This article by Ben Thomson appeared in the Herald.
The overhaul of teachers’ pay ushered in by the McCrone Committee in 2001 was perhaps the most significant change in education since the Scottish Parliament was established.
Professor Gavin McCrone’s recommendations included teachers receiving a minimum salary increase of 23.1 per cent awarded in stages by August 2003, with new teachers starting on £18,000 per year. In addition, all probationer teachers were guaranteed a one year contract.
This new deal was an important statement about the status of teachers and almost certainly has attracted new people into the profession. But radical though it may have been back then, it is now time we considered whether such a rigid system of nationalised pay bargaining is still in the best interests of Scottish schools.
Reform Scotland’s latest report, ‘Parent Power’, recommends that local authorities should be handed complete control over teacher pay and conditions, effectively ending nationalised pay bargaining for teachers. As education is the responsibility of local authorities, it seems reasonable that they should have full control over the pay and conditions of school staff.
However, the decision as to how councils use this new power should be left to them. For instance, there would be nothing to stop local authorities from continuing to agree nationwide deals through the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (CoSLA). Equally, councils might agree national guidelines with limited scope for local variation.
Alternatively, councils might well value the greater flexibility afforded by negotiating their own pay deals. It could certainly be helpful in attracting teachers to more remote parts of Scotland, or where there is a need to attract teachers of specific subjects.
Reform Scotland sees this devolution of power to local authorities as part of a wider programme of decentralising reform advocated in ‘Parent Power’ to drive up standards and extend educational opportunity. This is founded on the conclusions of a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which stated that ‘across countries, having a larger number of schools that compete for students is associated with better results, over and above the relationship with student background.’
So far, the debate on how this competition might be stimulated here in Scotland has failed to get off the ground.
‘Parent Power’ sets out how competition might be promoted within the Scottish education system. First, parents would be empowered through an entitlement or credit equal to the value of the average cost of educating a child in their local authority area.
Second, that this entitlement will provide the stimulus for the establishment of a variety of new, independent, state-funded schools where there is a demand.
Existing local authority schools could carry on as before. However, they would be subject to potential competition from new schools which should drive up standards across the board.
These new, independent, state-funded schools would be free to operate their own agreements on pay and conditions and, over time, the benefits of their greater autonomy might become apparent. As councils would be in control of pay and conditions for schools in their area, they could respond by devolving this power down to individual schools.
The great advantage of such an approach is that change would be gradual and does not interfere with existing local authority schools, many of which are run very well. Instead, as time goes by, different approaches will be tried in different parts of the country as well as in different schools based on the preferences of parents. From this, we can learn what works best and react accordingly.
However, ‘Parent Power’ recognises that there is an urgent need to address the lack of educational opportunity for socially-disadvantaged children. The evidence presented in the report shows that, regardless of local authority area, schools with a higher percentage of pupils on free school meals generally achieved lower exam results and pupils were less likely to enter further or higher education, training or work when leaving school.
The interesting thing is that some schools perform better than would be expected given the high level of pupils receiving free school meals. This shows it is not that children from deprived backgrounds are less able than their wealthier counterparts. Instead, too often, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are falling through the gaps because the educational environment available to them is not helping them to fulfil their potential. Under the current system, their parents have little ability to change this.
That is why we propose that initially the entitlement scheme would only be available to parents of children on free school meals. After two years, it would be extended to everyone although the premium for those from deprived backgrounds would continue as a permanent feature of the system so that everyone has the opportunity to achieve their goals and realise their full potential.
The Scottish education system is increasingly failing to fulfil its traditional role as a facilitator of social mobility. Through these proposals we can begin to reverse that trend and help restore Scotland’s reputation as a world-class educator.