The Scottish Government’s Education Governance Review could herald the biggest shake up of our day school sector in living memory. Indeed, the review is of much more than that as it includes all publicly funded early learning and childcare provision as well. Listing the bodies covered by the review give an idea of the scale: local authorities which encapsulates much of the above and Education Scotland, the Scottish Government, the General Teaching Council, the Scottish Qualifications Authority, universities that provide initial teacher education, the Scottish College for Educational Leadership, the Care Inspectorate and, finally, the Scottish Social Services Council.
The Scottish Government is running a consultation until 6 January 2017. It will then come up with its firm proposals that will then go out for another, this time, legislative consultation. One must assume then it will be the SNP flagship policy for next year’s local government elections. Indeed, the aim that the review hopes to underpin, reducing the attainment gap, was a key policy in the 2016 SNP Scottish Parliament manifesto.
The First Minister has set reducing the attainment gap between the better off and the more disadvantaged pupils and students as her defining objective in government. Although made clear during the Scottish Parliament election campaign in April this year, it actually predates that when the Scottish Attainment Challenge was launched way back in February 2015 with a funding stream targeted to schools in areas of deprivation.
The review is largely based on an international report commissioned by the Scottish Government from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Entitled ‘Improving Schools in Scotland: an OECD Perspective’, the report runs to 180 pages and at the heart of it is the concept of leading from the middle.
In his statement to the Scottish Parliament, Education Secretary, John Swinney, said ‘decisions should be taken at school level. That will be our presumption and we will place it at the heart of this review’. In other words, important decisions that are currently taken elsewhere will be taken in the school. Of course, the big question is what decisions that are currently taken at local authority level will be taken in schools and what will be the future role of Scottish local government in the governance of education?
Part of the leading from the middle idea – in truth, some say that there is more than one iteration of the concept in the OECD report – is to allow schools to organise in clusters which, it is envisaged, will facilitate cross pollination of ideas, experiences and even staff. Currently, almost all of the above is the responsibility of the local authority. It is true that the Scottish Government set policy, but it is for local authorities to implement it, for now at least.
However, the review goes even further than that as it envisages an enhanced governance role for parents and communities. Quite what that means at this time is not clear. What we do know is that all previous attempts to enhance parental engagement have not been particularly successful. On the other hand, research does show that where parental engagement can be achieved attainment improves so the intention is understandable.
As a teacher trade unionist, I have some questions as well. Teachers do their best for young people when they are motivated and the conditions of service of teachers play a crucial role in that. Those who think otherwise should consider the status of the profession in Finland. The fact that in Finland teaching is a more sought after career than medicine explains why that country sets the global benchmark in education.
This is not a case of special pleading. The conditions of service of Scottish teachers are about much more than pay and hours, holidays and maternity arrangements and the like. The Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers, the SNCT handbook as it is referred to, covers much more. For instance, it sets maximum class sizes for different year groups and for young people with special needs. It also describes how to develop a collegiate professional culture. It sees the teaching staff as a team rather than just a group of professionals with, theoretically at least, the head as team leader. Indeed, the SNCT structure has been crucial in developing a culture in which the teacher has a degree of professional autonomy. Nothing like the level of professional autonomy in Finland, of course, but at least the SNCT handbook points in the right direction.
To be fair the Education Secretary says that national conditions of teachers are safe – though whether this translates into the retention of the SNCT remains to be seen. The Education Secretary’s wish that decision making should be taken at school level is really important. There are some key issues that need to be teased out here. Is he referring to the head teacher as autocrat? Is he referring to the head teacher as first amongst equals in the teaching staff? Or is it something in between? As a teacher union activist with decades of experience at local and national level, I have seen every variation of the above.
With over 800 words into the article already gone, I have still to mention the real ‘elephant in the room’, the occupant of No 11 Downing Street. What I do know is that it is not the address of the Scottish Government Finance Minister. The local government settlement for 2017-18 sees yet more cuts caused by Westminster putting the banks first. Teacher numbers over the years have been cut by local government though we now have in place a mechanism, albeit an at times somewhat crude mechanism, that has stopped the haemorrhage of teaching staff.
I will use one example to illustrate the dilemma that future decision makers in the schools, autocratic or collegiate, will face. For some years, the basic supplies budget has been cut in many schools. Let us assume that a primary school serving a deprived community receives as it will, according to the proposals, a direct budget boost from government. Let us assume that the school, using its new found decision making autonomy, decides to use a significant portion of funds to buy more of the basics that have been in ever shortening supply for years.
What then when the auditor calls? The motion on the governance review passed, though not without debate, by the SNP conference in October makes clear that the funds devolved directly to schools will have to be seen to be spent on tackling the attainment gap.
Then there is the issue of increased community empowerment contained in the proposals. Is it the school community or is it the community served by a cluster of schools, could it be both or none, depending on the decisions made at local level?
Some communities are already empowered with others disempowered due to deprivation. Will power as well as finance be targeted to those most in need of it, and if so how? Indeed, will existing empowered communities not bridle if relative constrains are put on them? Will the electoral triangulators who make the SNP, according to recent empirical evidence, the most effective election fighting machine in the democratic world, countenance such a course of action?
Of course, if there are no power constraints on the already empowered might we see an actual widening of the attainment gap? Ruth Davidson and Liz Smith are relishing the prospect. From their own libertarian perspectives, aided and abetted by a simplistic media view of what equity in terms of governance means, they are looking forward to a ‘good’ local government campaign.
It is important, therefore, that those of us who share the First Minister’s vision to reduce the attainment gap ensure that the governance review is not diverted off course into a place where educational inequity is reinforced rather than removed.
Bill Ramsay is Convener of the Equality Committee of the Educational Institute of Scotland. This article is written in a personal capacity.