Bill Nicol: Putting pupils at the centre of schooling

Pupils in a class at the Jingan Education College Affiliated School in Shanghai, where schools have more autonomy and have high attainment. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Pupils in a class at the Jingan Education College Affiliated School in Shanghai, where schools have more autonomy and have high attainment. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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GIVING head teachers and their staff more autonomy could result in higher attainment, writes Bill Nicol

As the UK government is poised to turn every English school into an academy or free school in an effort to improve education performance, the question must be asked if such an approach would be appropriate in Scotland, or is there potential for a uniquely different model north of the Border?

The Hometown Foundation, a Scottish registered charity, has been engaged in various initiatives designed to improve Scottish education. Our main priority at present is to help parent and teacher groups form state-funded autonomous schools, putting teaching professionals back in charge of education.

Recent reports show Scotland falling behind other countries – including England – in educational outcomes. To address this situation, we believe that a combination of progressive, innovative and proven solutions are needed to improve the quality of education available to all pupils in the state sector.

A significant part of Scottish education’s problems relate to areas of responsibility. At present, direct responsibility for raising standards and improving education does not reside with the school or head teacher. Funds are passed from the Scottish Government to local authorities to provide education and raise standards. Local authorities are not hands-on or properly accountable for standards and their involvement also adds a great deal of bureaucracy and cost.

Scottish education has largely been based on the comprehensive education system, which was introduced just over 50 years ago. Despite the fact that this system has been regarded by many as not being as effective and efficient as it could be, there has been real bias against change and unjustifiable defence of the current system. This resistance has mainly come from individuals and organisations with vested interests in maintaining the status quo – people who are not actually putting pupils, teachers or, indeed, attainment first.

In England, to introduce greater autonomy and freedom from local authority control, there has been an aggressive programme of academisation. This will lead to all schools being academies or free schools by the end of 2022. Predictably, this move has not been without its critics, mainly again from groups with an interest in maintaining the current local authority system for ideological, political or financial reasons.

The Hometown Foundation has now assisted three parent and teacher groups to prepare and submit business plans for state-funded autonomous schools to the First Minister. Two further business plans are scheduled to be submitted before the end of March and we are currently working with another four groups. All have demonstrated diverse approaches and innovation, as well as presenting reasoned cases for more cost effective delivery.

During the process of submitting the business plans to the government, there has been media coverage. While there has been significant support, some concerns have been expressed that we would just be mirroring what has been happening in England – that it is just privatisation by stealth, standards could be lower than is currently the case and that there would be no consistency.

In line with other high-performing educational systems, such as those in Shanghai, Singapore and Finland, we believe that there is a lot to be gained by giving autonomy to schools. It not only allows the head teacher to be accountable and responsible but also creates an environment where the ownership of education is more of a team effort. It is important that the best teachers are appointed and that they are fully supported by parents and receptive pupils.

The Hometown Foundation is promoting a model specific to Scotland built on innovation, collaboration and engagement. The idea is not to simply adopt what is happening south of the Border. The best aspects of what is working well will be embraced. We believe it is possible to create a state-funded education system that is more responsive and diverse. Standards will be maintained through the establishment of an autonomous school framework, with schools working in clusters and sharing best practice.

The Foundation remains encouraged that the Scottish Government “has an open mind” with regards to state-funded autonomous schools and is prepared to engage with our charity in advanced discussions.

We are keen that as many parents and head teachers as possible contact us, so we can explain the benefits from the autonomous model. The Foundation will work with and support any group that shares its core belief: that every child deserves the best possible start in life irrespective of background, religion, wealth or ethnicity.

• Bill Nicol is director of the Hometown Foundation