Headteachers’ Charter shake-up still an unknown quantity

Written by: Sam Phipps | Published:
Reform plan: The Headteachers’ Charter is among proposals within the Education (Scotland) Bill, set to be put before Holyrood MSPs next year (Image: Adobe Stock)

Greater powers for Scotland’s headteachers will only go down well if resources and parental input match them, SecEd is told. A special report from Sam Phipps

The SNP’s plans to give headteachers in Scotland more autonomy over budgets and staffing, and to step up regional collaboration between schools, have raised as many concerns as hopes about the likely impact across the country.

Will this all mean more, rather than less, workload? Will it really help recruit and retain headteachers and deputes at a time of shortage? Does the Education (Scotland) Bill, with its Headteachers’ Charter, amount to yet more structural change for its own sake?

Above all, will it serve pupils best and help narrow the attainment gap between richer and poorer areas of Scotland? That is the ultimate criterion by which first minister Nicola Sturgeon has asked for her administration to be judged.

Education minister John Swinney aims to get the legislation through Parliament in 2018, with the consultation period ending in January. That means opposition parties and teaching unions are sure to intensify their criticism of various aspects of the reforms in the next few months before Holyrood votes on the Bill.

Several key players interviewed by SecEd are broadly supportive of the idea of regional collaboratives, particularly now that Mr Swinney has backed down on a proposal to oversee them with government-picked directors of education, rather than make them accountable to local authorities.

The new hubs could not only enable teachers to share best practice and expertise but also provide opportunities for career stimulation and change, particularly for more experienced teachers, according to supporters of the proposal.

Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association (SSTA), said: “Potentially it’s an avenue for many teachers to do other things within the profession and come back with a fresh perspective. We need to see we’re all part of that continuum.”

However, he sees a conflict between the ethos of the collaboratives – to nurture improvements by sharing across the system and between schools within a region, including secondary to primary – and the Headteachers’ Charter.

“If you suddenly say to headteachers: you’re the be-all and end-all; in your school you control not only staff choice but also budgets, what’s the incentive for them to let teachers out to work in other schools, for instance? If they’ve got a shortage of teachers, they would be very reluctant to do that. The danger then is that we build walls around a school,” Mr Searson said.

“A lot of heads also have no wish to get involved in day-to-day HR functions – absences from work, sickness, accidents and so on – or building maintenance,” he added. “We therefore need to be very clear whether all these changes are about increasing teaching/learning and narrowing the attainment gap – or are they about structure?”

Even if pay was raised to compensate for the extra responsibilities, he is unsure how many headteachers would relish their new role or how many deputes would aspire to it themselves without the right safeguards.

Iain Gray, education spokesperson for Scottish Labour, agrees that regional hubs can be a potentially positive development. He also accepts that most people would welcome “a degree of consistency in headteachers’ autonomy”.

Yet he is unconvinced this issue lies at the root of problems in the secondary sector, where tangible progress on overall academic standards has been elusive in the last 10 years.

“Serious concerns remain that the Headteachers’ Charter will create more bureaucracy in schools, and reduce, not increase, the capacity for leadership in learning and teaching,” he said.

Mr Gray also cites a “centralising agenda” behind the SNP’s plans to expand the roles of Education Scotland and the SQA despite severe criticism of both organisations by stakeholders in the consultations. The General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) would also be scrapped.

“The abolition of the internationally respected GTCS, the oldest teaching council in the world, is a slap in the face for a teaching profession already feeling under pressure and undervalued,” he said. Its role is to be taken over by a new Education Workforce Council.

However, Mr Gray argues that the biggest problem with the planned reforms is that they fail to address the most serious issues facing schools, “not least a teaching profession which is now one of the worst paid and most overworked in the developed world.”

He continued: “None of these reforms will provide what our schools really need, an end to budget cuts, and enough teachers with enough support staff and enough resources to do the best possible job they can.”
Overall, spending per secondary pupil has fallen by almost 12 per cent since 2009, according to the Scottish Parent Teacher Council (SPTC).

Yet Jim Thewliss, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland (SLS), which represents headteachers, depute heads and faculty leaders as well as bursars, said the ability of individual heads to target funding, particularly in schools with high levels of deprivation, could make a big difference in classrooms.

He said the SLS was therefore “pretty upbeat” about the way the Headteachers’ Charter was shaping up.
“In our consultation we have been insistent on every school having its own business manager. The head would then say to them: I know what’s best to do with effective learning – can you create a way to make that happen?

“We are also confident in the way the government is moving forward to greater accountability for headteachers instead of statutory responsibility, (for closing the attainment gap, which was mooted earlier).”

The SLS is also intent on getting government to recognise explicitly the pressures and workload facing heads, and winning better remuneration and support packages, Mr Thewliss said.

Eileen Prior, executive director of the SPTC, said: “Parents are telling us they are generally supportive of greater autonomy for headteachers but that the support has to be in place for them to be leaders of learning, not business managers.”

On the downside, she said the SPTC had recorded a distinct trend in the last few months towards headteachers assuming a position of authority over the parent council in their school by trying to dictate agendas or refusing reasonable requests for information.

“Those headteachers who seek to control rather than work with their parents are misinterpreting the proposals from government – an issue which will require to be addressed in the Headteachers’ Charter and amendments to the Parental Involvement Act.”

As for the regional collaboratives – “So far we have no clarity as to how they will actually work,” Ms Prior said. “Parents within the region must have an opportunity to collaborate on this work in a meaningful way so that the needs of local school communities are addressed.”

On the other hand, Liz Smith, education spokesperson for the Scottish Conservatives, worries that the reforms will end up being too diluted, with local authorities ultimately retaining too much clout.

“John Swinney is trying to do a good thing – it should be headteachers who decide who the teachers are and where spending goes. The trouble is that the complexity of Curriculum for Excellence has caused immense problems and pressures, with the SQA and Education Scotland not joined up, so things have tended to unravel.”

As things stand, and unless further autonomy is guaranteed, she said her party was not prepared to back the legislation.

With the SNP short of an overall majority at Holyrood, and both Labour and the Conservatives objecting to the Bill from different angles, its passage through Parliament therefore looks unlikely to be smooth.


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