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Governance review (2) – Frank Lennon

This is the second in a series of three blog posts which consider two recent government documents: the Statement for Practitioners from HMCIE (August 2016) and ‘Empowering teachers, parents and communities to achieve excellence and equity in education: A Governance Review’ announced in the Deputy First Minister’s (DFM) speech to Parliament (13 September 2016) launching a consultation on school governance.

Against the historic background set out in the first blog post the transformational potential of the Governance Review should be clear.  This is especially so as it is being explicitly tied to a compelling moral purpose: to eradicate the injustice of the least advantaged of Scottish children having the least chance of success.  This, the greatest of the challenges facing Scottish education – perhaps Scottish society – is a challenge which decades of pedagogical, curricular and assessment reform have singularly failed.  The DFM’s speech of 13 September 2016 and the Governance Review could herald a historic turning point in Scottish educational reform by inspiring schools to become leaders in tackling this social injustice.  In fact there has been in recent years, a growing consensus that effective educational change requires that:

Decisions should be taken at school level.”[1]

This view has been reflected in, for example, the stated positions of School Leaders Scotland (SLS) and the Association of Headteachers and Deputes of Scotland (AHDS).  It is consistent with the positions previously set out by COSLA in the ‘Devolved School Management Review’ (2012) published by the Scottish Government – although it has to be said the support at that time was decidedly lukewarm as is clear from the fact that every time devolving decision-making powers to schools was mentioned it was immediately hedged by statements about a council’s need to:

“…protect its schools from unacceptable levels of risk”. [2]

This document repeatedly stressed the role of local authority policies and procedures as moderating influences on any innovative approaches that head teachers might adopt. Against this background it should come as no surprise therefore that recently, the current President of COSLA and its current Education Spokesperson issued a cross-party joint press release, expressing their opposition to the government’s plans to give funding directly to schools.[3] The impact of such attitudes on the professional and operational culture in Scottish education should not be underestimated. Indeed these most recent statements by COSLA indicate the scale of the impediment to greater school autonomy and therefore greater innovation, that persists. This is not only surprising but disappointing, especially in the light of the decades-long failure of schools, under the unreformed system of local authority governance, to make any appreciable difference to the narrowing of attainment (and other) gaps between the least and most advantaged children.  Thus, since the creation of the current 32 local authorities in 1996, a combination of national policy initiatives and Education Scotland-led, COSLA (and often ADES)-backed, management strategies have conspired to create a risk-averse culture of conformity in which schools continue to operate.  To many head teachers, the main function of local authority officers has often (and particularly recently) appeared to be to monitor their management of CfE implementation.  While it is difficult to blame local authorities for continuing to carry out what has long since been an operational hallmark of their function in the Scottish education system, schools were promised something different under CfE – transformation no less – and this has simply not materialised.  In fact mixed messages – of which is this but one example – have become part and parcel of the recent culture of Scottish school education.  Schools have been encouraged to be creative and to innovate while simultaneously being burdened by seemingly endless and often obfuscatory, curricular ‘advice’ from ES and by a plethora of compliance demands from the SQA.  In such a climate it should surprise no one if in schools, the watchwords have been caution and conformity.  This serves only to reinforce the need, explicitly made in both the OECD Reports of 2007 and 2015 and perhaps most forcibly in ‘By Diverse Means’ (2013) the report of the Commission on School Reform (set up by Reform Scotland and the Centre for Scottish Public Policy), for greater autonomy for schools.  In fact the OECD (2007) report had called for:

 “…greater school autonomy in a local government framework(my emphasis)

 clearly indicating a role for local authorities.  The DFM did seem to echo this in his speech when he said that

“…local authorities will continue to exercise democratic control over Scottish education at a local level”.

If by continued “democratic control” the DFM is signalling that the Governance Review will not result in any significant changes to school governance, then this might offer some reassurance to COSLA but it is likely to be seen by schools as yet another mixed message because it sets up some tensions in the proposals, two of which are potentially contradictory:

  1. how will this continued “democratic control” by local authorities over schools sit in practice with the “presumption” that “decisions should be taken at school level”?  Who will have the deciding voice – head teachers or the newly appointed (and statutory)  Chief Education Officers?
  2. how will it sit with the creation of “…new educational regions to ensure good practice is shared across education” Who will have the deciding voice here – head teachers or the new educational regions?

Moreover it seems likely, if not inevitable, that the creation of “new educational regions” charged with the responsibility to “ensure good practice is shared across education”, will have serious implications for Education Scotland’s role, if not its continued existence.   Following the publication of the Delivery Plan, there are already signs of tensions with existing authorities. In the section headed ‘What we will do to deliver”[4] it states that from the financial year 2017-18 (i.e. after the 2017 local authority elections):

“… the additional £100 million per annum that will be raised each year from our Council Tax reforms will be allocated directly to schools.” (DEESE p5)

The precise mechanism for transferring such cash from central Government to individual school budgets (entirely under the control of local authorities) remains unclear and may require new legislation, but the intention is clear enough: more control for individual schools.  The opposition from COSLA is also clear enough.  COSLA values what it sees as the “…clear and honourable link”  between taxes raised from local householders being spent on local services. In its view the Scottish Government’s allocation of money directly to schools

“… will destroy that link with their plans to use council tax money for a national policy.  Let’s be clear – this does mean that money raised in one community will be spent in another.”[5] 

However there is little evidence of such a “clear and honourable link”, existing as it has for decades, of ever achieving more positive outcomes for children and young people living in poverty and deprivation as compared with their more affluent peers.  Moreover the assumption in another part of the same COSLA joint statement, that allocating funding directly to schools would lead to schools “acting alone or in silos”[6] is misplaced.  The DFM went out of his way in his statement to signal up the importance of “school clusters” and of collaboration:

“…systematic collaborative engagement at every level of education is what builds capacity and delivers the best outcomes for children and young people. School clusters are a way in which schools can work together and we want to hear how this type of collaboration and others can be encouraged so that it is supported and sustained.”[7]

The clarity on this point is greatly to be welcomed.  One would simply hope that the term “school clusters” here refers to more than what is commonly understood by a school “cluster” (ie a secondary school and its associated primaries): there is surely benefit in encouraging other types of school partnership and collaboration.

Furthermore the DFM made it clear in his speech that, although the “presumption…at the heart of the [Governance] review” will be that “Decisions should be taken at school level”, there will be no “divisive academy model” and “no policy of selection or Grammar Schools”[8] in Scotland. In spite of this, COSLA’s reaction might be a result of lack of clarity about where the government’s current thinking on school governance is going.  Lack of clarity is one thing but mixed and contradictory messages at the launch of such a potentially historic policy are quite another: not only are key aspects of the government’s thinking unclear but the tensions arising from the DFM’s recent speech, have the potential to seriously confuse matters.  On the other hand the consultation has just started so we will just have to wait and hope that these matters will be addressed and progress made on school autonomy..

We might ask nevertheless if there are any pointers to the direction that greater autonomy for Scottish schools might take?  Although there are to be no divisive academies, no selection and no reforms based on “right wing ideological dogma”, we might still want to look to other countries (notably England, New Zealand, Sweden, the United States and the Netherlands) which have held high profile national debates about school autonomy which have led to the establishment of a range of alternative forms of governance – charter schools in the United States, independent schools in Sweden and Academies (and more recently Free Schools) in England.  This is not to suggest that there is some ideal form of school governance to be found in these countries but their experience ought to be part of the review especially if, as in the case of the London Challenge in England, significant improvements in the attainment of children in severely deprived areas have been made.  In fact the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) in a paper of 2010, attempted a comparison of school autonomy across Europe and produced the following table[9] which purported to show the balance of ‘autonomy’ with ‘no autonomy’ in areas of  “operational decision making” in schools in each country.

Table 1   The number of areas in each country where the school has full/relative, limited or no autonomyfl-blog-tble-1

The above findings show that Scottish schools have ‘full or relative’ autonomy over 11 areas of operational management and no autonomy over 10 such areas. The UK findings are interesting in that they suggest, for example, that whereas in England and Wales the clear trend is towards granting schools more autonomy, in Scotland the position is different with schools continuing to enjoy rather less than half the number of areas of full autonomy enjoyed by schools in England and Wales.  We might want to focus more closely on the situation in England since it has a significantly wider range of school governance. Table 2 below[10] shows the range of English schools by statutory type and graphically illustrates the current contrast between Scotland and England as far as school governance is concerned:

Table 2 English schools by statutory type


The policy in England has clearly been to encourage school autonomy with the consequential changes in governance, as a means of driving change and improvement.  The situation in Scotland which has, until now, entertained no such possibilities, might be seen as oddly conservative, even reactionary by contrast.

Whatever the position of Scottish schools relative to those in the rest of the UK or Europe, there exist in Scotland at present, few legal impediments to greater school autonomy. It might be part of the government’s plans, though as yet unstated, simply to remind local authorities of this and to encourage schools to take advantage of the autonomy that exists.  This is unlikely to prove successful.  In the first place, the absence of a legal impediment is not the same thing as a power delegated to school level.  Even where no rule exists, it is frequently unclear who in the system has the authority to make relevant decisions.  The default “presumption” until now, has been that the decision making power lies at local authority rather than at school level.  If, as promised, the DFM changes this “presumption” it could herald a significant change in the culture of Scottish education but it is difficult to see how such a change could come about without a change in school governance. Any ambiguity on this – such as that referred to earlier in relation to local authorities continuing to exercise “democratic control” over schools – could be fatal to the chances of genuine transformational change. No local authority, as far as can be ascertained, has ever introduced a policy of increasing devolved decision making to its schools beyond that which was deemed nationally acceptable and endorsed by COSLA. This culture of conformity has persisted unchallenged in Scottish education for decades and has resulted in a system which not only lacks diversity but which, as a result of the consequential lack of innovation, seems incapable of addressing the problems of educational and social injustice.  Arguably it has been this culture of conformity characterized over the years by a plethora of accountability measures (fundamentally founded on mistrust of schools), that has reduced schools’ capacity for innovation.  For individual schools this cultural impediment to school autonomy remains a crucial deterrent to innovation which the publication of 5 papers and a new Education Act in the last 10 months is unlikely in itself, to assuage. Indeed the simultaneous consultation on school governance, the review of the Scottish Schools (Parental Involvement ) Act 2006 and the launching of the consultation  on statutory guidance for Part 1 of the Education (Scotland) Act 2016 – which makes it a legal requirement for local authorities (and therefore schools) to have regard to the need to reduce the inequalities of educational outcome created by socio-economic disadvantage –  might just as easily exacerbate the current situation.  On the other hand, the opportunity for real transformational change in Scottish education undoubtedly exists but it must be handled with greater care and with greater clarity than has so far been evident.

Frank Lennon recently retired as headteacher of Dunblane High School

[1] Deputy First Minister, John Swinney Statement to Parliament 13 September, 2016. Accessed at http://news.scotland.gov.uk/Speeches-Briefings/Empowering-teachers-parents-and-communities-to-achieve-excellence-and-equity-A-governance-review-2ae0.aspx

[2] Devolved School Management (DSM) Guidelines (2012) p12

[3] http://www.cosla.gov.uk/news/2016/08/media-lines-education-executive-group-thursday-11th-august

[4] Delivering Excellence and Equity in Scottish Education A Delivery Plan for Scotland (2016) p.4

[5] David O’Neill COSLA President.  Accessed at http://www.cosla.gov.uk/news/2016/08/media-lines-education-executive-group-thursday-11th-august

[6] Stephanie Primrose COSLA Education Spokesperson.  Accessed at http://www.cosla.gov.uk/news/2016/08/media-lines-education-executive-group-thursday-11th-august

[7] Deputy First Minister, John Swinney Statement to Parliament 13 September, 2016. Accessed at http://news.scotland.gov.uk/Speeches-Briefings/Empowering-teachers-parents-and-communities-to-achieve-excellence-and-equity-A-governance-review-2ae0.aspx

[8] Deputy First Minister, John Swinney Statement to Parliament 13 September, 2016. Accessed at http://news.scotland.gov.uk/Speeches-Briefings/Empowering-teachers-parents-and-communities-to-achieve-excellence-and-equity-A-governance-review-2ae0.aspx

[9] ‘Administration of School Education: International Comparison’  SPICe Briefing Paper 10/50 (September 2010) p31

[10] ‘Administration of School Education: International Comparison’  SPICe Briefing Paper 10/50 (September 2010)  p14