothing as yet – indeed it would be hard to directly measure any standalone impact as they are embedded in so many elements of the education system here. The goal here is, however, to create a unified structure where teachers are seen as professionals. Indeed, Tom said that there was a general understanding from the profession and from policy makers in Scotland that teaching is a complex profession which needs to be all-graduate, inextricably linked to university education, and which drives its quality from the ground-up.

Another theme that came across strongly in my discussions was that there is an understanding in Scotland of broader measures that simple exam attainment. The professional standards and the new curriculum consider the whole professional experience and the whole student experience. Gillian and Tom recounted their shock as they worked alongside the US state of Georgia where teachers were automatically sent back to university for ‘re-training’ if their value added standardised test scores fell below a fixed level in the first few years of teaching. The result of that approach was a dramatic dropout rate of 50% in the first two years. This would be an anathema to the Scottish view, as would, I suspect, the idea that an education minister might refer to sectors of the system as ‘enemies of promise’.

While I’m painting a very positive picture here, it was just as informative to learn from some of the areas where things didn’t go so well. The GTCS’s Chartered Teacher Status, for example, has now been dropped, amid some controversy, to promote flexibility. I thought it was very useful to understand that one of the key obstacles to its success was the lack of buy-in and understanding from headteachers, particularly at secondary level. Some apparently felt aggrieved that their teachers could pass an accreditation which forced them (and the LEAs) to pay out more money, while others simply didn’t know how to best utilise these teachers. There was also an insufficient take-up from the profession which meant that chartered teachers were few and far between, although where schools did have several, HMI noted that they had positive influence on the school. I think there are strong and important lessons here for a future member-led College of Teaching in England. If we don’t support leadership and whole-school development culture and don’t encourage broad buy-in to any standards, then any new accreditations will be doomed.

I left today’s meeting with pages and pages of notes and ideas – I’ve only scratched the surface of the discussions. Tom, Gillian and I discovered we shared a great deal enthusiasm for the principles of teacher enquiry and especially the Lesson Study model. I was saddened to hear that they and their colleagues sometimes find it depressing to visit England where they find morale so low and where so many people talking of ‘escaping’ the high pressure teaching environment to the relative calm in Scotland.

I’m very much looking forward to collaborating with GTCS in future as the Teacher Development Trust campaigns to bring some semblance of this level of system coherence to England and to spread these principles of effective professional learning across the whole UK and worldwide.