Centralisation concern over regional collaboratives plan

Written by: Sam Phipps | Published:

The government’s plans for new regional hubs to help drive school improvement continue to spur concerns about centralisation. Sam Phipps updates us

Scottish government plans to bypass local authorities in key aspects of how schools are run have prompted a challenge from the leaders of several SNP councils, in the latest sign that the road to structural change could be fraught.

In June, education secretary John Swinney proposed new regional “collaboratives” that would take over the remit of supporting school improvement from councils. Headteachers would also have more responsibility for pupils’ performance and more say over budgets.

The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), Scotland’s biggest teaching union, initially gave qualified support, saying greater regional collaboration could help raise educational standards and close the attainment gap at a time of stretched resources.

However, the EIS has since voiced concerns about the role of inspectorate body Education Scotland in the planned new structure, calling it a “damaged brand” for failing to provide leadership over curriculum and assessment in recent years.

Under the proposals, a government-appointed director, reporting to the chief inspector of schools, would oversee the new regions – instead of the current set-up of council education directors reporting to elected councillors.

In August, a group of council leaders from greater Glasgow announced they were seeking an alternative model of regional partnership with directors appointed for a fixed term and reporting to the local authority. The arrangement would be reviewed as Holyrood’s plans “become more shaped”, they said.

The group comprises the SNP-led local authorities of Glasgow, Renfrewshire, South Lanarkshire and East Dunbartonshire as well as Labour-led Inverclyde and North Lanarkshire and coalitions in East Renfrewshire and West Dunbartonshire.

The plan is thought to have the backing of SNP and Labour council leaders on the City Region Cabinet who will now recommend it to their respective councils and start discussions with the Scottish government.

John Ross, leader of South Lanarkshire Council, said: “We are already working together to grow the economy and now have an opportunity to consider how we expand to improve education outcomes.”

A Scottish government spokeswoman said regional collaboratives had the potential to provide the support teachers need. She added: “We welcome that authorities in the Glasgow region have begun to work together with a view to increasing the pace of improvement in education and their commitment to working with us on the further development of regional collaboratives.”

However, Iain Gray, education spokesman for the Scottish Labour Party, said: “The plan to force through centralising reforms to schools has been met with opposition from Labour, the trade unions, parents and teachers and now it is being opposed by SNP councillors.

“Mr Swinney now faces a choice of whether he tries to remove local accountability and take decisions away from representatives of local communities or does he back down in the face of clear opposition.”

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS, said Education Scotland had “singularly failed” to offer schools the leadership or support they needed on curriculum and assessment.

Mr Flanagan believes regional collaboratives could be a vehicle for providing better support for schools at a time of cuts. Yet they are more likely to become a point of dispute between the Scottish government and council umbrella group Cosla, he argued.

“Central to the disagreement is the fact that while the proposals talk much about decentralising decision-making, in practice they point strongly to an actual centralising of control through the medium of a reformed Education Scotland,” he said. “That Education Scotland needs reform, as a minimum, is beyond question; it has failed to deliver the required support or leadership to schools on curriculum and assessment and in terms of the new qualifications it has been posted missing over the last few years.

“The Scottish government is reluctant to own its own mistakes, but it needs to recognise that Education Scotland is a damaged brand. Placing it centre stage in the review proposals is a mistake.”

Mr Swinney has praised the EIS for “rightly recognising the real potential that regional collaboratives have to provide the support teachers need”. He added: “We believe that they can make a real difference in the classroom and the EIS is right to say that, in the end, that is the only place it matters.”

At the same time, first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s administration has been taken to task for “sneaking out” a report that questioned the whole rationale for structural reforms in education.

The report, by the 10-member International Council of Education Advisers (ICEA) – which has met twice since it was set up last year – was posted on the government website in late July but without any press statement or announcement.

It cited the risk of becoming “too focused on changing structure when, arguably, the more important aspects are the culture and capacity within the system”.

Instead, it advocated more collaboration on a school, local, regional and national level. The ICEA highlighted the Northern Alliance and the Tayside Strategic Collaboration as successful examples of “non-structural regionalisation”.

The report also cautioned that education policy was moving away from the “whole child” approach found in the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) towards the more measurable ways of the National Improvement Framework (NIF).

The report added: “Both CfE and the NIF share a clear and positive narrative of a bold nature which, if applied consistently, will help to raise attainment and close the poverty-related attainment gap.”

Scottish Greens’ education spokesperson Ross Greer said: “The government has shown complete disregard for transparency by trying to sneak out this report with no press release or announcement.

“They have gone through all the trouble, and cost, of convening a group of international experts on education, only to ignore their advice and attempt to bury it from the public eye.”

CfE, implemented in schools from 2010, espouses as its main principle the creation of “successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors”.

The NIF’s core principles include “school improvement, teacher professionalism, performance information and assessment of children’s progress” among others. The latter two points imply standardised testing to monitor performance, which most unions have strongly rejected.

Eileen Prior, director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said it was hard to know how the changes might ultimately affect parental involvement: “For now it’s difficult to fathom where this will take us until we see how responsibilities are divided up between schools, local authorities and the collaboratives.”

  • Sam Phipps is a freelance journalist specialising in education.


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