Joan McAlpine: Lessons to be learned in EIS U-turn
Councils' authority was once inviolable, but as union questions level of bureaucracy, so should we all
CHRISTMAS and New Year is not the best time to spark a debate on future school governance. Teachers, parents and pupils are still recovering from the delivery of Nativity plays, carol concerts and end-of-term report cards. Even the politicians head back to hearth and home, while the commentariat ruminate on the year just gone and the highlights ahead.
So nobody choked on their eggnog latte when the Educational Institute of Scotland suggested in late December that local councils might not be the best institutions to manage our schools. It was a major departure for Scotland's biggest teaching union, which deserves to be rescued from the post-Hogmanay oblivion. The EIS, while terrier-like in defending the pay and conditions of its members, does not make a habit of challenging the status quo.
On 30 December, EIS general-secretary Ronnie Smith suggested that the structures for delivering education ought to be examined in order to cut costs. He questioned whether local councils were best-placed to do this. There are 32 of them, all with well-paid directors of education and supporting bureaucracies. Smith suggested that schools might be better governed by a smaller number of directly-elected boards or trusts.
Scotland never went down the road of England, where primary and secondary provision is more diverse and headteachers have more autonomy. The EIS always stuck to the view that dilution of the council's role was anathema in Scotland and would result in two-tier provision.
Before the Scottish Parliament reconvened in 1999, it was not surprising that Scottish society, almost to a man and woman, would leap to the defence of their local authority - even if we simultaneously moaned about corrupt cooncillors. At that time councils were Scotland's only means of democratic expression. As the parliament has established itself, there has been a shift in emphasis. Councils sometimes seem like a block on the democratic will, rather than the means of delivering it.
Education offers one of the clearest examples of this development. It has played a key role in every election campaign for Holyrood. Parties outline priorities and make promises, but really they are at the mercy of councils, who have the real power over schools. Often this is unclear to voters, particularly when it suits opposition parties and headline writers to stick it to the government.
The class sizes pledge of the SNP was popular with parents and teachers, and Mr Smith is particularly dismayed at some councils' failure to implement it."All too often, important national policies have become diluted at a local level as local authorities identify their own policy priorities, which are not always consistent with national policy," he said.
This statement is incredibly significant because local authorities "identifying their own policy priorities" was considered desirable back in the day. The difficulty has arisen when local councils, for purely political reasons, use their power in education to challenge the government in Holyrood.
The SNP's pledge to reduce class sizes to 18 in primary 1-3 was supported by parents and teachers, But Labour-controlled Glasgow, for example, refuses to comply. Glasgow has the principal responsibility for the decline in teacher numbers in Scotland. It employs only 42 per cent of its post-probationers, compared with 68 per cent for Dundee. Indeed, Scottish Government figures show that Labour councils across Scotland are responsible for two-thirds of all the teacher number reductions, that in turn result in larger classes.
The government has now legislated to cap pupil numbers in primaries 1-3 at 25 - an example of centralisation that has been widely welcomed. Might we see more change in this direction, with greater power for both Holyrood and schools themselves?
Professional associations representing headteachers and school leaders already back change. Keir Bloomer, former leader of the Association of Directors of Education, said much the same thing last autumn, though, surprisingly, at that point the EIS was still insisting that "the current system works well".
Mr Bloomer was uncompromising in his judgment of councils' performance regarding education. "What we need to do is give much more power directly to individua l schools to ensure that decisions are made near to the point where they have impact," he said.
Some insist that too much power in the hands of headteachers would result in bullying, poor employment practises and waste. Yet independent schools with small management teams provide a wide-ranging curriculum, excellent academic performance, numerous cultural and sporting activities - while still keeping their buildings clean, wind and water-tight.
The EIS and Mr Bloomer are not advocating devolving all power to headteachers. They prefer some sort of cluster arrangement, either of school regional boards (EIS) or not-for-profit companies (Bloomer). The suggestion is made from the best of intentions - to ensure that the needs of all pupils in a geographical area are met, ideally with a degree of democratic accountability.
But the elected Scottish Government has its own education department, along with arms-length bodies such as the SQA, which runs the examination system, and the inspectorate HMIE, which will soon merge with Learning and Teaching Scotland, which offers a strategic overview and support in delivering the curriculum.Cannot these organisations set priorities and ensure that schools keep to them?
Such a move would give greater power to headteachers - making them real leaders instead of middle managers. They would then have the power to hire and develop staff as they see fit, in order to raise attainment. Schools struggle to recruit heads, this change would make the career far more rewarding.
Reformers need statistical ammunition about exactly how much of the education budget - at both council and national level - goes on bureaucrats as compared with teaching in schools. It's odd that no Scottish Government has ever produced these figures, as they must surely exist. I imagine it will be a central issue for the Christie Commission, which Alex Salmond has set up to examine the future delivery of public services.
Good managers have a role in delivering high-quality services. But there is a view, across the political spectrum and wider society, that there are too many of them. Nicola Sturgeon's pledge that the Scottish NHS must reduce senior management by a quarter over the lifetime of the next parliament will be popular with voters. Pledging a similar reduction in council bureaucracies, where Holyrood has less control, is a greater challenge. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.
• Joan McAlpine is an SNP list candidate for the Scottish Parliament in the south of Scotland
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