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Thinking Outside the Box- Holyrood Magazine

Cera Murtagh, Holyrood Magazine, 28 September 2009.

Is it time to look beyond local authorities for delivery of education?
Scotland’s reputation as a world leader in education has taken some blows of late. Cold hard data is progressively chipping away at that image. And as the uncomfortable realisation sinks in, the calls for action are growing louder. At the same time, talk of public sector cuts is focusing minds on getting the maximum from the money spent on education. So is it time to take a radical look at how education is delivered in Scotland?

Recent studies have put the situation into stark context. After ten years of devolution, despite a doubling of spend per pupil, educational attainment in Scotland has barely improved and has even been overtaken by England, according to research by think tank Reform Scotland. Furthermore, the Trends in International Maths and Science Survey (Timss) last year ranked Scotland amongst third world countries for science and maths performance. This anomaly of falling standards, at the same time as rising resources, has prompted some to look a little more critically at the Scottish system.

As stakeholders strive for better quality and efficiency the role of councils in education is coming under the spotlight.

One man to challenge the status quo is Ronnie Smith, General Secretary of Scotland’s largest teachers’ union, the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS). Speaking to his union’s national conference this summer, he put his head above the parapet and raised the prospect of education being taken away from the 32 local authorities and delivered centrally.

At present, local authorities determine their own education budgets from the grant they receive from central government plus the money they raise from council tax. But as cash-strapped councils make slow progress towards Concordat commitments such as cutting class sizes and maintaining teacher numbers, Smith says local authorities are “on trial”.

“I think that there is a big debate to be had from the point of view of teachers. We are obviously interested in getting the best deal that can be got for education and we’re not wedded to the notion that the only way you get the best deal is by remaining in the local authority family. I think the local authorities, in a sense, are on trial in the eyes of many teachers and also, I suspect, parents,” Smith tells Holyrood.

The relationship between local and central government through the Concordat has become problematic, Smith believes and one of the big losers in the fallout is education.

Responsibility for national priorities like smaller class sizes has been lost as the Scottish Government blames councils for failing to deliver and councils in turn blame lack of funds. And since the end of ringfenced funds the disparity across the country is widening, he warns.

Smith’s concerns are echoed by one central belt headteacher who wished to remain anonymous. He tells Holyrood: “I think there’s a problem with the Government trying to pass things over to local government through the Concordat. And when councils find themselves between a rock and a hard place, I don’t see any mechanism whereby education is protected. We used to have ring fencing of education funds but since the Concordat the model has become increasingly disparate.

They talk about a postcode lottery for health in Scotland and I don’t think we’re far off that for education.” As school budgets are cut, many headteachers are getting frustrated at money being wasted on another layer of bureaucracy, he reports: “I speak to a lot of school heads around the country and we are all getting really frustrated. We feel a lot of money is being frittered away by our colleagues in local government. Many parents and teachers would welcome such sums of money being invested directly in classrooms for the direct benefit of children.

“At this stage because of the financial conditions, we need to focus on what actually are we trying to do? I get very frustrated at things getting in the way of me doing my job. I would be happier dealing with things directly rather than through an intermediary.” The current climate of cuts has clearly brought the issue to the fore. As teachers look ahead to a period of even tighter restraint, they see the writing on the wall.

In that context, some believe education budgets would be more protected if they were delivered centrally or by a dedicated education body, rather than a local authority with other competing priorities.

Looking across the water, Northern Ireland recently moved from having five education boards to a single Education and Skills Authority responsible for education.

Smith says a model like this could have potential benefits for Scotland. He stresses, however, that any system would have to have a democratic interface, possibly through a mechanism like health board elections.

In the lead up to the 2011 election, as public spending tightens and the Concordat comes under further strain, he is confident this issue will come onto the political agenda: “I’d be surprised if you didn’t have some parties looking at local government reorganisation and I’d also be surprised if you didn’t have some revisiting the powers and responsibilities of local authorities. There’s going to be a big push to do it as lean and efficiently as possible.” At this stage, the General Secretary thinks it’s time for a debate on what value local authorities actually add to education. “So I think in the eyes of most teachers, the jury’s probably out on what is the best way to do it and I think that debate will become sharper as we move into a public spending cuts era where there will be a lot of scope for local authorities, in a sense, to decide how they spend that envelope of money they’re given and I think we’ll be watching very closely how education fares in that whole scene,” he warns.

For others the sheer number of education authorities is the problem. A smaller number of education boards shared between authorities, like the current fire boards and police boards, could give greater consistency of standards across the country, according to the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA).

“We moved overnight from a situation of eight local authorities being responsible for education to 32 local authorities. And many of those authorities have struggled to cope with this, most clearly because of their size,” says Jim Docherty Depute General Secretary of the SSTA. He points to the example of Clackmannanshire Council which only has three secondary schools, to illustrate.

“There could be no reason not to go down the route of the joint boards used for control of the police and fire services and move away from 32 education authorities,” Docherty argues.

“There is no doubt at all that there could be significant advantages to education boards as long as they are properly constituted….

There would be no reason not to have boards comprising a substantial number of elected representatives, representatives from parents and representatives from teachers.” That debate is surely on the cards and councils are ready to fight their corner.

Taking education out of the hands of councils would be a big mistake, according to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA). A child’s educational needs cannot be addressed in isolation from their other social needs, the body believes. And local authorities are in the unique position of being able to provide the services to address those needs in the round.

COSLA Education, Children and Young People’s Spokesperson Cllr Isabel Hutton explains: “Education is not a stand-alone service but an important component of modern children’s services. The prevailing policy of successive administrations at a local and national level has been to integrate children’s services – not to tear them apart.

Take the Curriculum for Excellence, for example. The delivery of the four capacities – which describe young people who are wellrounded citizens ready to make their way in the world – cannot be achieved by schools alone.

“HMIe and the OECD have shown us that Scottish education is high performing, but as good as most schools are they cannot overcome difficult family circumstances or endemic inequality. For young people to benefit from education, they have to be ready and able to learn, and sometimes for this to happen, families need a little extra help. It is invariably local authorities that provide this help, either through direct services such as social work, or through coordinating efforts of the voluntary sector. Removing education from local authorities would make this so much harder by throwing up new and unnecessary organisational boundaries.” Another challenge to the local authority model has come lately from an unusual collection of voices in the shape of a political party, a think tank and some liberal academics.

According to both Reform Scotland and the Scottish Conservatives, the current local authority monopoly on public education is not healthy and the state system needs an injection of choice and competition. They believe new independently-run state schools operating outside the local authority system could achieve this. Such schools, along the lines of Jordanhill in Glasgow, could be set up by parents, teachers, community groups, charities or other independent providers. The vision, laid out in Reform Scotland’s Parent Power report, is for an ‘entitlement scheme’ where funding follows the pupil –over £6000 per secondary pupil. Under the proposals, parents would have a wider choice in what school their child goes to, including new independent state-funded schools. The idea is to introduce competition between schools and with it some free market discipline. As parents vote with their feet and withdraw their children from poorly performing schools in favour of better schools, those schools will eventually close.

Geoff Mawdsley, Director of Reform Scotland explains: “The argument we make is that we really should address the fundamental problem with those schools which are not providing good enough education and the way to address that, we think, is to give parents an entitlement to the average amount of money that’s spent on educating their child in that local authority area.

“If you give that entitlement, it doesn’t mean you have to say to local authorities you have to stop running your schools. We accept that there are many well run local authority schools. But what it does do is where there is a problem with local authority schools not meeting the needs of parents and children, it allows for new schools to be set up, new independent but state-funded schools.” The think tank cites the 2007 OECD report Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which states that across countries, having a larger number of schools that compete for students is associated with better results.

This parental choice model was recently adopted as party policy by the Tories. For Scottish Conservative MSP Liz Smith, it’s about giving schools incentives to improve: “As far as I’m concerned, every community deserves a good school… But that’s not going to happen until you give the poorly performing schools an incentive to get better. So I think the main concern I have just now is, I don’t think schools should be decided by catchment areas predominantly.

I think it should be a case of the parents and pupils choosing the school rather than the school being able to dictate who the pupil is. And that, by definition, raises standards because quite frankly, you won’t have many underperforming schools existing for a long time because they won’t be able to and that raises the standard. And that’s exactly what happened in Sweden.” Sweden, a high performing education system, introduced a school voucher system in 1992 and gave independent schools the right to receive funding from local municipalities.

The number of independent state schools shot from 70 in 1992, educating less than one per cent of students, to almost 800 in 2007, educating nearly a tenth of students. And with independent schools demonstrating better attainment than their counterparts, the Swedish system is held up as a model for success by advocates of parental choice. In Sweden’s national tests, independent schools have a larger share of the two highest mark levels as well as a larger share of pass rates.

Likewise, so-called charter schools in the US (self-governing, publicly-funded schools) have proven effective in closing the gap between the highest and lowest performing pupils in states like Massachusetts. So much so that Barack Obama’s secretary of education has called on states to lift their caps on the number of charters.

So what is the secret of these schools’ success? The freedom to experiment and innovate, say advocates. Having a monolithic one-size-fits-all system is not conducive to educational quality, they argue. “I think the main thing would be their adaptability and the ability to innovate in that if you don’t have to follow a specific pedagogy either set out nationally or locally then you just see a bit more experimentation. You see teachers who can concentrate on areas that they actually think really work,” says Nicholas Cowen, Research Fellow with Civitas and author of Swedish Lessons.

These calls for greater diversity in the Scottish system have also been backed up by some unlikely figures in the world of academia. Eminent educationalist Professor Lindsay Paterson and former Labour adviser and economist John McLaren joined the concerned chorus. The English model, with mixed provision from comprehensives to city academies, has long been rejected by the Scottish teaching establishment but given recent studies showing England outperforming Scotland in education, it is time to reconsider that position, McLaren urges.

“There’s probably a need for more incentives within the Scottish system. In England they’ve had a number of different incentives introduced in the last decade or so including the academies and things like that. And also in Sweden, they’ve introduced schools that are set up outside the state system that get a certain amount of funding per pupil. Now all of these things, if they’re done well, can help improve the situation,” says McLaren, now honorary research fellow at Glasgow University.

“In other countries that are successful, they do have that flexibility. Finland has a very strongly comprehensive system, different types of schools but it’s all state run and they don’t have any streaming. So it doesn’t have to be outside of the system. Your Scandinavian countries, although they have very high taxes and very big states, they are flexible within those public sectors because they have to be.

If you have a public sector that’s over 50 per cent of your economy and it’s not flexible, you’re not going to be very successful.” But with the argument for parental choice, equity is the obvious concern. Scotland’s problem after all is not just one of stagnant attainment but also, as evidenced by the 2007 OECD report, a worrying gap between the highest and lowest achievers. The proposals would give parents more choice but would those from lower socio-economic backgrounds be likely to exercise that choice?

Those behind the plans argue it would help close that gap by giving parents the power to take their children out of bad schools and improving standards in all schools. Others remain to be convinced.

Such radical ideas raise more than a few questions – on the practical side as well as the ideological. Indeed they’ve already been received with hostility by many in the teaching and political establishments.

Scotland is rightly proud of its tradition of universal education and will fight to defend it. But all the signs of late are pointing to a system that is not perfect on either standards or equality. And as the belt tightens on public spending these issues will only become more stark. The time has come for Scotland to examine how it delivers education, to take a comparative look at how other countries do it and consider its options. And whether the conclusion is for greater centralisation, devolution and greater diversity or for maintaining the status quo, that is a debate that needs to be had.