Scott Macnab: Academy model can’t be ruled out in Scotland

Nicola Sturgeon returned to the subject of education on a visit to North Lanarkshire. Picture: PA
Nicola Sturgeon returned to the subject of education on a visit to North Lanarkshire. Picture: PA
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IMPOSITION of central control down south should not detract from possible benefits here, writes Scott Macnab

From the moment Nicola Sturgeon told Scots to “judge” her on the job she makes of running Scotland’s schools, education was always going to be an issue which dominated the forthcoming Holyrood election campaign. It has been one of the keynote moments of Ms Sturgeon’s time as First Minister so far, as she promised to drive down the gap between schooling standards in rich and poor areas during a speech in Westerhailes in Edinburgh last year.

The opposition duly took up the mantle with both Labour and the Liberal Democrats since calling for across the board tax rises to help raise extra cash to pump into the country’s schools which, as election hyperbole took over, were suddenly “ailing”. Ms Sturgeon has also already set out an unprecedented £160 million fund to push up standards among pupils in poorer areas.

But while Scotland’s politicians argue about how much money and resources to throw at the problem, south of the Border a battle royale is ensuing between the UK government and teaching unions over plans for the most fundamental shake-up of the schooling system in a generation. All schools in England are to become academies – taken out of council control and run by trusts. The set-up gives head teachers more control over what happens in schools, including pay, the school day, term times and even the freedom over what is taught. Academies have had some success in driving up standards in poorer areas where they were first established by the previous Labour administration. But the blanket roll-out now planned by the end of the decade has met with a furious reaction from teaching unions who say the move is needlessly dogmatic. With many independent providers now running large chains of schools, there are fears it is a simply a Tory ploy to “privatise” the school system. UK education secretary Nicky Morgan cut a Thatcheresque figure at the NASUWT teaching conference at the weekend, withstanding widespread jeers to pledge that there would be no U-turn on the government’s determination to see all schools convert by 2020 or commit to converting by 2022.

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But the academy approach has so far stopped at the Scottish Border. There is only one example in Scotland of a school which operates outside local authority control. Jordanhill School in the west end of Glasgow is directly funded by Scottish ministers and regularly tops league tables. Rector Paul Thompson says all pupils at the school have a personal plan which goes beyond academic achievement and takes in things such as community involvement. It has seen pupils at the school consistently achieving far beyond what might be expected, no matter their “background or abilities”.

The prospect of extending such an approach has so far been largely off-limit in the mainstream political debate during this election campaign about driving up standards.

The SNP and Labour are notably noncommittal on the issue. Only the Tories keen to see a shift away from the current regime which sees Scotland’s 32 councils running the management and pay of schools. Amid ongoing criticism over the Nationalist regime’s “centralising” approach at Holyrood, particularly over teacher number directives, perhaps its easy to see why Ms Sturgeon isn’t keen to rock the boat by proposing schools are removed from the remit of town halls.

Scotland’s education has also undergone its own fundamental overhaul in recent years with the new Curriculum for Excellence and the “nationals” exam system which have prompted concerns of “unsustainable” workloads. On top of this the impact of swingeing budget cuts has even prompted strike action in Scotland’s schools for the first time in a generation. It’s unlikely that the country’s powerful teaching unions will have much appetite for change which may jeopardise their members’ future pay and conditions.

But there have been concerns that the dominance of local councils leads to a “uniformity” of approach among schools rather than promoting diversity. A report by the Commission on School Reform a few years ago called for head teachers in Scotland to be perceived as “chief executives” in charge of “largely autonomous institutions.” A change of culture is likely to be needed to achieve this, the report warned, but changes in governance could not be ruled out. So while teachers’ staffing budgets are notionally in control of head teachers, council staffing policies, class size legislation and other local agreements mean that the school’s ability to redirect resources are severely limited. The Commission called for a focus on ensuring that schools have the freedom to exercise control over spending. But councils seem reluctant to budge. Local government body Cosla was widely seen as shutting down any shift towards greater decision-making freedom for schools in a subsequent report entitled Devolving School Management (DSM). It is laced with warnings that teachers must “take account of the corporate and wider community planning arrangements” when spending their budgets. Internationally, the trend also appears to be towards increasing the amount of decision-making taken at school level. The highest levels of autonomy for schools are found in countries such as the Netherlands and the Flemish speaking areas of Belgium, both systems which are highly regarded.

The heavy-handed approach of the UK government in imposing academy status on all schools may smack of a fundamentalist approach which Scotland may be unwise to follow. But Scottish politicians have been ready enough to bemoan the decline of an education system here which was once “the envy of world”. Why then, the reluctance to consider an academy approach which has proved a success in turning around “failing schools” where children most need that support south of the Border?