Will John Swinney deliver real change for the better?

Will John Swinney deliver real change for the better?

by Elizabeth Smith
article from Thursday 15, June, 2017

TODAY, John Swinney will make a statement to Parliament in which he will outline how he intends to reform school governance.

He will start by saying that the status quo is not an option. He is right. That is because the evidence is incontrovertible; persistent poor showing in literacy and numeracy for far too many young people; fundamental weaknesses in the delivery of the Curriculum for Excellence; and, too few teachers to serve the best interests of our young people – felt most acutely by those who have additional support needs.

No-one can argue that all is well with the current direction of Scottish schools and a review of governance is the opportunity to change things for the better. This is because it is the opportunity to change where real power lies when it comes to decision-making.

For far too long, there have been too many obstacles in the way of teachers who want to get on with the job they are trained to do and for heads who want more autonomy as a means to deliver much better results for their schools. On too many occasions, they have felt trapped by a myriad of directives – some from national government, some from local government and some from the education agencies, and not always singing from the same hymnsheet. These have prevented headteachers from having freedom to take the decisions in their own school, they have constrained choice and diversity and they have led to a culture of conformity – all of which have been a large part of what has gone wrong.

The principle of equity to which we all aspire is not the same thing and shouldn't be interpreted to be the same thing as uniformity of provision.

Based on both Scottish and international evidence, the best educational standards are delivered when there is wholesale autonomy for schools – when that autonomy allows strong leadership to flourish, when there is a really strong "buy in" from parents and the local community to the general ethos of the school, and when there are high aspirations across the board.

What matters is what works in terms of delivering higher standards – not being bound by a one-size-fits-all approach which allows no room for headteachers to demonstrate imagination and creativity or to pursue different approaches according to the specific educational interests of their own pupils. Scotland’s schools cannot thrive on the lowest common denominator. We need a system that delivers excellence because it inspires teachers, parents and young people.

It is with this sole aim in mind that I hope John Swinney will have the courage to reform governance structures in our schools radically.

Let me give one important example of how new governance structures could change things. Schools now have the benefit of being able to access the Pupil Equity Fund – an important reform in terms of raising attainment – but the key test is who will have the final say in how it is spent. But as things stand at present, it looks like schools will have to work within both national and local government guidelines. They will have more freedom to make suggestions but they will not be in full command of the final decisions. The Scottish Conservatives believe they should be, otherwise the push for greater autonomy means nothing.

If local and national government can still call some of the shots, headteachers will still face some of the constraints which have caused the present system so many problems.

There are some who say that the weaker educational performance Scottish schools have been suffering is nothing to do with governance and all to do with money and resources. I beg to differ.

For a start, there has been progressively more money spent on schools over several decades yet results have not improved and we have fallen down some of the international league tables. It is certainly true that there is a current problem with teacher numbers – for which the SNP must take the blame – but the problems in our schools pre-date those cuts.

So there must be something else that is causing the problem.

For the Scottish Conservatives, it is the lack of autonomy for schools, the lack of choice and diversity that has had a much more detrimental effect. That is why today’s statement from John Swinney could hardly be more important.

Liz Smith MSP is Conservative Shadow Education Secretary.


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