Brian Wilson: The SNP are great at asking for your views – but nobody’s listening

John Swinney prefers  to focus on 'governance' rather than 'budget cuts and staffing issues'. Picture: PA
John Swinney prefers to focus on 'governance' rather than 'budget cuts and staffing issues'. Picture: PA
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The Scottish ­Government are big on consultations. You name it, they’ll ­consult on it. At present, you can have your say on anything from ­cremation costs to Improved ­Parking in Scotland.

It’s the kind of badge they like to wear; an impression of listening inclusivity. However, asking ­questions and paying heed to answers are far from synonymous and nothing demonstrates this more eloquently than the consultation surrounding governance of Scotland’s schools.

While headlines focused on John Swinney’s prescription for the ­problems – giving more power to head teachers – almost no attention has been paid to the conclusions of the consultation process, published on the same day as Swinney’s ­statement in Holyrood.

This is unfortunate since the ­contrast is dramatic. Reading the Scottish Government’s own ­Analysis of the Consultation Responses, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that Swinney has rejected every area of ­consensus to follow his own dubious path.

More than 350 organisations and 700 individuals took the trouble to make submissions. Hundreds more attended meetings. Their conclusions appear to have been remarkably uniform – remember this is the Scottish Government’s own ­summary of what they said.

Fundamentally, it told Swinney there was “widespread support for the current governance system and an apprehension towards further change within the existing system – there is ‘no need to fix something that is not broken’.” In case the point was missed, it stressed: “Current governance arrangements were not seen as a barrier for improvement and changing them should not be expected to address the deep-seated issues that get in the way of achieving excellence and equality for all”.

That was not a cry of complacency but simply recognition that the whole discussion around improving performance and narrowing attainment gaps is based on the false premise that the primary issue to be addressed involves structures rather than other critical factors. Helpfully, the (Scottish Government’s own) Analysis of the Consultation Responses went on to define them.

“Specifically,” it stated bluntly, “respondents thought that budget cuts and staffing issues were the two keys to barriers for improvement”. Which part of that does Swinney find difficulty in understanding? Or did he understand it all too well but felt, at a very personal level, he had no option other than to ignore it?

For John Swinney, now presented as the caring rescuer of Scottish education, is exactly the same John Swinney who has masterminded the Scottish budget priorities over the past decade, centerpiece of which has been to attack local ­government (i.e. education authority) funding with a brutalism that no Tory administration would have got away with.

Over the past five years, spending on schools dropped by £300 ­million, teacher numbers are down by 4000, class sizes have increased and 2000 support staff in Scotland’s schools have been lost, leaving morale in tatters. The enforcer of these entirely disproportionate cuts has been one J. Swinney.

Small wonder that he prefers now to focus on “governance” ­rather than “budget cuts and staffing issues” as the elixir to reverse falling standards. But what if he is wrong and the consultees are right? Are schools to undergo another ­structural upheaval which ­inherently fails to “address the deep-seated issues” because the Scottish ­Government cannot afford to acknowledge them?

Nor did the consultation ­consensus stop at opposing ­Swinney’s focus on governance. There was “strong oppositition” to the creation of “educational regions” from “not only local authorities but also schools, ­agencies, parent councils and ­individuals”. One wonders who that leaves to support them.

Equally, the analysis found: “There was a general sense, from all types of respondents, that current levels of devolution of responsibility are adequate”. In other words, ­“power to the heidies” upsets a ­balance that is being sensibly ­managed and maybe recognises that head teachers, like the rest of us, are a mixed bunch. It also disregards the ­onerous workloads they carry, ­without piling more on.

Swinney’s approach is widely seen as one more part of the centralising agenda with education authorities marginalised and absolutely no certainty about what these latest wheezes will achieve. The consultation respondents “assumed” that they “would lead to an additional level of bureaucracy”.

Money does not solve everything but neither does taking it away. It seems self-evident – as the Analysis of Consultation Responses agreed – that the ­prerequisite for progress is to restore funding and staffing to former levels, which would do more than any structural change to steady the ship. Thereafter, there would be greater sympathy for strategies which might well be complementary to proper funding and staffing but cannot be seen as substitutes. On television, one example ­quoted by Swinney of how head teachers might exercise their powers was by acquiring “speech and language therapy”, if that was an area of ­concern. However, that points to a problem rather than a solution. Any parent whose child needs speech and language therapy, critical to determining life prospects at an early stage, wants provision to be underpinned by the statutory duty of the local authority – not the budgetary choices of a hard-pressed head teacher.

Education authorities are best placed to make such provision on a collective basis though this is exactly the kind of service which tends to become marginalised when ­councils are forced to pass on cuts. Personally, I would ringfence spending on that kind of service because it is so vital to those who need it. I ­certainly would not leave it to the discretion of head teachers. ­Challenged by Kezia Dugdale last week, Nicola Sturgeon complained that when her administration bring forward “policies and initiatives” on education, all Labour does is ­criticise them. This is a ­classic example of the “dae something” school of politics. We’re doing something, so don’t dare criticise it. Whether it’s right, wrong or largely useless is secondary, so long as we can announce “an initiative”. Think baby boxes.

Well, nobody should be deterred by such nonsense. The most useful thing that Swinney can do is restore the money and staff he has taken from schools, just like the consultation told him. Meanwhile, if you were thinking of responding to the consultations on cremation costs or Improved Parking in Scotland, save yourself the trouble. Nobody’s listening.