In her address to Parliament outlining the Programme for Government, Nicola Sturgeon once again made clear that improving education was her number one priority. More specifically, the First Minister reiterated the importance of closing the attainment gap between children from the wealthiest and poorest backgrounds. In pursuit of that goal, she pledged to introduce a new Education Bill that would deliver the “biggest and most radical change” to the governance of schools since the advent of devolution. The First Minister’s tenure will, in large part, be defined by performance on this issue, for better or worse.
It is a bold objective, for while there remain many strengths to Scottish education – the recent increase in Higher and Advanced Higher pass rates, for example – a number of areas have come under intense scrutiny. The most recent PISA results indicated Scotland’s standing has declined in maths, reading and science, with the poorest overall outcomes since the international study began in 2000. Meanwhile, the Education & Skills Committee’s examination of Education Scotland and the SQA revealed a lack of trust in those bodies among some teachers and parents. Systemic questions over the implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence persist, particularly in relation to subject choice and academic rigour. And just weeks ago, the headteacher of an Edinburgh high school resorted to asking parents to help school fill Maths teacher vacancies, the second such instance this year.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for such a critical issue, the debate over education lays bare some of the enduring disputes and tensions that have characterised the SNP’s decade in office. Opponents have questioned why, after years at the helm, promises by this administration should still be trusted. Accusations of centralism and micro-management have been levelled, while the Government insists it should not be held accountable for spending cuts by local authorities. Anger over budget reductions to councils are rebutted with evidence of a similar loss of funding received by Bute House from Downing Street.
The Conservatives are the only other party to support the proposal to hand significant new powers and responsibilities to headteachers, the central plank of the planned school governance reforms. For Nicola Sturgeon and Cabinet Secretary for Education, John Swinney, this policy is based on a simple premise: that the best decisions are taken by those closest to pupils, namely their teachers and parents. Headteachers will be given freedom to shape the curriculum in their schools, as well as greater autonomy over finances and staff recruitment. While welcoming the move in principle, the Conservatives have expressed concern about restriction by education bodies and called for “wholesale autonomy” for educators. In contrast, the other opposition parties insist teachers are already overburdened, warning the plans will create a “postcode lottery” between schools and undermine local democracy. Calls have also been made to separate the policy and inspection functions of Education Scotland, viewing an inherent contradiction in an arms-length Government body acting as both “judge and jury”.
The Government’s plans to create Regional Improvement Collaboratives, however, have attracted the strongest allegations of centralisation. These will comprise teams of professionals with specialist skills to offer tailored advice in different localities. John Swinney believes they will reduce inconsistencies and address a lack of capacity in some parts of the country, noting his plans have been endorsed by the International Council of Education Advisors. However, Labour protests that the collaboratives will ultimately answer to the Cabinet Secretary, with the removal of an as-yet-unspecified list of education powers from local authorities. Yet John Swinney has consistently stated that the expressed intention of the Government’s plans is to avoid prescription, instead putting faith in teachers’ professionalism and expertise. In a staunch defence of his proposals, he stressed the purpose of the Curriculum for Excellence was to “break free of the top-down diktats that dominated Scottish school education.”
Nonetheless, following pressure from COSLA – which had originally branded the move a “power grab” – the Cabinet Secretary has backtracked somewhat, significantly reducing the power of regional directors.
Labour, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats have repeatedly argued that the focus on structural change is unwanted and unnecessary, highlighting responses to the Government’s own consultation which largely opposed the reforms. For these parties, the core issue is one of staffing and resources. Rising class sizes and the reduction of 4,000 teachers and 1,000 support staff since the SNP took office are recited as a matter of course in parliamentary debates on education. While new career pathways for teachers are supported across the political spectrum, any suggestion that the Government may adopt the Teach First model – a fast-track course allowing trainee-teachers to bypass university – has proved sharply divisive, with unions such as the EIS adamantly opposed.
As a means of boosting resources, the Government launched the Pupil Equity Fund, to be allocated directly to schools and spent at the discretion of headteachers. But even this initiative, while being broadly welcomed across the Chamber, has been met with fears that the money will be used by schools to plug holes in their budget and compensate for staff shortages.
If there is widespread recognition that improvements are needed in Scottish education, there is little consensus on how to achieve them. The Government appears steadfast in pursuit of governance reform, despite strong opposition, and will be held unambiguously responsible for any improvement or decline which follows. It is worth pausing to reflect, however, exactly how progress will be measured. While a rise up the PISA and OECD rankings would be a timely boost to the SNP’s credibility, there are always numerous studies to cite and different ways of interpreting data.
Moreover, although few would deny that closing the “poverty-related” attainment gap is a worthy goal, the underlying problem is not the disparity in achievement but deprivation itself. If poverty is tackled at its roots, then a range of areas will surely be elevated, including education. The Programme for Government includes a Child Poverty Bill, but ministers may see it as prudent not to link the two issues overtly, especially while key economic levers remain reserved to Westminster.
While the political fault lines in education are likely to grow only more pronounced in the coming years, let us hope that these debates ultimately result in better life chances for Scotland’s young people.
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