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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Education reform - empowerment or centralisation?

The Scottish Government has signalled education as its first priority, most notably by giving the Deputy First Minister, John Swinney the lead role. Possibly shades of Tony Blair's, education, education, education mantra here. The first indication of John Swinney's approach comes with the publication of his Education Delivery Plan and it looks  eerily  reminiscent of the New Labour approach to public service reform.

The  Education Delivery Plan aims to achieve excellence and equity in Scottish education by focussing action around three key priorities: closing the attainment gap, delivering the curriculum and empowering teachers, schools and communities. The plan gives an explicit commitment to “a publicly owned and run, comprehensive education system in Scotland – a mutual system, not a market system – which supports every child to achieve". This is clearly meant to differentiate from the Tory, free school, privatised model, which is supposed to be driven by the market.

While the Tory approach pays lip service to inequality, the driver for this plan is bridging the attainment gap. A pupil from the 20% least deprived areas of Scotland is almost twice as likely as one from the 20% most deprived areas to leave school with a qualification at SCQF 6 or better (Higher equivalent or above). There will be few who disagree that this the correct driver, five years on from the Christie Commission identifying the 40% of public spending on failure demand and the importance of preventative spending. However, schools cannot bridge this gap alone. This can only be addressed by cross-cutting government action on income, taxation and strong public services.

The most important intervention has to be before a child gets to school, arguably before birth, but certainly in the early years. This plan therefore includes the government's welcome commitment to the doubling of early years and childcare hours. The concerns relate to funding and quality. It looks as if we will have to await the financial review of early learning and childcare in September 2016, for clarity on how the promised £500m is going to stretch to 20,000 staff and 600 centres. The frequent references to childminding is worrying, as this is not the quality early years provision required to make a difference in supporting children in the vital early years.

In schools, there will be a renewed focus on literacy and numeracy at P1-3; indisputably the correct focus. This will be backed up by targets, inspection, advisors and a range of national programmes. As well as an increase to £750m in the School Attainment Challenge fund that ministers dole out directly. It is here that we see shades of the Blairite approach developing - very reminiscent of the central delivery unit approach to reform. Top down targets and inspection, backed up by league tables in a reformed Parent Zone website, with ministerial handouts to pet projects.

More positively, there are elements of the plan that recognise that resources will have to be targeted on the schools in the most deprived areas. Proportionate universalism is the right approach, but it will require some bold political decisions if the targeting is to be significant enough.

There will be a range of measures to reduce bureaucracy for teaching staff by clarifying the requirements of Curriculum for Excellence. This will be welcomed by teaching staff, although the other centralised initiatives may place new burdens on schools. Sadly, there is no recognition of the role the wider education team play in schools – staff other than teachers are totally ignored. Teachers may be less keen on the introduction of national standardised testing in all schools by August 2017.

A Governance Review will be announced alongside the Programme for Government in September 2016. This review, starting in early 2017, will examine the system changes required to "empower schools, decentralise management and support through the encouragement of school clusters and creation of new educational regions". The plan is to extend to individual schools responsibilities that currently sit with local authorities. This will be done in a new Education Bill in the second year of this Parliament.

The structural changes will be the subject of further consultation, but the direction of travel is clear. It proposes centralising the education role of local authorities to new regions with more central government direction. How these new regions will be constituted will be important for issues like VAT exemptions and the employer role. Equally important, will be clarity on the freedoms schools will have over devolved budgets, including the deployment of staff. 

The new governance model is one of some devolution to the very local (individual schools), with an enhanced role for central government. Government will have a wide range of powers to direct how education is delivered, backed up with advisors, testing, direct funding and data transparency. In a country the size of Scotland it is perfectly reasonable to set national standards and frameworks. The risk with this plan is that almost all the real levers of power over schools will be in St Andrew's House. I count more than twenty new national initiatives, on top of those already in the National Improvement Framework.

New Labour may be dead, but it's approach to public service reform is very much alive in Scotland. The temptation on ministers to try and run services from the centre is always strong. However, the lessons from the 1980's are that central delivery doesn't work - so that temptation should be resisted.

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