Pupil Equity Funding: The first major test of John Swinney’s “presumption”

Pupil Equity Funding: The first major test of John Swinney’s “presumption”

by Frank Lennon
article from Monday 1, May, 2017

“The presumption…at the heart of the [Governance] review… [will be that] …decisions should be taken at school level”

Deputy First Minister (DFM), John Swinney Statement to Parliament 13 September, 2016.

THE CENTENARY next year of the replacement, in 1918, of nearly 1,000 School Boards by 36 local education authorities in Scotland, may or may not be worth marking but it does serve to focus attention on the fact that, for almost a hundred years, state education in Scotland has meant schools being managed almost exclusively by local authorities.  Over that century in every area of Scottish school education, major changes have been introduced: to the school leaving age (several times), to selection at P7 (for secondary education), to the curriculum (several times), to the examination system (several times), to the GTC, to the HMI, to the conditions of service of teachers, to school buildings etc., etc. The only thing that has not changed is the governance of schools by local authorities. 

A plethora of reports reviewing primary and secondary education (of which Curriculum of Excellence is merely the latest) have led to major changes in schools but not one has reviewed the way schools have been run by local authorities.  This may be because that at no point in the history of change in Scottish education have schools been seen as having decision-making or policy-making roles either individually or collectively: they have never been encouraged to act as initiators, far less leaders, of any policy change.  On the contrary, historically, the role of schools has been confined to the efficient implementation of policies conceived and managed elsewhere. Until now. 

The Scottish Government’s consultation on Governance (launched September 2016 and set to report in June 2017), can be seen as a historic milestone in Scottish education in that it is explicitly concerned with increasing individual school autonomy.  At the outset, in his September statement to Parliament, the Deputy First Minister made clear that the “presumption” about where decisions are taken in Scottish school education had to change: from now on the presumption is to be that decisions should be taken “…at school level”.

Against this backdrop, the introduction of the Pupil Equity Fund is both the first major step towards increased school autonomy and the first major test of the Scottish Government’s  presumption that decisions should be taken at a school level.  Just as the “presumption of mainstreaming” set out in the Standards in Scotland’s School etc Act of 2000, was a landmark in inclusive education in Scotland, so this “presumption of decisions being taken at school level” could become a landmark of a different kind, potentially ushering in a new era of school autonomy in Scottish education. This of course will be largely dependent on what emerges from the Governance Review.

Nonetheless though it will be some time before the full operational impact of the Pupil Equity Fund (PEF) at school level becomes clear, we have in the PEF National Operational Guidance document, issued to every headteacher in Scotland as a ‘guide’ to how they might “invest” their school’s PEF allocation from 1 April 2017,  the first operational indication of the Scottish Government’s direction of travel in relation to increasing school autonomy. This accompanying “operational” guidance raises concerns, however, even at this early stage, about the nature of the autonomy we might expect.   The PEF National Operational Guidance document is disappointingly prescriptive about what schools may and may not do with the money, and places local authorities, not schools, at the heart of the whole operational process. This is evident even in the actual mechanism for allocating the funding:  it has not been allocated “directly to schools” as has been claimed, but to local authorities. 

The Scottish Government chose not to introduce the necessary changes to permit such a direct allocation. Indeed, in the PEF National Operational Guidance document itself, rather than take this opportunity to critically examine the range of local authority processes and procedures which might impede greater autonomy for schools thereby inhibiting their creativity, the SG has chosen to deploy those very procedures to increase the bureaucratic accountability of schools.  Thus, headteachers are given explicit instructions on the role of local authorities in the whole process.  For example, headteachers are required to “…take full account of local HR policies and procedures” in the appointment of additional staff, the purchase of resources, equipment or services “…must comply with existing local authority procurement procedures” and heads are instructed to “liaise closely with their local authority to agree arrangements for carrying forward Pupil Equity Funding”.

Thus, although no burdensome bureaucratic requirements were placed on schools prior to receiving PEF funding (it was allocated ‘per capita’ on the basis of the number of young people in P1-S3 registered for free school meals), the funding was allocated to local authorities and its use is to be subject to their agreement. Indeed the document, by repeatedly insisting that they comply with established local authority processes and accounting procedures in disposing of their additional funds, rather suggests to schools that compliance with such strictures is at least as important (or more important) than being innovative and creative in funding interventions to narrow the attainment gaps. Secondly, it places local authorities rather than schools at the heart of the whole operational process.  The document repeatedly reminds schools of the role of local authorities.  For example, it instructs schools that:

“Local authorities will issue complementary guidance about how the funding will operate locally.“

So schools are being told that they will have to work from two sets of “guidance” – one national, the other local.  Whether having both “national operational” and local “complementary” guidance from local authorities will be welcomed by schools is a moot point at present, but the issuing of the “complementary guidance” from local authorities seems destined to impact negatively on the Scottish Government’s stated presumption that “decisions should be taken at school level”.   Moreover, as we have seen, headteachers will be required to work in partnership with their local authority “… to agree” the use of the funding. Thus on this crucial issue of deciding how the funding is to be used, the instruction to headteachers that they must “agree” this with their local authority, appears to be at odds with the presumption that “decisions should be taken at school level”. 

Requiring headteachers to agree their use of the funding with their local authority sounds very like giving to local authorities, a decisive role.  Of course it could be argued that the intention here is benign – to provide schools with advice and support, for example in respect of the statutory responsibilities of local authorities, where, given the difficulty of preventing people on temporary contracts effectively qualifying for full employment protection rights, there is a risk that schools using PEF to take on new staff will incur long-term obligations for local authorities.  Notwithstanding this legitimate concern, the clear danger is that requiring headteachers to “...agree their use of the funding” with local authorities will simply serve to perpetuate the risk-averse culture in Scottish education that has been responsible for the historical dearth of real innovation in tackling the effects of poverty on attainment that the PEF funding has been designed specifically to address. 

Moreover there exists the possibility that a school’s PEF allocation might not be net “additional funding” – some local authorities might well decide to use their “policies and procedures” to require schools to make additional savings from elsewhere in their existing budgets.  It would be helpful to know what guarantees, if any, the Scottish Government has put in place to ensure that all schools do indeed receive the net increase to their budgets, that the Scottish Government’s published PEF allocations appear to indicate.

The introduction of PEF allocations to schools is a major strategic development in Scottish education, the significance of which is magnified by its context: it comes at a time when the Scottish Government is analysing over a thousand responses to its national review of school governance launched last September.  And the intention behind the issuing to headteachers, of the National Operational Guidance document on PEF is certainly laudable in the sense that it aims to assist schools, many of whom especially in the primary sector, have never had such large sums at their disposal, to make appropriate spending decisions. Even at this early stage, however, cautionary notes are worth sounding. 

The National Operational Guidance document is full of specific directions to schools about what they may and may not do with the funding: in this sense its tone is closer to what one might have expected from a set of operational requirements rather than ‘guidance’. By indicating a continuing reliance on existing local authority planning, monitoring and evaluation processes, the operational guidance for PEF demonstrates, at the very least, a worrying lack of imagination at a national level, about the operational implications of increasing school autonomy.  Furthermore, if this “operational guidance” about the use of PEF allocations is to be taken as an indication of whether, more generally, it is now more likely that decisions which “should be taken at school level” are in fact going to be taken there, then we should not get our hopes up. 

Unless the rhetoric behind the Government's drive towards school autonomy is matched by the reality, we will simply perpetuate and exacerbate the risk-averse and centralist culture that has characterised much of Scottish school education since 1918.

Frank Lennon is a former headteacher of St Modan's and Dunblane High Schools and a member of the Commission on School Reform. Please go to this link to read its Challenge Paper: Pupil Equity Fund in full.

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