By CHRIS MARSHALL
Schools should be handed more autonomy to arrest a decline whcih is seeing Scotland’s education system fall behind its international competitors, according to a report.
The Commission on School Reform, which was set up by independent think-tanks Reform Scotland and the Centre for Scottish Public Policy, called for fewer decisions to be made centrally, with headteachers to be seen as “chief executives”, with more powers to retain talented staff and to make changes, such as extending the length of the school day.
Among 37 recommendations, it called for the independence of schools to be “greatly extended” to allow teachers to take risks and push forward innovation in the curriculum.
Published yesterday, the commission’s final report said Scotland was resting on its laurels, with little progress made in improving the opportunities of the poorest children in 50 years.
Its authors said Scotland should look to Finland, which regularly topped international comparisons, to see how devolving more power to schools could drive up attainment.
However, former education director Keir Bloomer, who chaired the commission, said he was not calling for the creation of academy-type schools, similar to those in England, which are publicly funded but outside of local authority control.
He said: “In Scotland, we tend to assume that our education system is the best in the world. This may have been the case at one time, but it is true no longer.
“Scotland’s schools are good and offer consistently high standards of teaching, but they are not world-leading. If we want to be the best, some fundamental changes are needed.
“The role of local authorities is about co-ordination and about championing the interests of the individual child and family. The role of schools, increasingly, has to be about innovation.”
Mr Bloomer added: “We are, therefore, suggesting that schools must be more empowered than they are at the present time, freer to take decisions that they believe to be in the interests of the young people in the circumstances in which they are found. The result of empowering schools will be to create a richness and diversity in the system which it currently lacks.”
The report, By Diverse Means: Improving Scottish Education, said local authorities were too involved in the day-to-day management of schools.
It called for heads to be given greater control over a range of areas, including leverage to recruit and retain talented teachers to work in deprived areas by offering financial incentives.
The commission recommended also that “talented staff should be encouraged to teach and remain in schools in the most disadvantaged areas”.
Mr Bloomer said: “Although the commission hasn’t advocated that there should be some kind of financial premium [for such staff], the logic of what we are saying about delegation of resources to schools means that is a perfectly feasible way forward.
“Schools should have greater freedom to attract and retain people than they have.”
The commission praised the controversial Curriculum for Excellence, but said progress was stymied by a lack of ambition.
While reform had focused on the curriculum, there had been no overall change in governance arrangements for almost 100 years, leaving schools “severely restricted” by “a culture that is strongly hierarchical and exerts formidable pressure to conform”. While other countries had made successful reforms, Scots changes had achieved “much less than hoped for”.
The commission called into question the role of Education Scotland, saying an independent review of the agency – which both sets the curriculum and inspects schools – needed to be carried out.
Education secretary Mike Russell said he was keen to “explore further” some of the report’s recommendations.
“Scottish education is good and importantly it is getting better,” he said. “I am pleased the commission has recognised that Curriculum for Excellence provides the framework to continue those improvements.
“The report sets out a number of interesting recommendations that I am keen to explore further. That is why I am seeking to meet the chair of the commission to discuss how we can work together.
“I believe we have the right elements in place to secure a truly excellent education system, and we are making progress in that regard. When I visit schools, I see inspiring teachers and dedicated leaders rising to the challenge of delivering a modern education for their pupils..
“Scottish education is working, and I am determined to do everything I can to ensure progress continues to be made.”
37-point plan to bring out the best in Scottish education
The Commission on School Reform report contains 37 recommendations, which its authors claim would turn around the Scottish education system in just a few short years, if implemented in full.
The most notable relate to handing schools more autonomy from central government, but others call for a need to “intensify” efforts to raise standards in literacy and numeracy, as well as an increased focus on developing the skills sought by employers.
As well as calling for the autonomy of schools to be “greatly extended”, the report also recommends schools be given “effective control” over their resources.
It says schools should be given as large as possible a share of both national and local authority budgets, allowing them to spend the money as they “see fit”.
It also calls into question the role of Education Scotland, the agency created in 2011 by bringing together the work of Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS) and HM Inspectorate of Education (HMIE).
The commission report called for Education Scotland’s operation and functions to be reviewed independently no later than 2015. Keir Bloomer, the chair of the commission, said there were “obvious dangers” in the same agency setting the curriculum and overseeing inspections.
The report also calls for f “hub teaching schools”, as suggested in the 2010 Donaldson Report on teacher education. It says the hub schools would work in collaboration with a university and other schools to improve leadership.
Meanwhile, efforts should be made to encourage the best and brightest teachers to take up leadership roles and to become headteachers.
The commission also recommends more is done to promote educational research.