Brian Monteith: SNP must take tough decisions to save Scots education

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on a visit to Warout Primary School in Glenrothes.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on a visit to Warout Primary School in Glenrothes.
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If there was one thing and one thing only that was firmly established in Scottish politics during 2016 it was that the words of the First Minister are worthless.

If Nicola Sturgeon’s political statements were a currency they would be equal in rank only to the Zimbabwean dollar. Not only are her political utterances ubiquitous they cannot be accepted at face value, for no sooner are they said and she is contradicting them and undermining them herself.

Already in 2017 the First Minister is at it again, having assured the nation that education would be her number one priority she speaks and acts to ensure that the threat of a second independence referendum is given the highest importance and is without doubt her top priority. 2017 is, however, the year that she can make good with her political pronouncements, for decisions on public education can no longer be avoided will have to be taken. This gives the First Minister the opportunity to show that she is able to make difficult and controversial choices by ushering in long overdue reform and resisting the loud objections from the teaching unions and local authorities.

On Friday past the Government’s consultation on school governance closed, there will now be a period of reflection by Education Secretary John Swinney before he finally has to nail his colours to the mast. Will he advocate reform of governance so that greater powers are devolved to schools or maintain the rigid system where they are dictated to by council administrators, and thus ignore the international and domestic evidence that local decisions lead to better outcomes?

There are still some who think our schools are performing well enough to only require modest incremental change, but this attitude will only betray the future generations of Scottish pupils. Scottish education was once great, even the greatest, now it is only good, ambling along as average in the world rankings. With literacy and numeracy falling, too many children are leaving school ill-equipped to meet the globalised world that becomes more competitive by the day. Standing still while other countries have ambition is not an option, we must strive to excel or Scottish education will undoubtedly fall from average to poor.

There is no silver bullet to make Scottish schools great again, for it is complex and so many problems are now in plain sight, but there is a growing clamour for devolving far more autonomy to schools so that they are no longer under the direction of local authorities. This will allow those who have the interest of standards in a particular school at heart – the headteachers, teachers and parents – to have far more influence than administrators that have responsibilities for all the schools in their area. It allows more diversity, so that particular educational needs can be provided for and it allows schools to specialise in a particular type of teaching that they believe nurtures the best outcomes in pupils. It should also mean schools have control of budgets and are able to appoint the staff of their choosing, not have staff taken away from them or foisted upon them.

So long as there is rigorous independent assessment of performances, as was once provided by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Schools before it was merged mistakenly with Learning and Teaching Scotland into Education Scotland, then schools should be able to make decisions for themselves.

Unfortunately the prospects for meaningful education reform do not look good. When I used to debate education with Nicola Sturgeon it was clear that she deferred to the teaching unions, especially the EIS. To deliver genuine change the grip of local authorities on schools will need to be loosened but practically all Scottish councils and their biggest supporter – the EIS, will resist this.

Taking on the vested interests of producers on behalf of the consumers is not a strength of the SNP, which always looks at any political decision through the prism of how it will impact on delivering independence. Making enemies of different interest groups has been studiously avoided, which is why our public services are in such a parlous state. Some times hard choices are required that will upset one group or another, but leadership demands a choice is made rather than kicked into the future, preferably after a successful independence referendum.

It is commonly thought that with John Swinney in charge of education the SNP has its most skillful politician deployed to find a deliverable solution that will please most stakeholders and begin to make a difference.

In particular the joint submission by Reform Scotland and the Centre for Scottish Public Policy under their Commission on School Reform, chaired by former Director of Education Keir Bloomer, is well worthy of consideration. It points out how Scotland’s monolithic education system can learn from its own successes in diversity, such as the self-governing Jordanhill High School which has been outperforming the national system for a couple of decades. It also points to the possibilities of schools being managed autonomously in clusters secondary schools and their feeder primaries.

A key proposal is that any change should be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, allowing reform to happen locally when the ground is well prepared and even allowing different forms of governance to arise, rather than a new national structure that is still monolithic. This approach would undoubtedly take longer but it offers the prospect of being more widely accepted and learning from what works and what doesn’t, rather than making wholesale mistakes that no-one will admit to – such as has been experienced in Curriculum for Excellence.

In time the development of such a model would require greater direct funding from the centre, but if this is the price to be paid for local democracy then what is there to fear? The funding is already central in all but name.

Indeed such an approach throws open the subsequent possibility of local authority reform, for without the inclusion of educational spending in local council budgets the relationship between the Council tax raised and the total spending of councils becomes much closer. This in turn strengthens local democracy and can make the actions of councillors far more accountable.

Let us hope that John Swinney does not run for cover, but instead uses the many offers of help currently languishing in his pending tray as the pilots for evolutionary change in education.

Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org