Leaders: Time for national control of schools

SNP ministers have deflected attacks and pointed the finger at local authorities. Picture: Getty
SNP ministers have deflected attacks and pointed the finger at local authorities. Picture: Getty
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FOR almost eight years the SNP administration has had a ready answer to criticism when problems have arisen in Scotland’s schools.

Problems with class sizes? Problems with teacher numbers? Problems with pupil-teacher ratios? The answer has been the same: “It’s nothing to do with us.”

SNP ministers have deflected attacks and pointed the finger at local authorities, which have the legal responsibility for schools in their council area.

The SNP’s “concordat” with councils – under which the Scottish Government removed the ring-fencing of budgets, giving councillors greater freedom to operate according to their own priorities – was another factor allowing nationalist ministers to pass the buck.

No longer, it seems.

Finance secretary John Swinney yesterday used his budget to warn councils he would claw back cash from them if they failed to use their share of a £41 million-fund specifically to employ new teachers. The Scottish Government’s new-found willingness to accept it has a direct role in the education of the nation’s children is welcome, albeit somewhat tardy.

The question now is whether this demonstration of ministerial responsibility goes far enough.

Is it time we took control of schools away from local authorities altogether?

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The idea that schooling is controlled locally by councillors rather than nationally by ministers has long had the look of an anachronism.

Do we really need 32 education authorities, each with their own director and support staff? If the country is so strapped for cash, how can this be justified?

What value do they really add to the quality of our children’s education? Is there really a need for local factors to be taken into account in determining the nature of the education our children receive?

National control would help end the postcode lottery that sees a wide divergence in different parts of the country on standards of attainment, the availability of certain subjects and the quality of schooling.

Such a move would be made easier by the movement towards the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), which is now the bedrock of Scottish schools policy.

This leaves much more freedom in the hands of individual teachers in how to approach the teaching of a subject – as long as it fits into the broad CfE structure.

If teachers have autonomy over what they teach, and head teachers have autonomy over a school’s budget, and ministers set out national priorities and benchmarks, why do we need local authority oversight as well?

National control would also make it easier for resources to be directed at the underperforming schools across Scotland which are failing the children who are unfortunate enough to live in the wrong place.

That, at the end of the day, is reason enough.

Rotherham’s shame

THE Rotherham child sexual exploitation (CSE) saga has been a most unedifying spectacle. The cynical and systematic abuse of vulnerable teenagers by gangs of older men is disgusting enough. But what is also sickening is the way officialdom in the town effectively colluded in the abuse.

At fault were the very agencies – police and social services – from which the young victims should have been able to expect help and a route to safety.

Instead, the few young women who were brave enough to come forward were not believed or simply ignored. The report into Rotherham written by Scottish social work expert Alexis Jay and published last year was a damning indictment.

Even then, it took massive pressure from both inside and outside the town before the local police commissioner Shaun Wright – who had held key roles on child safety at the height of the scandal – was prepared to stand down from his post.

Yesterday’s follow-up report commissioned by communities secretary Eric Pickles spared few of those who had clung on to their jobs.

It was only right that it led to the resignation of the council leader Paul Lakin, as well as the Whitehall verdict that the council apparatus was no longer fit for purpose.

Rotherham was obviously an egregious example of how CSE has been mishandled. But it is by no means the only local authority with questions to answer.

It is now clear that cities across the country – including Edinburgh and Glasgow – have seen similar abuse of young people for many years. The tendrils of the Rotherham saga reach everywhere.