Consultation responses force John Swinney to plan his own route

Consultation responses force John Swinney to plan his own route

by Elizabeth Smith
article from Wednesday 2, May, 2018

THIS WEEK, the Scottish Government published its consultation findings into the proposed new education bill planned for later this year. It must have made uncomfortable reading for John Swinney and his ministers. Out of 674 responses, there was virtually no consensus on any of the proposed reforms and therefore a lack of clear direction for the way ahead.

The Scottish Government now finds itself in an awkward position. It has made the case for school reform  – rightly in my opinion – but it knows that it cannot get any new legislation through the Scottish Parliament unless it persuades another party to support the details of what is being proposed. That support does not look like being forthcoming unless there is a very substantial change of focus. 

Before l outline what would have to happen before the Scottish Conservatives could agree to the details, let’s be very clear about why reform is desperately needed. 

Firstly, over the last three decades, more and more money has been put into education on a cumulative basis (notwithstanding some of the present cuts) yet we have not seen the necessary improvements in standards in our schools that every parent has a right to expect. Indeed, when it comes to some key measures, Scotland has been slipping back in the international tables with some particularly worrying trends in literacy and numeracy.

Secondly, let me quote an important paragraph from the report published by the Commission on School Reform – a report, incidentally, which was produced by educationalists across the political spectrum and which was free of bias towards any political party:

At present, schools are reluctant to take the initiative. This is because the culture of the system as a whole is disempowering. The structure is hierarchical with an ethos of each layer being subordinate to the one above it. There is too little communication or sense that constructive criticism is welcomed.

“At present the responsibilities of different tiers of management are ill-defined. The strategic leadership role of government is obscured by a strong tendency to become involved in detail. As such, the freedom of action of schools is too circumscribed.”

In other words, it is the system itself, rather than the people in it, which is preventing us from getting better results. Interestingly, about the only area of agreement in the recent Scottish Government consultation, is the fact that people want reform. They know, deep down, it has to happen because the present system isn’t delivering.

The headache for John Swinney is how he converts the relative consensus about the principle of reform into a consensus about its delivery.

Let’s start with another area where there is the potential for some consensus and that is in relation to collaboration. Most teachers want to work in a collaborative way since it is the best means of sharing good practice and weeding out things that don’t work well. Time after time, however, including evidence that has been submitted to the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee, we have been told by teachers that whilst collaboration per seis very welcome it should not be delivered by a top heavy, one-size-fits-all, regional structure which is effectively controlled by central government. They much prefer collaboration that is “home grown”, wholly responsive to local needs and which understands crucial differences between urban and rural education.

The second area in which there is scope for manoeuvre is on empowerment for headteachers. Again, a majority of respondents believed they could get behind this principle of reform even if they could not agree what it actually entailed. There seems to be general agreement that schools work better if headteachers really do have the last word on decisions about what happens in their school but much less agreement about what this actually means.

The Scottish Conservatives firmly believe that a head should be wholly responsible for the decisions taken in his or her own school. He or she should be able to hire his or her own staff (not be told by local authorities who might be on the short list or what promotion structures must be used), be responsible for how the allocated money is spent in his or her school, including complete freedom to spend Pupil Equity Funding money without recourse to local or national “guidelines”, and have freedom to decide what collaboration there will be with other local schools.

At present, the SNP says it wants these freedoms enshrined in the bill but its actions suggest something rather different. Behind every freedom being talked about seems to be yet another “guideline”. 

Above all, the main complaint about the forthcoming bill is the confusion over where the lines of responsibility and accountability will lie. No-one is sure what relationship local authorities are supposed to have with the Scottish Government’s collaborative structures and what relationship these are supposed to have with Education Scotland. Heads are not clear about their own responsibilities and to whom they are ultimately accountable. That is a major cause of concern that needs to be addressed if the bill is to have any hope of success.

The Scottish Conservatives have said many times in recent years that the case for school reform is incontrovertible. We believe a new bill could be the best opportunity we have had in years to deliver what every parent wants to see, namely a really good school in every local community. John Swinney still has a mountain to climb if he is to make this a reality and earn our support in Holyrood.

Elizabeth Smith is Shadow Education Secretary and a Scottish Conservative & Unionist member for Mid Scotland and Fife

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