Bill Nicol: Education funding needs a shake-up to escape the shackles of the state

Bill Nicol Director  Schools' Educational Trust and Hometown Foundation
Bill Nicol Director Schools' Educational Trust and Hometown Foundation
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For almost three years, the Hometown Foundation, a Scottish charity with a strong interest in education, was positively encouraged by the Scottish Government’s willingness to accept and consider in great detail teacher and parent-led bids for state-funded autonomous schools.

The educational context and ­ideological backdrop seemed to be changing in such a way that would allow these pilots to be approved, ­particularly in light of the governance review Empowering Teachers, Parents and Communities.

Yet, despite heightened expectations as a result of two false dawns, considerable work preparing ­costed business plans and responding to detailed questions from the Learning Directorate, everything came to a grinding halt in June this year.

Phone calls and ­letters were received from the Learning Directorate, advising that the Scottish ­Government could not agree the request for direct school funding.

Now that the dust has settled, there are three areas worthy of consideration. What were the plans, why were they swiftly dismissed by the ­Scottish Government after a long period of consideration, and what practical action can be taken to improve school educational attainment in Scotland?

Prior to the governance review, the Hometown Foundation had ­recognised the ­significant scope to improve the ­education system, by clarifying accountability and responsibility, introducing greater innovation and diversity and, by empowering schools, to drive up attainment levels.

The charity began to ­consult with concerned parents and teacher groups in 2014, developing solutions to address some basic ­failings of the present system.

Five business plans were prepared and submitted, with others put on hold at the request of the Scottish Government. They sought to introduce new and progressive educational models, which would assist with education reform and allow comparisons to be drawn with schools in the state system. The aspiration behind these plans was to deliver better ­outcomes for pupils, ­parents, local communities and taxpayers alike.

The day-to-day running of schools would still have been in the hands of professional teachers, with ­parents encouraged to become more involved. Having collaborated with a number of schools in the preparation of their business plans, it was apparent that the autonomous ­model offers significant savings – in the region of 15-20 per cent – as well as turbocharging scholarly ­performance.

According to letters received from the Scottish Government, the plans were dismissed as “the governance review consultation responses made it clear that parents generally do not have an appetite to take on the management of their local school … looking at the proposals submitted that providing direct funding to the school(s) would not deliver the improvement we need to achieve … (and) … the proposals are not in the best interest of pupils”.

There was never any suggestion that schools would be solely ­managed by the parents. In ­addition, the scope to innovate and learn on a more tailored basis, would be more productive than the shackles of the prevailing conformist and compliance state approach.

Parents and teachers involved have speculated on the reasons for dismissing the plans and these have covered areas such as the Scottish Government “pick and ­mixing” the review consultation to support ­recommendations that it was intent on implementing in the first place, that it is putting politics before pupils, and it is taking the line of least resistance, so as not to upset the status quo with education unions and local authorities.

Regardless of the reasons for ­dismissing the plans, the ­Hometown Foundation remains convinced that new and progressive educational models are required to assist with education reform and allow ­comparisons to be drawn with schools in the prevailing state system.

Given this view, the Foundation has set up a new charitable trust ­focused on improving school educational attainment.

Called the Schools’ Educational Trust (SET), its focus is on implementing initiatives which require minimal involvement by the Scottish Government and regulatory gatekeepers. The formal launch of SET, chaired by Lord Digby Jones, will take place at the Radisson Blu in Edinburgh on 8 November, when a new Scottish low-cost educational model will also be introduced in more detail. Find out more at www.set.scot.

Bill Nicol, director, Schools’ Educational Trust and Hometown Foundation.