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The delivery line- Holyrood Magazine

Cera Murtagh, Holyrood Magazine, 21 December 2009

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As the debate opens up how should Scottish education be delivered?

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When it comes to Scottish education certain doctrines run deep. The ‘best education system in the world’ has tended to be treated as sacrosanct, beyond the boundaries of debate.
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\r\nBut as successive statistics threaten to knock Scotland off its pedestal while resource cuts raise alarm, that ground is shifting. After a period of denial there is growing recognition of a problem in the pipeline. And with that recognition has come a willingness to look beyond the status quo.
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\r\nRadical thinking is often born out of crisis and the emerging debate is no different.
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\r\nAfter months of subtle hints, Fiona Hyslop caused a furore last month when, on the back of plummeting teacher numbers, she threatened to take education out of council control. With the Government reliant on councils to deliver national policies under the Concordat, failure to do so had generated a blame game. Relations between central and local government had reached breaking point and the then Cabinet Secretary floated the nuclear option. The fall out ultimately led to her removal from post and replacement with Mike Russell. But the new man has not shied away from the big question. He took office with a pledge to review how Scottish education is delivered with COSLA discussions scheduled for the New Year and no route ruled out.
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\r\nIndeed within the education sector, the idea of an alternative model is no longer a no-go area. Ronnie Smith, General Secretary of the EIS, Scotland’s largest teachers’ union, warns that teachers are not wedded to the notion of schools being run by local authorities.
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\r\nAt present, authorities determine their own education budgets from the grant they receive from central government plus the money they raise from council tax. But as budgets tighten councils have not been shielding education from cuts, Smith says, and if they continue to fail to do so, teachers may well look to other systems.
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\r\n“I think if you were trying to look forward and anticipate how teachers will be feeling towards local government stewardship of education the runes are not very promising because pretty much all that anyone can see in the near distance, never mind the horizon, is education budget cuts. We’ve already, prior to the full effect of the economic crisis, seen that significant reduction in teacher numbers in two successive years, just under 1000 up to 2008 and then 1300 odd posts disappearing in 2009. And we’re not seeing the kind of progress in class sizes that we had grounds to believe we would see,” Smith says.
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\r\n“There’s no prioritisation. There’s no special consideration being given to education. Then people, when they compare and contrast that with what is being claimed nationally, would not unduly begin to ask the question whether being part of the local authority family is particularly beneficial for education.” In the short term, resources must be restored, the General Secretary says, but as we approach the 2011 election, he predicts reform will be on many parties’ agendas.
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\r\nSo if nothing is off the table, what are the alternatives? A centralised service run by a national department is one option practised in countries such as Ireland. Meanwhile Northern Ireland has just moved from having five education boards to a single quango, the Education and Skills Authority.
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\r\nWhilst there appears to be little appetite in Scotland for total centralisation, the idea of regional delivery has been aired. Many in the sector believe that having education run by 32 different councils is inefficient and has created a patchwork of provision across the country. Regional education boards, along the lines of police and fire boards, could be the answer, according to John Stodter, educational consultant and Association of Directors of Education Scotland (ADES) General Secretary.
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\r\n“I think the model that the police boards have might not be too far away from something that might work for education.
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\r\nYou’ve already got HMIE in regional areas.
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\r\nYou could have local councils who put one or two councillors towards a regional board and you could actually have integrated inspection quality assurance and you could probably have a kind of executive director for each region. It wouldn’t be too much upheaval in terms of internal and other types of structures and it might be quite efficient,” Stodter says. Eight to 12 boards across Scotland could provide more consistency in education, he believes, as well as better value for money.
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\r\nAs the tide quickly turns in the debate, one of the big questions is the degree of diversity in the school system. Education is one of the most homogenous of Scotland’s public services, a feature that sets it apart from the English system. In contrast to the mixture of city academies, trust schools and comprehensives down south, state schools in Scotland generally follow the same model. According to research by think tank Reform Scotland, however, after ten years of devolution and a doubling of spend per pupil, attainment in Scotland has barely improved and has even been overtaken by England. In the wake of such statistics, some commentators are calling for a break from the uniform approach.
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\r\nAmidst those calls came a proposal last month from an unlikely source. As part of a consultation on how it delivers public services, East Lothian Council put forward the idea of school trusts. Under the proposal, clusters of schools would be run by arm’s length trusts with entirely devolved budgets and the freedom to specialise in chosen areas.
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\r\nThe paper sparked strong reactions on both sides, but little discussion of what such a model might actually look like. So what is the potential?
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\r\nEast Lothian Council Leader David Berry says the idea was born out of two objectives – to boost community engagement and to increase efficiency. The cluster model of one secondary school and its associated primaries would fit with East Lothian’s communities, he explains.
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\r\n“Our argument is that we need to push more decision making, more interaction back into the community so that they own it.
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\r\n“If you look at most high-school catchments, they correspond in many cases with what people regard as their community… That kind of engagement we get with the community is important and in our case, we have six towns, each of which has a high school so a high-school catchment fits very well, geographically.” The secondary reason for exploring the model was an economic one, the councillor says. With 4 per cent spending cuts expected each year for the coming years, the administration decided it was time for some radical ideas.
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\r\n“We said to our officials: ‘We’ve got to do something different here’. This isn’t just a question of not buying as many paperclips or buying paperclips more efficiently. This is a question of rethinking how we deliver services. Because the alternative is losing jobs or stopping doing things altogether, neither of which are particularly palatable, politically.
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\r\nSo one of the responses we got back from the education department was well, we could look at wrapping up what we spend in the way of money on education and devolving it,” he says.
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\r\nPart of the issue with education spend, according to Berry is that devolved school management budgets “aren’t really”. Barely half of the council’s £100m education budget goes directly to schools, so why not devolve the entire budget and let schools themselves manage it, he asks. School clusters could then decide their own spending priorities, saving on certain areas and using those savings on areas of their choosing.
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\r\nThe leader illustrates the point with an anecdote. Schools currently don’t get billed for the electricity they use so last year he conducted an experiment: “I asked one of our facilities people to go down to one of the high schools, that will remain nameless, on the day after the end of Christmas term last year. So they go down, the high school is deserted, they go in in the morning and they read the meter. They go away and they come back three days later and they read the meter again, which gives you an idea of how much electricity was being consumed over the period. Now there’s no kids in the school, mind you, no teachers, it’s a holiday. Then she goes round the building and she switches off all the copiers, all the computers, all the lights, you name it, off. And she goes back round the school three days later and the difference is roughly what we could have saved. Multiply that up over two months of summer holiday and all the other holidays and it was close to a five figure sum, the difference over the year.
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\r\nNow why would a school worry about that if they didn’t pay it?” Those kind of efficiencies could be ploughed back into the schools’ individual priorities, and allow them to specialise in other areas, such as sport and languages.
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\r\n“The point about schools is they tend to be a bit uniform because that’s what HMIE likes.
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\r\nI’m not sure that’s what people want.
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\r\n“I’m not dictating what it would be, but what I imagine is that somebody would be the principal and the organiser of the whole [cluster]and would have a business manager. The business manager’s job would not just be to be an accountant but to say if the headteacher says: ‘Right, I’ve talked to our board and our board’s now keen that we get into oriental languages because we think that’s where the future is so we want to hire two Mandarin teachers and a Japanese teacher. Now how much will it cost me and how would you suggest we fund that?’ And they could say: ‘It’s going to cost, let’s say £150,000 a year. But if we didn’t run six rugby teams on a Saturday, if we cut back on X, we’d be able to do it.” Another cluster could become a centre for sporting excellence, Berry says. As long as academic standards were maintained, there would be no problem with diversity. The trusts would likely have a democratically elected board including members of the council, members of the community and school staff.
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\r\nThey would differ fundamentally from the English trust model, however, in that they would be funded entirely by the council with no private sector money permitted. Neither would pupil selection be allowed.
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\r\nBerry stresses that trusts are only one of 60 options in the public consultation but calls for an open debate about the proposal.
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\r\nEntrenched positions should not be allowed to hold back on a discussion about what is best for Scottish pupils. “Let’s not start off from some doctrinal fortified camp. ‘We are socialists, therefore we believe this’; ‘We are right-wing fascist, therefore we believe this’.
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\r\n[It should be] more like ok, let’s assume we have no doctrine. What would actually be a good system for education? Let’s leave our political policy credentials at the door and just look at it objectively. Now at some point, we have to get in the chamber and argue the toss but at that point I hope this will have been developed into a more rounded idea so you can say, ‘here’s the advantages, here’s the disadvantages, pick your side, let’s have a discussion’.” And Berry is not the only one calling for a more grown-up debate about education.
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\r\nDavid Cameron, who recently left the post of ADES President and is now leading the Scottish Government’s class size review, believes it is time for all parties to rise above their dogmas and consider all the options.
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\r\n“The key thing for me is that we have some kind of genuine debate exploring the possibilities of change. I think one of the most disappointing things about the “discussion”, in inverted commas, about the East Lothian proposals was the way that people reverted so quickly to megaphone diplomacy. Shouting at one another from polarised positions, often assuming the detail of the change and the real lack of willingness to explore its potential.
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\r\nAnd I think until we get beyond that kind of doctrinaire set of positions we’re unlikely to get meaningful progress.
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\r\n“There are a number of models. Northern Ireland has gone for the single skills and education agency, with a move to try and create very strong governance groups within schools. There’s a lot of attractions in that. I think Scotland has got a number of interesting developments. There’s a National Parents’ Forum. The legislation on parental involvement, I think, can create possibilities that probably weren’t there before.
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\r\n“I think a trust model might be effective.
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\r\nI think what I was arguing for was avoiding the idea that there is the trust model.
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\r\nEffectively, all that we’re talking about is the redistribution of control and influence between groups who are already partners in the delivery of children’s education… The East Lothian proposal is a far more complex and sophisticated model than I think it was given credit for in the debate.” Even amongst education directors, Cameron says there is recognition of a need for change: “I think we also recognise that we’re likely to be in a completely unparalleled period in terms of the budget situation, certainly in recent times. And I think there’s a recognition that continuing simply to shave away aspects of budgets is more likely to be damaging to service delivery than contemplating radical change. And I think on that basis, there’s a willingness to do that.” Amongst the calls for more diversity another radical proposal has been added to the mix. The parental choice model, advocated by Reform Scotland, would allow more independently-run state schools to be established and give parents greater choice in the school their child goes to. Such schools could be set up outside the local authority system by parents, teachers, community groups, charities or other independent providers. As in the Swedish voucher system, an ‘entitlement scheme’ would see the funding follow the pupil. According to Geoff Mawdsley, Director of Reform Scotland, the model would inject some much needed competition into the state system. As parents vote with their feet and take their children out of poorly performing schools, those schools would eventually close. Meanwhile, local authority schools would be given an incentive to improve.
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\r\n“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 is to give parents an entitlement to the average amount of money that’s spent on educating their child in that local authority area,” says Mawdsley.
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\r\nThe Scottish Conservatives are also backing calls for a parental choice scheme.
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\r\nAnd given the Cabinet Secretary’s previous pronouncements on the subject, the party is now confident it could be considered.
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\r\nConservatives Spokesperson for Schools, Liz Smith MSP says: “We’re delighted that there will be a debate about whether that should involve greater diversity within schools and different people who run them.
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\r\n“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’s exactly what happened in Sweden.” Thomas Idergard is adviser to the Swedish family business Magnora, major owner of the independent school chain Kunskapsskolan.
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\r\nSweden introduced a school voucher system in 1992 and gave independent schools the right to receive funding from local municipalities.
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\r\nThe 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 public counterparts, the Swedish system is held up as a model of success. In the country’s national tests they have a larger share of the two highest mark levels as well as a larger share of pass rates.
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\r\nLikewise, recent studies have shown that in areas where local authority schools encounter competition from independent schools, the local authority schools perform better.
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\r\nKey to the success of Sweden’s independent schools is having the freedom to innovate and offer a more personalised education, says Idergard: “The local authority public school is made for the average student. They have the pedagogical methods all designed for the average student that is kind of a statistical figure. And you have, on one side of that statistical figure, you have those who are more motivated than average but also on the other side you have the pupil who requires more personal coaching, more attention. And they are not satisfied with the local authority schools in many places and then they have also the opportunity to opt out from the public system without having to pay anything,” he says. When Idergard’s school chain was first established 50 of the first 200 pupils had experienced bullying at their old school. “So independent schools provide wider social precondition for those who, for some reason, don’t think the average school formed for an average student is going to fit them.” Indeed Scotland has its own limited experience of an independently run state school. The only such model in Scotland, Glasgow’s Jordanhill, once again topped the league tables of public schools this year.
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\r\nWith autonomy from the local authority comes a huge responsibility, according to the primary school’s headteacher Irene Matier.
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\r\nBut the school does benefit from having that freedom to experiment, she says: “It’s a factor [in the school’s success]but it’s not the only factor. And it’s a factor because we have that autonomy to make our own decisions and we can plan ahead financially and in every other way. And we don’t have to jump to the tune of a local authority where they might want all schools to be the same but it doesn’t suit all schools.” As Scotland moves into an era of tighter public spending, an overhaul of education delivery looks likely in the long term. The debate has moved on a long way in recent months, yet preconceptions and prejudices still mire it. The conclusion of the current review may be that local authority delivery is still the best way forward. But that conclusion must be arrived at through a full and open debate that is based on educational quality, not political doctrines.