Teachers hit out at plans to give heads more power

John Swinney's flagship teaching reform to give more power to headteachers could result in an increasing attainment gap between Scottish schools, teachers have claimed.

John Swinney.
John Swinney.

The warning comes in a document outlining teachers and headteachers’ concerns about the education secretary’s plans to overhaul the Scottish schools system.

The dossier, to be considered by MSPs at Holyrood next week, reveals teachers’ fears that the reforms will increase their workload and could lead to a “hire and fire” culture for headteachers.

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Dissatisfaction with pay and conditions as well as problems with teacher recruitment were listed in the document, which is based on a series of focus groups held by the Scottish Parliament’s education committee earlier this month.

“Empowering” headteachers is a key part of the Scottish Government’s priority to close the attainment gap, which sees pupils from rich areas perform much better in school than those from poor areas.

Freeing headteachers to take responsibility for raising the standards for their poorest pupils is fundamental to Mr Swinney’s strategy for closing the attainment gap.

But teachers in the focus group warned it could prove counterproductive, because the performance of a school would become inextricably linked to how effective the headmaster happened to be.

“Some participants considered that giving more autonomy to headteachers could increase the attainment gap between schools, as it would reflect the strength or weaknesses of individual head teachers,” said the document.

Teachers also expressed frustration that difficulties recruiting staff meant that they could not use Pupil Equity Funding – the Scottish Government fund earmarked for closing the attainment gap – as they liked.

They said staff shortages would have an effect on the potential of the reforms to have an impact and spoke of a lack of support for pupils with additional needs in mainstream classes.

Teachers had issues with the government’s Curriculum for Excellence, complaining of “over assessment” and a lack of “good quality support” from Education Scotland.

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Participants felt that support to head teachers and schools would be diminished as a result of the reforms.

There was concern that giving headteachers more power would remove the “checks and balances” of councils from the system.

Teachers questioned whether the “direction of travel was towards an English model of executive heads and a ‘hire and fire’ culture for head teachers”.

With local authorities set to have less influence in the running of schools, teachers were concerned how issues with weak headteachers would be addressed. And there were concerns about fast-track promotion if it meant promotion of staff with very little class room experience.

A focus group of headteachers talked of staff shortages and expressed concern at a lack of knowledge amongst student teachers due to the poor quality of some courses.

Headteachers also expressed concern that Mr Swinney’s plans for new regional educational bodies would add layers to the existing structure and make it more difficult to achieve change.

Labour’s education spokesman Iain Gray said: “These focus groups show us that the more teachers, headteachers, parents or educationalists look at John Swinney’s reforms, the less they like them.

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“The education secretary’s own consultation on his reforms backed up Labour’s view – we don’t need this reorganisation, we need proper investment in our schools.

“No-one believes that these reforms will do anything to improve teaching and learning in our schools, or close the attainment gap.

“They are called ‘Empowering Schools’ but they are really about centralising control over schools.

“What our schools need is real investment, after a decade of SNP incompetence which has resulted in 3,500 fewer teachers in our schools and the biggest class sizes ever.

“John Swinney’s regional collaboratives are already creating new bureaucracy and sucking resources out of our schools into the centre. His education bill only threatens to make all this worse – he must now listen to the teachers and drop his misguided, unpopular and unnecessary reforms altogether.

“John Swinney has already lost his named person legislation because he would not listen, he will find his education bill in trouble too if he does not heed what teachers and parents are telling him”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Our education reforms are focussed on giving schools and headteachers more power and money to raise standards and close the attainment gap.

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“We welcome feedback in response to our consultation on the Education (Scotland) Bill and will consider all the responses received.”