Don’t make same mistakes as Westminster in Scotland

Don’t make same mistakes as Westminster in Scotland schools shake-up

Proposed radical changes to the governance of schools in Scotland are threatening to diminish the role of local authorities

Scottish Parliament

The Scottish Government has launched a three-month consultation on a review of governance in the country’s education. The review is designed to hand schools new powers, empower teachers and bring in greater parental involvement.

It seeks views on how education in Scotland is run, including who should take decisions in relation to the education of children and young people, and how funding can be made more equitable. It also asks about the support teachers and practitioners need and how this can be improved.

The government believes that decisions about children’s learning and school life should be taken in schools. It wants to empower teachers, practitioners, parents, children and young people and communities to have a stronger voice in Scottish education and to become key decision makers, with a presumption that decisions about children’s learning and school life should be taken at school level.

The review examines the system changes required to empower schools and decentralise management. It talks about support through school clusters and the creation of new educational regions, designed to facilitate collaboration across schools and share best practice. 

Reassuringly, the education secretary John Swinney has explicitly ruled out copying the emerging policy of the Westminster government, which intends to reintroduce grammar schools to England. He has also ruled out any plans to create privately-run academies or free schools as recent Westminster governments have done.

While the main legislation underpinning Scottish education – the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 – has been amended and added to on a number of occasions, a broad education framework has been in place in the country since before devolution, with distinct character existing since the inception of formal public education in the 19th century.

Currently, local authorities have primary responsibility for providing education in their areas and legal obligations for delivery and raising standards in schools.

The Scottish government has now intimated its intention to extend to schools responsibilities that currently sit with local authorities and to allocate more resources directly to head teachers to enable them to take decisions based on local circumstances. 

Devolved school management

At present local authorities empower head teachers and teachers in a variety of ways, notably via devolved school management  (DSM).

Essentially, local authorities pass control of a proportion of their education budgets to head teachers of schools or heads of early years establishments through detailed local DSM schemes that set out clear spending requirements.

DSM statutory guidelines mean that head teachers at school level already take some management and funding decisions. What may change significantly is the role of local councils’ education departments in the system. While the government may have no intention of removing schools from local council control, questions surround what powers councils will retain.

Accountability systems in Scotland currently include a range of bodies with formal roles, including local authorities and Education Scotland – the national body for supporting quality and improvement in learning and teaching.

The government view is that schools should primarily be accountable to parents and their local communities; however it is unclear how this will be achieved.

School improvement officers

Local authority school improvement staff currently provide objective support and challenge for schools with a clear focus on self-evaluation and improvement.

These key professionals are drawn from senior staff with extensive in-depth experience of teaching, learning and management and a thorough grasp of the legislative framework in which education is provided.

They play a key role in advancing pedagogical change to raise attainment and promote equality of opportunity.  If the government decides to commit to regional education boards, this will almost certainly have a severely detrimental effect on the functions of the local authorities, with the distinct possibility of significant job losses among experienced local authority staff who enjoy excellent and productive relationships with schools and their communities.

Prospect comment

This is potentially the most radical shake-up of Scottish education governance in living memory, says Paul Watson, vice-president of Prospect’s Education and Children’s Services group.

“It appears, in spite of what Swinney is saying, that the government wants to dilute, or even remove, some key aspects of local authority responsibility for the strategic management of education, including quality improvement functions.”

Local authorities display significant strengths in providing quality education services across the country, he adds.

“I have significant concerns over the presumption that decisions about children’s learning and school life should be taken at school level; extending to schools responsibilities that currently sit with local authorities, and allocating more resources directly to head teachers.

“This could lead to huge uncertainties over staffing, financial and legal matters. Nevertheless, I do welcome Mr Swinney’s opposition to schools being taken out of local authority control entirely and the fact there is no desire to replicate the fiascos of free schools and academies in England.”

ECS group executive council member Tommy Doherty has been involved with teaching and school improvement in Scotland for over 40 years.

“I have seen many challenges to the provision of a quality education for our children. Throughout that time, a major strength of the Scottish educational system has been its rigour and its intelligent use of a wide alliance of expert support for schools and their communities,” he believes.

“Crucial to that has been a system where national government oversaw policy and key strategies, while local authorities carried out the fundamental tasks associated with delivering quality education.”

There are many lessons to learn from the Westminster government, which more than 10 years ago began making changes in English schools that set off  “a very damaging” dismantling process of local authority control of schools in their areas.

“This has led directly to the present very worrying – some would say shambolic – position in England, with local education authorities now virtually stripped of all control.

“Unfortunately, recent policy announcements by the Scottish Government seem to me to echo Westminster policy, potentially leading to similarly undesirable consequences for education in Scotland.

“My earnest hope is that Mr Swinney is mindful of this precedent and will realise in time the vital role of local authorities in assuring quality provision of education.

“The best way forward is to have confident, well-managed schools that are funded, supported and challenged by high-calibre experienced local authority officers.”

  • Prospect will respond to the consultation by the January 2017 deadline.