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Blog post Part of series: Scotland: Reform, professionalism and delivery

An Educational HS2 to Irrelevance?

Graham HC Donaldson

Over at least the last 40 years education policies in the United Kingdom have been seeking to make schools become more effective in meeting increasingly demanding political expectations. We have, for example, seen various combinations of exhortation, exemplification, managerialism, compulsion and marketisation as successive governments have sought to influence what happens in classrooms.  More recently, policy rhetoric and actions have been dominated by initiatives around teacher expertise, leadership, decentralisation and a search for ‘what works’. This agenda has increasingly been frustrated, while the crucial questions of what young people should be learning – and why – have seldom been asked and certainly not answered. There is a danger that we are seeking to get better and better at preparing young people for a ‘quickly vanishing world’ (Sawyer 2008) – designing an educational HS2 to irrelevance.

However, as Priestley and Biesta (2013) have identified , transformational changes in economies and societies across the world are increasingly posing searching questions about the purposes of education and the nature of the school curriculum. The focus may be shifting from improving delivery of a relatively fixed curriculum of ‘stuff to be learned’ to the establishment of a more flexible framework of purposes and expectations with a greater emphasis on capacities, particularly the ability to apply learning, and the development of values and ethical stances. These moves are reflected in the OECD’s 2030 Project which is exploring the curriculum implications of the ‘…increasing demands on schools to prepare students for more rapid economic and social change, for jobs that have not yet been created, for technologies that have not yet been invented, and to solve social problems that have not been anticipated in the past’ (

The policy challenges of such a shift in focus are immense. Pressures to ‘deliver’ for the here and now tend to trump longer-term development and yet the young people in our schools today will live their lives throughout this century and beyond – a future that we cannot predict or perhaps even imagine. We need new paradigms of educational change that privilege collaboration, flexibility and responsiveness over implementation of centrally-driven reform.

What kinds of educational professionals will such paradigms require? One example can be seen in Scotland which has, since 2011, been pursuing a radical reform programme aimed at a new kind of professionalism (Donaldson 2011). Similarly, Dylan Jones cites developments in Wales where a radical curriculum change is being supported by reforms to teacher education, leadership and accountability (Donaldson 2015). He recognises that the future will require transformative teachers who can utilise greater curriculum freedom to realise exciting, relevant and stretching learning for their young people.

Mark Priestley and Valerie Drew, in their post (Teacher agency and curriculum development), rightly highlight the importance of agency if curriculum freedom and investment in teacher’s expertise is to be translated into reality in classrooms. The legacy of past assumptions and expectations buttressed by rigid assessment and accountability regimes will hamper the opportunity for teachers to serve their young people as they would like. Valerie Drew’s approach to Critical Collaborative Professional Enquiry illustrates an attempt to provide such agency.

Fearghal Kelly’s outline of teacher leadership (Professional learning for teacher leadership) as part of the work of the Scottish College of Educational Leadership (SCEL) also signals the kind of empowered and collaborative professionals that both Dylan Jones and Mark Priestley call for.

Amanda Corrigan (Seventy thousand hours in the community and counting: a new approach to practicum in initial teacher education) provides a different insight into the role of teacher education in preparing teachers for the future. Schools are not sealed institutions and teachers need to understand the social context of the lives of their pupils. Strathclyde’s community placements provide the kind of ‘knowledge for teaching’ that Darling-Hammond (2016) sees as being integral to serving the needs of all young people.

Together, the 4 posts provide important signals of how teacher education and the broader educational policy agenda need to develop. If we are to move towards more dynamic learning contexts that reflect better the changing lives of our students, then those young people will need teachers who have the confidence and capability to be active partners in shaping that learning and who understand the societal factors that shape young people’s lives. We will also need to establish the cultures and governance arrangements that can make this possible. One current manifestation of such an approach can be seen in moves towards co-construction as being seen currently in Wales.

John Hattie describes the recent history of educational innovation as touching ‘but a chosen few’ (Hattie 2008). Future success will require more than an educational HS2 but a vibrant and collaborative professional culture that makes high quality, exciting and relevant learning the reality for all of our young people. 



Darling-Hammond, L. (2016). Research on Teaching and Teacher Education and its Influences on Policy and Practice. Educational Researcher 45(2), 83-91. March 2016.

Donaldson, G. (2011).  Teaching Scotland’s Future. Scottish Government

Donaldson, G. (2015). Successful Futures. Welsh Government

Hattie, J. and Yates, G. (2008). Visible Learning. Routledge 

Priestley, M. and Biesta, G. (2013). Reinventing the Curriculum. Bloomsbury Academic

Sawyer, K. (2008). Learning to Learn Learning to Innovate. OECD Publishing Paris