The proposals for reform of school governance announced a week ago by John Swinney are hugely significant and full of admirable intent. His concept of a ‘school and teacher-led system’ has the capacity to transform the quality of educational decision-making for the better. Giving headteachers much-increased control over staffing, the curriculum and the use of funding is, without question, the best way of improving performance and raising standards.
This kind of decentralisation of control is well supported by research. It is in line with the thinking of the world’s most influential educational think tank, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and with the direction of travel of many of the developed world’s more successful education systems.
Mr. Swinney’s announcement suggests that the Scottish Government has begun to engage seriously with the question of how to bring about radical change in a complex system such as school education. Empowering schools can energise teachers, giving them a sense of ownership of the process of change. It can encourage initiative while reducing bureaucracy and pointless aspects of accountability. Perhaps most important, it could change the culture of education by reducing hierarchy and improving relationships.
In short, the potential of the proposed reforms is enormous. However, that does not mean that the potential will necessarily be realised. The history of Scottish education is full of examples of good ideas implemented ineffectively and fatal compromises with vested interests. This year, the government introduced a Pupil Equity Fund intended to devolve significant sums of money to headteachers that they could use to narrow the attainment gap. Then it issued guidance requiring headteachers to have their plans approved by local authorities.
The basic principles underpinning the new proposals are admirable but will they be implemented effectively and courageously? There are already some worrying signs.
For example, we are told that headteachers will ‘select and manage the teachers and staff in their schools’. Does that mean they will no longer have to accept teachers that the local authority wishes to transfer – for whatever reason – from another school? If not, in what sense can the headteacher be said to ‘select’ staff? This is a difficult question. Local authorities are the employers of school staff and the government says they will remain so. Employers have a legal obligation to redeploy surplus staff if they can before resorting to redundancy. How is this dilemma to be resolved?
In the same way, heads are to manage and have full control over much more of schools’ budgets. Will they still be bound by the authority’s procurement rules? Will they be free to seek the lowest price for fitting additional electric points or will they be forced, as is often currently the case, to pay over the odds for the council’s own in-house service?
There are clear signs that the proposals have been drafted with secondary schools in mind. While many secondary headteachers will be looking forward to assuming new powers and responsibilities, confident that their schools have the necessary management capacity, many primary heads may be fearful of being expected to take on huge tasks far beyond the capacities of their small organisations. The ability of grouping schools into local ‘clusters’ to address this difficulty is largely ignored.
These are just three examples of many. The government’s lengthy ‘Next Steps’ paper raises more questions than it answers. There are many places where the proposals are not fully thought through or where vital detail is simply missing.
The paper purports to be about school governance but actually says remarkably little about it. The Scottish Government proclaims that schools are to be empowered but does not say how. This is empowerment by assertion. To whom will headteachers be accountable? We are not told. What governance structures will be there to support and challenge them? Silence.
There is also one instance of a significant proposal that is simply fatally flawed. The government intends that schools ‘will be supported through a revolutionised offer of support and improvement’. Don’t be fooled by the word ‘offer’. This is the kind of offer you can’t refuse. The government will set up Regional Improvement Collaboratives throughout Scotland and every school will be involved.
There is nothing wrong with collaboration. Several local authorities are already using the notion of the school ‘cluster’ – usually a partnership of a secondary school and several primaries – to encourage school-to-school collaboration. Others have set up authority level collaborations; the Northern Alliance involving seven mainland and island authorities is a good example. The important point is that this alliance is a voluntary association, built from the bottom up on a basis of trust and shared objectives.
The government’s collaboratives will be quite different. Local authorities will be grouped together and obliged to share resources according to a central plan. The government will appoint a Regional Director who will be accountable to the Chief Inspector of schools.
At a stroke, the decentralising rhetoric is exposed as a sham. Government control over the system is hugely strengthened. Into the bargain, by giving the Chief Inspector this executive role, the independence of the Inspectorate is destroyed.
There is still time to address the shortcomings of the proposals and ensure that their admirable intentions are properly realised. The government intends to publish a Headteachers’ Charter and to introduce legislation on school governance. By the time it does so, the details must be worked out thoroughly. This will involve listening to those with expertise including, of course, serving headteachers.
Finally, the government intends to transfer the legal responsibility for raising attainment and closing the gap that currently lies with local authorities to the schools and, more specifically, to headteachers. This legal responsibility may be more symbolic than real – it is impossible to see how it can be enforced – but, if I were a headteacher, I would want to be assured that I had the powers necessary to meet my obligations. Good intentions, warm rhetoric and half thought-out proposals would not satisfy me.
Keir Bloomer is chair of the Commission on School Reform.
A shorter version of this blog appeared in The Times on 28 June 2017.