Government must stop delaying and pilot plans for autonomous schools

Bill Nichol, Director, Hometown Foundation
Bill Nichol, Director, Hometown Foundation
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On 13 September last year, Deputy First Minister John Swinney launched a governance review of education. He stated that the guiding principle for the way schools should be run is simple – decisions should be taken at school level and teachers should be empowered, as well as supported by parents and the local community. In addition, it has been outlined that funds would go directly to the school.

Last month, results from the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessments (Pisa) were unveiled, highlighting Scotland’s further decline in its world education ranking. Standards have been dropping in reading, maths and science, with Scotland now third of the four home nations.

Mr Swinney said the findings “undoubtedly make uncomfortable reading”. However, these results were not a surprise since the 2015 Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy had been published when the Pisa assessments took place. This also outlined the negative trajectory of Scottish education standards.

These two sets of figures have prompted both the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to admit that the Scottish Government needs to push ahead with “radical” educational reform. It has been further reaffirmed that “the Government is going to concentrate on taking action, which will change the position… some of the action will be controversial and could meet real resistance, but opposition parties need to get behind these actions”. It has also been suggested that these actions will be advanced sooner rather than later.

In recognition of Scotland’s ongoing slipping standards over recent years, the Hometown Foundation, a Scottish registered charity with an interest in education, began to consult with concerned parents and teachers groups three years ago to develop solutions that would give rise to greater educational attainment. As a result, detailed business plans for state-funded autonomous schools were developed and have been sitting with the Government for up to two years. Since May 2016, we have been advised to keep the other finalised business plans on hold until “feedback has been provided on how the financials have been presented on the first business plans”. To date, we have received no feedback, and the parent and teacher groups are becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of engagement and response.

So what does all of this mean in real terms and why have the Hometown Foundation’s proposals for state-funded autonomous schools been the elephant in the room?

These proposals fully empower teachers, parents and schools by funding schools directly, putting head teachers in charge and making provision for greater parental and community support. In fact, this is what the Government says it wants to see happening in the education governance review. So what is the problem? We see no reason the Government is unable to allow these pilots to progress outwith the review, in order to inform the consultation process and wider education reform in 
Scotland.

Could it be that the Scottish Government has been trying to keep everyone happy? That is just not possible! Local Authorities and teacher unions have vehemently resisted the notion of state-funded autonomous schools – driven by their own vested interest. This is based on self-preservation rather than the best outcomes for the group they are meant to be serving – the pupils.

In order to appease these vested interests, the cost effective and progressive model for state-funded autonomous schools has been kicked into the long grass. Proposals that will give rise to a particular Scottish model, which is community led, innovative and tailored education “by diverse means”, have not been allowed to see the light of day.

The Hometown Foundation has suggested on numerous occasions that there is an urgent need for well-chosen, carefully thought-out and independently evaluated pilots from which lessons can be learned. We firmly believe that a “lock-step” approach – a mandatory change for every school in Scotland at the same time – would not be practical.

We see no reason an approach for state-funded autonomous schools, which chimes with what the Government says it wants, does not get sanctioned at an early date rather than being caught up in a continuous programme of consultation. Every day lost in barren consultations, to placate vested interests, will result in more young Scots having to leave school without the tools to make a success of their lives. It is time for the Government to grasp the opportunity presented to it for pilot state-funded autonomous schools, by the Hometown Foundation and interested parent and teacher groups, while it still is available.

Bill Nicol, Director, Hometown Foundation.