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When I speak to teachers in my constituency, they talk about the cuts that are taking place, workloads that have them completely run off their feet, class sizes that are far too large, the need for teaching assistants and not having the basic materials to be able to provide teaching and learning of the quality that we need. How are the cabinet secretary’s reforms going to address those issues, which seem to be the result of a chronic shortage of funding for education?
Mr Rowley will have noticed the data that was released yesterday, which indicated that there has been an increase in local authority expenditure on education. That is putting more money into the schools that he talks about.
If Mr Gray will forgive me, I will answer Mr Rowley’s question first.
Mr Rowley will also be aware of the contribution of pupil equity funding, which is going into many schools in the area that he represents. That funding assists schools in determining which interventions they can support to tackle issues of attainment.
Finally, members will be familiar with the efforts that I am making to address workload within the teaching profession. I do not consider that to be completed business, as work still has to be done within the education system not just by me but by other parties, including local authorities. I encourage local authorities to take those steps.
I will give way to Mr Gray now, if he wishes.
Mr Swinney referred to the figures that came out yesterday. Does he accept that the cash increase that the figures demonstrated becomes a real-terms decrease in funding once the deflator is applied?
If Mr Balfour will forgive me, I will give way in a moment.
The educational rationale for the measures is strong, with teams of professionals with specialist skills in different curricular areas working together around the needs of schools.
Improving the lack of curriculum area support has rightly been welcomed by many in the teaching profession, including the Educational Institute of Scotland. Specialists can give tailored advice on how their curriculum area can contribute to closing the attainment gap in literacy and numeracy. They can work with teachers to give advice on how to apply educational strategies and make improvements to the content of their curriculum area. The void that exists between guidance and materials being issued from a national or local level and the implementation of policy in the classroom will now be filled by that approach.
That is central to our mission to strengthen the middle in Scottish education and to deliver in full on one of the key recommendations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s review. We will work with partners to ensure that the experience of current and emerging partnership working informs the detailed establishment of regional improvement collaboratives and we will empower schools and communities to shape the regional offer to meet their improvement needs.
“top-down regional collaboration and the shifting of further control towards Scottish ministers”.
I agree with those sentiments. The agenda of regional collaboratives will be set by the schools within the respective areas. Schools will set out their needs for improvement and the collaborative will work together to deliver those priorities, fundamentally shifting how support is provided in the system.
I am keen to build on the collaboration that has already emerged between local authorities in the northern alliance, which is enhancing educational practice. That is the fundamental driver of our reforms; therefore, I reassure Parliament that there will be no top-down approach and no shift of control to Scottish ministers.
The cabinet secretary mentions that he would like to see more collaboration. In the consultation document, the Government acknowledges the response from teachers: they would like to see more collaboration, but the barrier to that is funding cuts. Would the Government like to respond to the point that it is funding cuts that are the barrier to further collaboration, not educational structures?
My party will be supporting the motion in the name of John Swinney, for the simple reason that it adopts the line of argument that the Scottish Conservatives have long held about why the status quo in school governance is no longer a credible option. However, I make it clear that we do not believe that the proposed reforms go far enough to make good what is wrong in Scottish schools, which is why I have lodged an amendment to the motion.
Despite the reluctance within some ranks of the educational establishment, John Swinney knows only too well that change is now essential. That is because the evidence is incontrovertible. The persistent and long-term literacy and numeracy problems for far too many of our young people, the 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 in some subject areas and by those who have additional support needs—are the three main areas of concern. Two of those are systemic, which is why no one can possibly argue that all is well with Scottish education.
Before we get told that this is the fault of negative media coverage, let us examine the facts and go back to the cabinet secretary’s point about the OECD’s comprehensive review of Scottish schools. The OECD liked many of the attitudes in and the general ethos of Scottish schools, but it also said that we were far removed from being able to deliver on our potential. We know all about the PISA scores and the literacy and numeracy problems, and we know that Scotland’s poorer children are two to three years behind children from more affluent backgrounds. We also know that there are too few teachers and about the difficulties of encouraging people to come into teacher training, and we know about the delivery problem with the curriculum for excellence.
That is precisely why the review of governance is so important. It offers 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 that they are trained to do and of 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 myriad directives—some from national Government, some from local government and some from the education agencies—not always with the same message. Those have prevented headteachers from having freedom to take decisions in their own school; they have constrained choice and diversity; and they have led to a culture of conformity—all of which, I believe, are a large part of what has gone wrong. The principle of equity, to which we all aspire, is not the same—and should not be interpreted as being the same—as uniformity of provision.
Absolutely, but I will deal with that specifically when I mention pupil equity funding, because there are real issues about where the power to make the initial decision actually lies.
As the cabinet secretary said, the international evidence is interesting. What he said about the buy-in of parents and communities is true, and that is very important. However, the international evidence also shows that when there is wholesale autonomy for schools, there is generally a good set of results. What matters for us is what works for delivering higher standards, not being bound by a one-size-fits-all approach that allows no room for headteachers to demonstrate imagination and creativity or to pursue different approaches according to the specific educational interests of their 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.
Let me give an example of where such a governance structure could be helpful. Schools now have the benefit of being able to access the pupil equity fund, which is an important reform that we fully support. However, the key test is who has the final say on how the fund is spent. As things stand at present, it looks as though schools will have to work within both national and local government guidelines—that, Mr Mason, is a little bit different from the support mechanism that might go with it. As I understand it, schools will have more freedom to make suggestions about how to spend the money, but they will not necessarily be in full command of the final decision. The Scottish Conservatives believe that they should be, otherwise the push for greater autonomy will mean nothing. If local and national government still call some of the shots, headteachers will still face the constraints that have caused some in the present system to have difficulties.
Obviously, I am very interested in the line of argument that Liz Smith is pursuing with regard to pupil equity funding, as there is guidance available on how to deploy that funding. The whole purpose of pupil equity funding is to enable schools to take those decisions for themselves. If Liz Smith has experienced practice that is contrary to that, I would be grateful if she would draw it to my attention, as that is not the policy intention of pupil equity funding.
I am pleased that the cabinet secretary has raised that point, because I would like to think that that is true. However, according to the paper that Frank Lennon wrote about the guidelines that were issued in March this year, local authorities and national Government might take a slightly different interpretation. That is one of the arguments that we are strong on when it comes to full autonomy.
I would like to pursue that further. That is interesting but it does not address the issue that I raised. There is guidance available to help and to inform decision making, which is welcomed by headteachers, and the policy intention is to enable headteachers to take decisions in consultation with the school community and in relation to the children in their school. I invite Liz Smith to draw any evidence to the contrary to my attention, as my policy intention is clear.
The policy intention is clear, cabinet secretary, but I am not sure about the delivery. If we look at what the educational establishment has said about some of the Government reforms, we see that it seems very uncertain about delivery of the policies in practice.
When it comes to the cabinet secretary’s decision to rule out a greater diversity of schools, he faces a major issue. After almost two years of keeping them waiting, he has told the parents of pupils at St Joseph’s school, the Al-Qalam school, the Glasgow Steiner school, Mirren Park school and the Aberdeen Green school near Maryculter, as well as various philanthropists, that he is interested in their ideas, but he will not move on the radical agenda.
The irony is that he is turning a blind eye to the evidence about what works. Take Newlands junior college, for example, which is a radical departure from the status quo and an institution that delivers top-class results and inspires others to follow suit. Why can that principle not be extended elsewhere? Many times in this Parliament, the Scottish Conservatives have been accused of being ideologically driven when it comes to education, but at every turn what has driven us is what works. I suggest that the very negative reaction to some of the proposed Scottish Government reforms in sections of the educational establishment is more ideologically driven than anything that we have ever proposed. We completely reject the assertion that weaker educational performance in Scottish schools is to do with money and resources; they have an impact, but that is not the whole story.
There are other inconsistencies in the Scottish Government’s proposals, particularly with regard to regional collaboration, which my colleagues will come back to later. As I understand it, the regional boards are supposed to be bodies for professional advice and support. I accept that, but I do not accept that they should have an element of bureaucratic input, which is how it has been presented—that is certainly how it has been interpreted. It should be the job of Education Scotland, if it were properly organised, to provide that support. We have spent many months in the Education and Skills Committee looking at the roles of Scotland’s agencies, and Education Scotland has been found to be wanting in its provision of professional support.
I turn to the Liberal Democrat amendment on Education Scotland. Given the evidence that we took in committee, I was astonished to read that the cabinet secretary intends to allow the inspectorate to remain part of the same body that undertakes curriculum development. His reason for doing that is that inspection is part and parcel of evaluation and improvement. It is, but surely that must be done on an independent basis.
There has been no doubt in the minds of Scottish Conservatives that Scotland’s schools are being held back, not by teachers, parents or pupils, but by a system the evidence for which does not make happy reading and which is too rigid and too doctrinaire on the principle of one size fits all. As the cabinet secretary has said, it is time to change it, but in a much more radical way than is proposed by the Scottish National Party.
I move amendment S5M-06376.1, to insert at end:
“, but, in doing so, deeply regrets the missed opportunity to give full autonomy to headteachers and to further extend choice and diversity within the school system in a way that responds positively to changing parental demand and the philanthropic vision of new types of schools.”
Before I tempt the cabinet secretary into his usual tired and tedious tirade about us never supporting anything he does—and I will—let me establish some common ground.
Mr Swinney has made it plain that, in our schools, the status quo is not an option and change must come. He is right, because with 4,000 fewer teachers, 1,000 fewer support staff, 700 unfilled vacancies, attainment in literacy, numeracy and science declining, fewer school leavers going on to a positive destination and teachers about to ballot for industrial action, something has to change.
However, it is not the case that any change will do. The imperative is not reform for reform’s sake, but the right reforms for our future’s sake. Some of the reforms in the document “Education Governance: Next Steps” are welcome. We have always supported the pupil equity fund—after all, it is indistinguishable from the fair start funding that we proposed in our manifesto last year. Managed and delivered properly, it has the potential to be transformational.
In our manifesto, a year ago, we also proposed a new, improved chartered teacher scheme. New career progression for classroom teachers is a good thing too. The idea of home link workers is a good one, although I hope that the way in which it is formulated—the reference is to “access to”—does not mean that there will not be enough of them to go round to make the difference that they could make.
The main thrust of the Government’s reforms is a structural reorganisation of how schools are run. That has been characterised by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities as a power grab, by TES as the “Great Governance Guddle”, and by Keir Bloomer as
“authoritarian, unwanted, bureaucratic and hierarchical” with dysfunction built in.
The cabinet secretary has not taken all that lying down. He has rushed to his plan’s defence, scatter-bombing op eds across Saturday’s papers with Stakhanovite diligence. My favourite passage is this one:
“we need to work with everyone involved in Scottish education and we will continue to listen to what they have to say at every step along the way.”
Presiding Officer, I choked on my cornflakes. Was that ironic or was it just taking the mickey? Everyone who is involved in education has told the cabinet secretary that he is barking up the wrong tree.
I chaired the conference last week where Keir Bloomer made the comments that the member mentioned. However, he also said that he supports the direction that the Scottish Government is moving in and thinks that “Education Governance: Next Steps” is a good proposal.
The quotations that I gave were of what he said at the conference, but it is true that Keir Bloomer is a friend of much of the direction that the cabinet secretary is taking. That tells us that something must be seriously wrong with the elements of the proposals that he was talking about.
We do not need to stick with Keir Bloomer, because we have the consultation response. In 20 years in politics, I have never seen a consultation response that was so clear, consistent and damning of a proposal. It mentions widespread support for the current governance, apprehensions about further change in the system, how there is no need to fix something that is not broken, and how there is strong opposition to the establishment of educational regions. The key point is that respondents specifically raised budget cuts and staffing issues as being the two key barriers to improvement.
No, I am sorry, but I will not.
That was in the Government’s own summary of the consultation. Parents, teachers, headteachers, councils and educationists are all united in saying that the change that they need is more resource, more teachers and less bureaucracy. They all say that structural change is not the solution.
What we are getting, however, is structural change, a new level of bureaucracy—regional directors, system leaders, cluster leaders—and increased workload and responsibility for headteachers; and not a penny more.
Recruiting headteachers is already a problem.
Two weeks ago, when I set out the proposals, Mr Gray welcomed the purpose of regional collaboratives, which is to provide increased educational development resources. Has he changed his position?
No. Let me come on to that point, because it is important.
Recruiting headteachers and teachers is already a problem. Our teachers already have lower salaries, more class time and bigger classes than teachers in the rest of Europe—they are planning strike action already, even before facing the new responsibilities.
The changes are uncosted and unfunded. Worse still, the new regional bureaucracy threatens to suck resources towards the centre. I have said that cross-council collaboration that moves towards something like the old regional advisory services could support teachers to teach, and I have heard what the cabinet secretary has said. However, I have read his document and the more closely that I look at the structures, the less they look like autonomy and pedagogical support and the more they look like control and centralised command.
We are to have an overarching education council chaired by the cabinet secretary; regional directors, appointed by the cabinet secretary; and they will be responsible for preparing and delivering regional plans and be answerable to the chief executive of Education Scotland, who is, of course, accountable to the cabinet secretary. All that is backed by a Sophie’s choice of two funding models, both of which would strip out local democratic control of school budgets. That will be driven by a beefed up Education Scotland, which, as Liz Smith said, is the one bit of the system that the consultation said absolutely should be reformed.
That does not look like a system designed by someone who trusts teachers to teach; rather, it looks like a system designed by an education secretary who seeks to run our schools from his office in St Andrew’s house. This is not
“listening to parents and teachers”; rather it is defying them. It is not “strengthening the middle” as suggested by the OECD, but is strengthening central control, increasing the pressure and burden on schools and headteachers and gutting the middle—the local authorities that should support them.
The document quotes Dylan Wiliam, saying:
“The only thing that really matters is the quality of the teacher.”
However, there is nothing here about the real change needed: an end to cuts and enough teachers with enough time and enough support to be the best teachers in the world. That will not be delivered by an education council in Edinburgh, by regional enforcers of Government policy or by the proposed next steps.
The cabinet secretary should take a lesson from the First Minister yesterday. It is time for another policy reset. It is time to really listen to parents, teachers and educationists and not just to say that he is listening. He must try again and do better.
I move amendment S5M-06376.4, to leave out from “publication” to end and insert:
“Scottish Government document,
Education Governance, Empowering Teachers Parents and Communities to achieve Excellence and Equity in Education; An analysis of consultation responses
, which states that ‘There was widespread support for the current governance system and an apprehension towards further change within the system’, that ‘On the whole, respondents did not see current governance arrangements as a barrier for improvement and that changing them was not expected to address the deep-seated issues that get in the way of achieving excellence and equity for all’ and that ‘Specifically respondents thought that budget cuts and staffing issues were the two key barriers for improvement’; does not believe that the Scottish Government document,
Education Governance: Next Steps in any way addresses these concerns of parents, teachers, headteachers and educationalists, and calls on the Scottish Government to halt these reforms and to return urgently to the Parliament with a programme of measures that does address these concerns, including action towards restoring cuts to budgets, teacher numbers and support staff.”
If the Scottish Government is serious about closing the multiple attainment gaps, ending inequality and raising standards in education, it needs to listen—to teachers, pupils, parents and others with the knowledge and experience of what works and what does not. So far, the education governance review has been an exercise in collecting the thoughts, observations and ideas of all those with a stake in Scottish education, before roundly ignoring them in pursuit of a significant change that was not asked for, is quite clearly opposed and for which there is no evidence that the quality of education will actually improve as a result.
The motion even calls on the Government
“to engage with all parties and stakeholders, including parents and young people, in continuing to develop these plans.”
However, those who responded to the first consultation will be left wondering why they should bother. We should not forget that some people reported that they felt unable to respond to the consultation in the format in which it was presented.
The next steps report on education reform charges ahead with Scottish Government proposals for widespread governance reform against the express wishes of teachers, parents and educationists.
The Government’s summary of responses clearly acknowledges that there is
“widespread support for the current governance system and an apprehension towards further change within the system” and that
“the case for significant changes in governance had not been made”.
On specific proposals such as the regional governance structure, the response was even more damning and very clear. The summary states:
“There was strong opposition against the uniform establishment of educational regions, particularly from local authorities, but also from schools, agencies, parent councils and individuals”.
A lot of key players involved in education strongly oppose these proposals. It is therefore alarming to see the Government move ahead with them despite such a negative response. Those people will be wondering why they should bother responding to the next round of consultations on funding models. I hope that the Scottish Government can offer them some reassurance and evidence that it is listening.
Given the lack of support for the proposals among those involved in education, we must ask who beyond the Scottish National Party and Conservative members in the Parliament supports them. The Government quotes in its report Dylan William, a University College London emeritus professor, which gives the impression that it is building on his recommendations. However, his quote was taken somewhat out of context. He said that a number of ways to improve education have been attempted, including changes to the governance of schools—precisely what the Government is proposing—but that
“the net impact at a system level has been close to zero, if not actually zero.”
The OECD report, which the Government commissioned, does not back up the reform agenda either. It states:
“There is no one right system of governance. In principle, nearly all governance structures can be successful in education under the right conditions.”
Why is the Government so obsessed with governance reform? Why does it not address the real issues of budget cuts and staff reductions, which were raised so clearly in the responses to its consultation?
The proposals are not just unwanted or unnecessary; they bring risk. One of the strengths of our education system is its local democratic accountability, which means that decisions are taken at the closest level possible to the people they affect, while allowing for adequate accountability structures.
Mr Greer has just made a point that I have made, which is that decisions about education are taken most effectively as close as possible to where that education is taking place. Will Mr Greer marshal for us his objections to empowering schools to be able to take decisions where they are entrusted with the responsibility of educating our young people?
I do not need to marshal the arguments, because they are made in the Government’s consultation document by the teachers themselves. Teachers were exceptionally clear about their opposition to what the Government proposes. The proposals to devolve further powers down to headteachers and to move other responsibilities up to the so-far relatively abstract regional body undermine local democratic accountability.
For those of us who believe passionately in local democracy, that is a worrying sign of how little a role the Scottish Government seems to envision for our councils.
The reforms risk energy and money being wasted on an unnecessary and unwanted reorganisation that could easily overburden headteachers. After all, they are being given significantly more administrative responsibilities, but the financial issues still exist. Unless the Scottish Government is willing to reverse a decade’s worth of cut budgets, it will still be forcing schools to do more with less. I ask again, why is the Government so obsessed with governance reforms that teachers do not want?
The absence of support from those who are involved in education has been well highlighted. The only real support seems to be coming from the Conservative Party.
It is quite clear that no one is suggesting that, but the Government’s proposals have been met with clear, overwhelming opposition from teachers, parents and educationists. That is not to say that no reform is necessary, but the issues that the consultation document clearly highlighted are issues of resource and workload, which the Government has not addressed.
I will do so quite happily. What Scottish education needs is a reversal of a decade’s worth of cuts. It needs the 4,000 teachers that have been cut back in the classroom and it needs the 500 additional support needs teachers back. We know that already— we know that cuts have damaged Scottish education. Those barriers have been raised repeatedly by teaching and support staff and by parents and pupils, and they are highlighted in the responses to the Government’s consultation. Budget and staffing issues are the problem. It is disappointing to see very little in the Government’s proposals that addresses those issues.
Education has faced years of austerity. As I mentioned, there are 4,000 fewer teachers and support staff have been cut. There are also staff at local authority level who support them. Key areas such as ASN have seen a reduction in both teaching and support staff, who are essential. The remaining teachers and support staff are now overstretched. Pupils are being left behind through no fault of those overburdened and underresourced staff. The Government’s response to those concerns seems to be to devolve decision making to headteachers. However, without enough investment, those headteachers will face exactly the same problems that local authorities face right now.
It is good to see that some money has been made available. The pupil equity fund is a positive step, although we have issues with its bypassing local government. The £160 million that Green members of the Scottish Parliament saved for local government in last year’s budget helps to address the issues. However, those are all only small steps in the right direction, while great strides are being taken in the wrong direction.
We therefore ask the Government to acknowledge that governance reform is not what Scottish education needs. It is misguided and does not address the real problems. We can work together to improve our education system, give schools and local authorities the resources that they need, enhance, rather than undermine, democratic accountability and do something in this session of Parliament that we can all be proud of—but it is not that.
The Scottish Greens will oppose the governance reforms and will continue arguing for the support that Scottish education actually needs.
I move amendment S5M-06376.3, to insert at end:
“; notes evidence, including that submitted in response to the consultation and in the OECD report on Scottish education, which points to structural governance reforms having no positive impact on closing the attainment gap; notes that local democratic accountability is a key strength of education governance in Scotland; expresses concern regarding the implications for accountability in the Scottish Government’s proposals to move powers away from local authorities and to create new regional collaborations; believes the Scottish Government’s proposed reforms to be fundamentally misguided and in contradiction to the issues raised and solutions proposed in responses to the consultation, and calls on the Scottish Government to reconsider the overarching direction of its proposed reforms and invest substantially in education to reverse cuts to teaching and support staff.”
Does changing the structure of Scottish education tackle attainment? Will it improve literacy and numeracy? Will the proposals encourage more people to teach? If the change is taken in isolation, the answer can only be no. Therefore the Government’s proposals for who does what must be assessed against everything being done on education.
I would rather that the debate was on the effectiveness of the national improvement plan that was announced a year ago. That would be about teacher numbers, teachers’ workloads and what the plan has achieved for Scotland’s young people. It would allow Parliament to debate three factors that we must get right if we are to give Scotland’s young people better opportunities in life.
The first of those factors is the social and economic circumstances of childhood: how kids grow up. All the evidence, here and internationally, is that those years—before school—dictate what will happen to every girl and boy. The Government proposes a law that will hold local councils responsible for supporting teachers in raising attainment. However, it knows that attainment is also about social deprivation, poverty, employment and a whole lot more. Are councils to have a duty there, too? Children from affluent families are 15 months ahead of their deprived peers in literacy and numeracy as they start primary 1, so we should encourage and invest in cutting class sizes to under 15 pupils for schools that serve socially deprived areas. We should start with primaries 1 to 3 and assess what difference that can make. Youth and community work should also be part of that approach; their role in schools is essential in tackling such socioeconomic factors, and should be recognised and enhanced.
On the vocabulary gap, Tavish Scott will be aware that that issue is part of the focus of my work on the early years agenda—for example, expanding the amount of early years education that is available, and expanding health visitor pathways and family support. The approach is about getting early intervention in place. Therefore, work is on-going, as he and I have discussed and debated in the chamber on many occasions.
That is all good, but it would help if the current Government had also held to its commitment on reducing class sizes in the early years, which many of us still believe is the right approach in tackling the socioeconomic factors that blight too many lives.
The second factor is that teachers, and what they achieve in schools, matter far more than structural change. What do the Government’s proposals do to make space for teachers to teach? Do they create more non-contact time? Do they encourage more people to consider a career in teaching? How will schools be able to recruit to the many vacancies that exist? The enhanced role of headteachers does not recognise the fact that, in many Scottish schools, headteachers also teach. In Shetland, 15 out of 29 heads spend time in the classroom as part of their working week. How are they meant to do more under the proposals? If the Government’s Islands (Scotland) Bill is to mean anything, the proposals need to be island proofed: island councils expect no less.
The third factor is how the proposals address fundamental concerns over the implementation of the CFE—in other words, over the central role of the Government’s main education quango, which is Education Scotland. The Government wants to enhance the role of Education Scotland, but there are many strong reasons for doing the precise opposite and splitting the organisation in two.
On the accountability of the new structure, it cannot make sense to make Education Scotland the boss of a top-down system, with Education Scotland directors in charge of the regional bodies that have been outlined today. Does anyone seriously believe that a headteacher would disagree with the guidance that flows from that structure? How can the head take a different view when she knows that her school will be inspected by the same organisation? That is what is wrong with making Education Scotland the judge and the jury of Scottish schools.
Education Scotland is responsible to the cabinet secretary; regional directors are responsible not to Parliament or to local government, but to Education Scotland. Accountability is not from the schools up, but from the cabinet secretary down. It will be a brave headteacher who takes on that structure. How will curriculum development happen? Who will question the performance of the Scottish Qualifications Authority? Improvement should be driven by subject teachers across school clusters working out what works and what needs to change. It should not be driven by the region down to schools.
Before the cabinet secretary says that that will not—
I am glad that I can get to my feet quickly enough to catch up with Mr Scott. The point in my opening remarks was designed to address exactly that question. The regional collaborative is there to support schools in enhancing their educational practice at the behest of schools. Making the support available at the behest of the school utterly turns the education system on its head.
That is a strong argument, and it needs to be supported by what happens in evidence. My concern about what has happened in the past is that when we had the debate about the number of subjects that our young people should take at higher level, it was the Education Scotland guidance, which was imposed on schools, that narrowed the choice—most education authorities and schools narrowed what was on offer and made less available to our young people. My concern is that the evidence is that Education Scotland’s performance over the past number of years is contrary to that laid out by Mr Swinney.
The decision on the range of subjects that is offered in a school is exactly the type of decision that has been taken at school level, and not based on Education Scotland guidance. I have had that issue out with Liz Smith at many question time appearances. Schools have had the flexibility to decide how many qualifications are appropriate in their timetable. That is not specified by Education Scotland in any respect.
But when the inspection regime is one and the same body, there is no ability in the system to test different approaches. I hope that the cabinet secretary will reflect on that for the future, because the example of workload and bureaucracy is telling in this area.
In the 52 pages of the Government’s document there are but three paragraphs on reducing bureaucracy. Not one of those pages reflects the role of Education Scotland and there is no mention of the 20,000 pages of the curriculum for excellence guidance that flowed from Education Scotland into every school. There is a lot to be done to make the case for Mr Swinney’s decision to reverse the whole system when the record of Education Scotland is so clear. Furthermore, who assesses its role? Who is Education Scotland accountable to? We understand that in the ministerial sense, but who is accountable for the quality of its work and the value that it adds to Scottish education?
That is the case for splitting Education Scotland’s functions. It is not about creating a tartan Office for Standards in Education—few, if any, would argue for that—but about having a body that examines what is going on in schools. I accept that independent inspection will always be difficult for teachers, but an independent inspectorate would also inspect Education Scotland. Therefore, if a headteacher wanted to try a new approach but had had conflicting guidance from Education Scotland, an independent inspector could test both. Cluster schools, quality improvement officers and experience from elsewhere would be part of that. An independent inspectorate could do that, but if the inspector is part of Education Scotland, there would be little push back, check or straight no to Education Scotland or to the regional director. That is a decent case for reform.
The Herald today, Education Scotland’s interim boss has written that he does not want a turf war over responsibilities, but what does the Government expect? Does it expect local government to roll over and have powers such as the statutory responsibility for educational improvement removed?
As I think that the cabinet secretary has accepted in today’s debate, many councils have those responsibilities, and I have not heard anyone make the case that they do not do that well. The Government’s proposals, far from delivering consensus, ignore the vast weight of the consultation response, which others have mentioned, that argues that the structure should be left alone. We do not need a turf war, and many across education, including teachers and parents, consider that that would be a waste of valuable time and effort.
It is on that basis and that case for reform that I move my amendment S5M-06376.2, to insert at end:
“; opposes compulsory top-down regional collaboration and the shifting of further control towards Scottish ministers; recalls the evidence presented to the Education and Skills Committee in favour of separating the policy and inspection functions of Education Scotland and believes that this is necessary, and notes the essential role of support services for schools, notably youth workers.”
I remind members that I am the parliamentary liaison officer to the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills.
I know that this is controversial in education, but I was always a fan of homework. As a modern studies teacher, one of my biggest challenges was getting my pupils to engage with the work that we do in here: politics. At the start of term, I would ask every class to bring in a piece of news. It could be from the telly, from the internet or from a local paper. The only two caveats—or success criteria—that I gave them was that it could not be about sport and it could not be about celebrities, which usually helped to narrow the field. Most important, the discussions that followed helped me to do my homework—to get to know my pupils.
When I was elected last May, I made a pledge to my constituents that I would do my homework. I promised to visit every school and to speak to every headteacher about what they thought the challenges in Scottish education were, and despite the regular occurrence of purdah over the past year, I have visited 23 schools in my constituency so far; I have seven still to visit. I would like to place on record my thanks to every headteacher I have spoken to for providing me with an honest assessment of where we are.
Members might be aware that we used to have subject specialist principal teachers in our secondary schools. However, under curriculum for excellence, there has been a drift towards having faculty heads who are directly accountable on a number of subject areas. For example, as a former principal teacher curriculum in Fife Council, I had responsibility for five subjects, three of which were from outwith my subject specialism.
To make the jump from being a class teacher to a faculty head, lots of additional experience was expected, but there was no prescribed leadership route. That is why the first pillar of support on offer to our schools—enhanced career and development opportunities—is so important.
I would have been 12 in 1996 when the regional organisation structures changed, but—ever the class swot—I did my homework by speaking to a recently retired experienced principal teacher. She told me that, when she was first appointed, she was faced with four higher classes, but she had little experience of teaching paper 2—for the non-modern-studies literate among members, that was formerly the decision-making exercise. Her regional adviser asked her what she was most worried about, then spent an entire day marking her paper 2 assessments, after which he came back to talk to her pupils and to provide feedback on where they went wrong and how to improve. She said:
“That was an amazing experience for me and why subsequent classes did so well. You can tell ... he was my hero.”
That education adviser—Ken Muir—is now the chief executive of the General Teaching Council for Scotland. What a powerful description of the impact that it is possible to have if, as the OECD argues should happen, the middle is strengthened. That is not the top-down process that Tavish Scott suggested, but one that takes place from the bottom up.
Sharing good practice was a standing agenda item at my departmental meetings. If we expect the people who stand in front of pupils to talk about what is working well and to share it with their colleagues, it is only fair that those who are further up the tree do likewise.
I cannot—I have limited time.
The collaboratives can and should be used to support staff, as Ken Muir did, by providing professional support and guidance to improve attainment.
Our councils will retain control over payroll, human resources and democratic accountability for the number of schools in an area, catchments and the appointment of headteachers, but our headteachers are the lead learners in schools, and if they are to lead learning, they should be entrusted with that task as professionals. Just this week, I visited a primary school whose headteacher told me that she had just found out that two probationer teachers are to join her school in August. She is worried about the impact that that will have on her pupils and her staff; it is a small, quite rural school. She requested input into that process, but she was ignored. That disempowers headteachers and, frankly, it is not good enough.
Our councils run HR machines that, in my view, are not always kiltered to the needs of our education system. For example, as a PTC, my geography teacher changed three times in the space of nine months. I, as a line manager, my line manager, the depute head, and her line manager, the headteacher, had no say whatever in that process. Rather, employment decisions in Fife were taken by someone behind a desk in Fife house who was looking to squeeze capacity out of the teaching workforce and who had no cognisance of how moving staff could impact on the pupils entrusted to their care.
Teachers are not square pegs to be used to fill round holes, as one headteacher put it to me this week. A headteacher needs to get the right fit for their school and their pupils. As the OECD evidence stated,
“school leaders can make a difference in school and student performance if they are granted autonomy to make important decisions”.
We all know that the status quo is not working in Scottish education. If it was, the attainment gap would not exist. We can look at the findings of the OECD, PISA and the SSLN but, fundamentally, if members want to know what is going on in Scottish education at the moment, I implore them to go out into their constituencies and to speak to their headteachers.
Today is the second-last day of the summer term, so I will close by wishing every headteacher in Mid Fife and Glenrothes a restful and peaceful summer holiday when it comes.
Like my colleague Liz Smith, I welcome in part the way in which the Scottish Government is going forward with these proposals. However, I feel that this will be a slightly missed opportunity and that, after passing these reforms over the next couple of years, we will at some point realise that we have not gone far enough, and we will have to go back and make another change. The clear message from the headteachers and teachers to whom I have spoken over the past 12 months is, “Can you get this right, and then can we be left alone to get on and do what we’re paid to do—teach children?”
What we need to establish over the next two to three years is a system that will last a generation instead of something that different parties and different politicians will come back to and tinker with over and over again.
I want to make a couple of points about the areas into which I think the Government is moving, the first of which brings us back to the regional models. It seems clear to me that the regional group will report to the education minister, which must mean that it has some kind of top-heavy structure. It will not report down to local authorities or councillors—it is reporting upwards—and the parameters will be set by the Scottish Government. How can we suggest that there should be localism in, say, East Lothian compared even with West Lothian in my region and still think that one model will fit all? There is a danger of our ending up with some more power going to headteachers, which is welcome, but with a bigger structure that sits further away from parents and children than what we have at the moment.
For example, will these regional hubs be responsible for school buildings? Will they decide where a new school building will be built? If not, where will that decision be taken? I come back to the question that I asked the Deputy First Minister after his statement last week. This afternoon, he listed a whole number of people who would be part of the regional hubs and suggested that others would be involved, but will those others include elected councillors? For 10 years, I attended parent council meetings here in Edinburgh as a councillor, and I was able to listen to what was said and feed any concerns back to the City of Edinburgh Council’s education department. Where would I go now? Under this new structure, what would be the role of a councillor with regard to parent councils? That seems unclear to me, and I think that there is a danger that we will end up with a less localised model.
I want to finish with two very quick and genuine points. First, where does early learning fit into this system, and who will deliver it—the council or the new regional body? Secondly, it seems unclear to me where children with additional support needs, who are perhaps the most vulnerable in our society, fit in, and there is a danger that, as far as parental access is concerned, this big regional body will become even more unwieldy.
This is a step, but it does not go far enough. We need to keep moving forward. There is a danger that the system that we are looking at will simply fall through and will not provide what local parents, children or teachers want.
I will begin by speaking in my capacity as convener of the Education and Skills Committee.
I welcome the cabinet secretary’s opening remarks and look forward to seeing the details of the proposals. The committee will, of course, pay close attention to the Government’s proposed reforms.
The Parliament will by now be aware of the Education and Skills Committee’s commitment to hearing from a breadth of voices to inform its work and enhance scrutiny and debate. If I say so myself, that has been very effective. I was pleased to read the cabinet secretary’s letter of 15 June to the committee, in which he said that he had taken account of the committee’s work and the evidence that it had received. The committee has rigorously examined the performance of the principal national agencies in school education and their role in the delivery of the curriculum for excellence, and it has highlighted the need for clear lines of accountability in delivering the curriculum for excellence. “Education Governance: Next Steps” indicates that the proposed Scottish education council will help
“to ensure that there is coherence, pace and challenge at a national level”.
The committee will be interested to find out what the council’s responsibilities will be with regard to the delivery of the curriculum for excellence.
The broader reforms that the Government has proposed represent big changes to the structure of Scottish education. It will therefore be vital that the Education and Skills Committee continues to scrutinise the Scottish Government and its agencies effectively. That includes pre-legislative scrutiny before the bill comes to Parliament in 2018.
There are lots of good things in the document, and I will be very interested to hear the cabinet secretary talking about the details of exactly what will be in the proposals when he comes to the committee after the summer.
I am sure that all members of the committee have noted the recommendation in paragraph 4.4.4 of the “Education Governance: Next Steps”, which emphasises the importance of the SQA
“listening, and being open to, the voices of learners, teachers and parents.”
I am delighted that the committee will continue with the inclusive approach that we have taken in the past year and that Scotland’s parents, teachers and young people will have their voices heard as part of the committee’s work.
I will end this part of my contribution with my usual shout out to those with something to say on Scottish education. Please do not wait to be asked the right question in a consultation. We want to hear from those people and be led by the issues that they raise. Full details of how to get in touch are on our web page.
I will now speak in a personal capacity and move on to the reforms themselves. There are a number of extremely ambitious goals in the document that can be achieved only by changing not only the processes but the culture of many of the players in Scottish education. I am not the only one who says that; at the conference on “Education Governance: Next Steps”, which I mentioned earlier, there was general support for a change in culture. That was highlighted by the aforementioned Keir Bloomer and others. All parts of the system have to work together, of course. If we want education to change, all parts of the system must work closely and in a way that is different from how they have worked so far. I wish the cabinet secretary well with that.
“Finally, we need a culture, in our new governance structures, that is focused on future improvement, rather than one that is wedded to maintaining the sacred cows presented by past structures, methods and guidance.”
It is clear that there is a fair amount of work to be done on that.
I am honestly hugely enthused by the possibilities that stem from “Education Governance: Next Steps”—from creating the school and teacher-led system to enhancing career and development opportunities for teachers through to the regional improvement collaboratives. All those suggestions seem to me to be eminently sensible. Of course, as in all things, the devil is in the detail, and I look forward to the cabinet secretary using the summer months to come back with those details for my committee and the chamber to scrutinise as we think appropriate.
Given the importance that my committee has put on the involvement of all those who are connected to education—not just practitioners—I am delighted to see the emphasis that the cabinet secretary has put on strengthening the voice of parents. I would have talked about that, but I see that I am in my last minute.
We all agree that education is crucial to the life chances of our children, so nothing that the Parliament or the Government does can have greater importance. I hope that the positive next steps are allowed to move forward. If all sectors can work together in partnership, I look forward to the necessary changes to education being made for the benefit of all our children and, of course, I look forward to seeing the cabinet secretary in front of my committee to answer questions on the details of the proposals.
I support the motion.
It is a well-rehearsed and well-established view, shaped by the evidence of parents, teachers, support staff, unions, academics and international surveys, that there are serious problems in Scottish education. In taking that view, there is always a danger of being characterised as a curmudgeon by John Swinney—who wilfully refuses to accept criticism of what he deems to be good news—or as someone who is driven only by a desire to talk Scottish education down. However, the debate today is so serious that I am prepared to take that risk. As ever, I urge Mr Swinney not to shoot the messenger.
Mr Swinney’s proposals do not rise to the challenge that education faces—indeed, there is a danger that they will make things worse. Action in Government and plans for education must be more than lines to take. Any proposals must show an understanding of what the problems are; should be evidence based, with more than assertion to back them up; and should be radical in their impact and challenge rather than defend the status quo. They should be capable of building consensus in the Parliament, in education and among families, and of building confidence that those changes will create greater opportunity for all our young people to thrive and achieve their potential, regardless of their circumstances.
Sadly, Mr Swinney’s proposals fail all those tests. It is as if, having conceded that there is a problem, he is reluctant to recognise what the problem is. He produces solutions that do not relate to the real problems at all. There is no evidence that his plan increases resources where they are so desperately needed; improves the recruitment and retention of teachers; addresses the major problems around supply teachers, support staff, administrative support and the lack of specialist teachers; addresses the reduction in subject choices in too many schools; or provides real support for young people with additional support needs, too many of whom are on part timetables rather than accessing the full education that they need.
James Dornan is correct to say that a lot of evidence was given to the Education and Skills Committee. In all that evidence, however, I did not hear anyone make a plea for more bureaucracy, for regional collaboratives or for Education Scotland to have even more power. In all the evidence to the committee, not only were those proposals not suggested; they would have been roundly denounced. Not only is there no evidence for Mr Swinney’s proposals; his own consultation rejected most of them. Faced with systemic problems, and plagued by too much change that has been poorly introduced, the cabinet secretary is introducing further upheaval, with more bureaucracy and more power for Education Scotland. You could not make it up.
Mr Swinney has moved to a view—most explicitly argued by Liz Smith and the Tories—that, basically, educational problems emerge from individual schools and can be solved there. That is simply not true. The attainment gap, the experience of young people with additional support needs, the challenge of recruitment in our rural areas, the experience of working-class boys who fail in the first and second years of secondary school, and the impact of poverty and what a child brings with them to school are about far more than an individual school and its capacity to support individual pupils.
The cabinet secretary talks about autonomy for teachers and headteachers. I agree that it is good practice to liberate the understanding and capacity of teachers, but we have to understand the impact of that. We have been told that a headteacher might be able to use the resources that are given to them to bring in speech and language therapy support, but surely any child, regardless of the school that they attend, is entitled to that support if they need it. We may say that headteachers are to be liberated in the curriculum, but what if a headteacher decides that the school should run only three highers and that they will not bother with advanced highers because they do not believe that those are necessary? We in politics know that a postcode lottery is bad enough, but if we create a lottery based on individual schools, we have a major problem.
We all know—although the Tories may take a slightly different view—that all educational provision, and where power lies, must be balanced. We must have standards, collaboration and innovation, and we must give individual schools the capacity to support flexibility, but none of that is of any import if it is not backed up with resources and the capacity to deliver.
On the importance of collaboration, John Swinney has had difficulty collaborating with local authorities. I urge him not to create a new structure that is answerable to him but rather to insist that people, working through our local authorities with democratic accountability, enhance and bring together the talent and ability across the educational world and in our families. I believe seriously and sincerely that his proposals will block that, and create a bureaucracy that does not work and denies the real problem, which is about the need to put resource and energy into the education system to support our young people.
In the Government’s “Education Governance: Next Steps” document, this phrase sticks out for me:
“the responsibility of this Government is to work with our partners in local government to create the culture and capacity for teachers and practitioners to improve the learning outcomes in their classrooms.”
Create the culture, give the capacity—that is what governance should do. The teaching and learning should be the domain of teachers and their headteachers as leaders in individual schools. They know what works and they need Government to give them the space and the right support and structures to allow them to do it. How will the governance reforms achieve that? For one thing, they will address individual schools’ needs by entrusting key decisions to the headteacher, who best knows that school and its pupils, their families and their needs. A headteacher will be able to deploy their pupil equity fund in a way that works for their school. The headteachers who I have spoken to are already making plans for how they might use that additional funding. For example, they might choose to spend it on an outdoor learning programme because they have seen the benefits that that provides for the children’s learning—I am a big fan of outdoor learning programmes. They might wish to employ additional support specialists if they have a proportion of children in their care with those needs. They might want to purchase additional learning and teaching aids that the teachers have requested in order to help them improve the classroom experience. What to spend the fund money on will be for the headteacher to decide.
I have the great fortune to be from Aberdeenshire. I like to talk about how we are always ahead of the curve, and I am going to do that again now. I was astounded to learn that not all headteachers across Scotland are involved in choosing their own staff; in Aberdeenshire, they have always been involved in the recruitment and selection of their teachers, so that was news to me.
I do not have time; I have only five minutes.
Along with the other northern local authorities, Aberdeenshire led the way in setting up one such partnership, the northern alliance. It is working well and provides a model for those local authorities that have yet to form similar partnerships. The Green amendment talks about power being taken away from local authorities, but such partnerships do not do that; they are a way of sharing good practice across local authorities. The northern alliance comprises Aberdeen City Council, Aberdeenshire Council, Highland Council, Moray Council, Orkney Islands Council, Shetland Islands Council and the Western Isles Council. Working together helps those councils to share specialist resources, to improve outcomes for children by sharing good practice and to work together and not compete against one another on staff recruitment.
One particular strong point of the alliance is the collaboration that it allows between headteachers, who have been coming together to reflect on their teaching and learning with one another and to discuss the impact that access to data is having on improvement. They have also done work on finding new ways of working in order to tackle workload, on keeping the family and child at the heart of learning and on ensuring an effective evaluation of impact. That work is directly linked to closing the poverty and attainment gap, and those clusters are a model of a self-improving system.
The alliance also has teacher development days, which assist greatly in knowledge and resource sharing and in teachers’ continuing professional development in primary stages and in secondary subject areas. Education directors and heads of services also collaborate at their level, agreeing vision and direction and giving support to teaching staff to allow them to make improvements in teaching practice. The early years and childcare teams are working together with the Scottish Futures Trust to focus on shared resource, planning and quality improvement work ahead of the increase in childcare resource for families in this session of Parliament.
Alliances work, and the governance review’s recommendations are a step in the right direction, which is that of collaborative teamworking with teachers at its heart.
In an intervention, Alex Rowley expressed concerns about education budgets. I have seen at first hand how the local authority administration can impact on that. As members will know, until the last local authority election, the SNP was in alliance with Labour in Aberdeenshire. We pledged to keep the education budget as it was and pledged that there would be no cuts. Now, the new administration is cutting services, most recently the visiting specialist teachers service. That impacts on attainment and teachers’ workloads. I am sorry to say that it will particularly affect the small rural schools in my area, which often have teaching heads and a limited number of classroom teachers, who rely on the extra experience of those visiting teachers.
We must ensure that, at a council level, no administration makes cuts to education services, and we must call out council administrations that do that.
Two weeks ago, I set out the Government’s vision for education and our proposals for reform. Our ambition is to create a world-class education system in which every child has the opportunity to succeed and the gap between our least and most disadvantaged children has closed. However, we cannot realise that ambition alone. The detail of our reforms needs to be developed in close collaboration with our partners in local government, with our teachers and professional associations and with parents, children and young people. The Scottish Government is fully committed to doing that as we take the work forward.
As one element of that approach, we will address the concerns that the Education and Skills Committee has expressed about a lack of clarity around the process of making policy in education and its implementation. Our review confirms that the formulation of education policy will be the responsibility of the Scottish Government, but I want to establish clearer structures within which that policy will be implemented. I intend to replace a number of groups and committees with a Scottish educational council that brings together representatives of the Scottish Government, local government, agencies, professional associations and other relevant bodies to create a cohesive approach to developing Scottish education.
We recognise that we do not command a parliamentary majority, and I am keen to engage constructively with members across the political spectrum to reach consensus on the way forward for education. This debate marks an important starting point in those discussions.
There are many strengths in Scottish education, and it is important that they are recognised as we consider further reforms. Many children and young people fulfil their potential. Exam results are very good and are improving, and the overwhelming majority of young people leave school to go into a job or training or to continue their studies. We have excellent teachers who are hard working and committed to raising attainment for all. However, we still face significant challenges in our education system. There is still too much bureaucracy, which generates unnecessary workload for our teachers—something that we are actively tackling, to ensure that teachers are literally free to teach.
Our programme for international student assessment and Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy results highlight that performance has declined on a number of measures. No matter what data we use or which aspect of attainment we look at, there is a clear gap between children from more and less deprived backgrounds, and, as Education Scotland noted earlier this year,
“the quality of education children and young people experience within and across sectors is still too variable.”
We must address those challenges, and we believe that ambitious, system-wide reforms that are underpinned by a strong educational rationale are needed to do that.
At the heart of our reforms is the simple, powerful premise that the best decisions about children’s education are taken by the people who know them best—their teachers, headteachers and parents as well as the young people themselves. We want to put the power to change lives into the hands of those who have the expertise and insight to target interventions at the greatest need, and those who deliver education in our schools are best placed to deliver that approach.
To do that, we will empower schools and give them control over what happens in their classrooms. Schools will have a range of new powers, which will be guaranteed in a statutory charter for headteachers. Headteachers will be able to choose their school staff and how those staff are managed. Schools will have control over curriculum content and approaches to learning and teaching, within a broad national framework, because they know what will work best for the children in their care. Schools will also have greater control over their finances, and we have launched a consultation on our proposals for fair funding across the education system. The consultation will run until 13 October, and I encourage everyone to respond to that with their views.
International evidence shows that involving parents, families and communities fully in schools improves attainment, so that is at the heart of the Government’s policy agenda. We will enhance parent councils and modernise and strengthen the legislation on parental involvement to enable all parents to play a role in their local school and in their child’s learning. Significantly, the National Parent Forum of Scotland is contributing to that process by reviewing the existing statute, and that work will substantially inform the agenda that the Government takes forward.
To ensure that schools interact more effectively with families who find it difficult to engage, we will take steps to give every school access to a home-to-school link worker who will make and maintain such links, which are proven to make a strong contribution to closing the attainment gap by effectively engaging young people and their families in their education. Children and young people are at the heart of our education system, and we will strengthen their voice through more effective and consistent pupil participation.
If schools are to lead and to be put centrally into the position of leadership, they must be supported by other players in the education system. All other parts of the system must share a collective responsibility for supporting school improvement, and we must work together to provide that in an effective way.
The Government’s reform agenda envisages a new support structure that will be made up of three key pillars: enhanced career development opportunities for teachers, improvement services delivered by new regional collaboratives, and support services provided by local authorities.
The first pillar is crucial to ensuring that our teachers are strongly supported throughout their careers. Teachers should have opportunities to develop their careers in different ways, whether in the classroom, in specific curriculum areas or in leadership roles. Those opportunities have narrowed far too much in recent years. Professional learning and development are key, and we will strengthen that area. We will streamline and enhance professional learning so that a coherent learning offer is available to all teachers.
Mr Gray will be familiar with the wider public finance position with which the Scottish Government wrestles. I remind him of the Audit Scotland report that indicated that the support for local government in Scotland has been essentially on a par with the funds available to the Scottish Government as a consequence of the restrictions in public expenditure.
On the core agenda of ensuring that enhanced career development opportunities are available for teachers, we will work with the profession to design new career pathways to develop leadership skills, pedagogic expertise and curriculum area specialities.
We will also consider issues connected with initial teacher education. New teachers must emerge from initial teacher education with consistently well-developed skills to teach in key areas including the core curricular areas of literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing, as specified in curriculum for excellence.
The second pillar of support will ensure that capacity in our schools is built and strengthened throughout Scotland. Regional improvement collaboratives will provide dedicated educational improvement through experienced and talented educators, involving but not limited to schools, teachers, local authorities and Education Scotland. Pooling and strengthening Scotland’s education improvement resources in that way will reduce inconsistencies and will address the significant lack of capacity that exists in some parts of the country at present.
At the heart of the OECD review was a concern about the lack of collaboration in our education system. I am putting in place the mechanisms to enable that collaboration to happen at an educational level, so that practice is enhanced. By that measure, we will take steps to strengthen the delivery of education services.
The third and final pillar of support will be provided exclusively by local authorities. The services that local government provides to schools are, and will continue to be, invaluable. Councils continue to play a crucial role, maintaining responsibility for a wide range of education services, retaining local accountability and ensuring that their schools have the support framework and services that they need to thrive.
We must also improve the consistency and quality of the improvement and educational support that is offered to schools across the country. That will mean some change to local authorities’ current responsibilities, but that change will be made through collaboration with other local authorities. We believe that this is an opportunity for councils to work with partners in schools and across the country to deliver a consistently improving education support service for our schools. They will also have a crucial role to play in the regional collaboratives that are established.
Taken together, those three pillars of support, alongside a system that is led by teachers, parents and communities, will provide the necessary focus on closing the poverty-related attainment gap and transforming the lives of children and young people. That agenda sits alongside the other reforms that the Government has already set out, particularly in relation to pupil equity funding, which significantly enable schools to address the circumstances and challenges that young people face in their localities, with a particular focus on closing the poverty-related attainment gap.
Reform will require collective effort across the system, and I am determined on the Government’s behalf to work with others to put in place a strong system. We must undertake the necessary reforms to make Scottish education world class and to deliver the fulfilment that every young person and every child in Scotland has a right to and deserves.
That the Parliament notes the publication of Education Governance: Next Steps, which sets out proposals for the reform of school education; further notes the emphasis that these proposals place on empowering schools and teachers; acknowledges the need to support schools and teachers through the provision of enhanced career and development opportunities, and strengthened improvement support, including access to expert, peer-led, professional help, backed by resources; recognises the importance of not burdening schools and teachers with unnecessary bureaucracy or workload as part of these reforms, and calls on the Scottish Government to engage with all parties and stakeholders, including parents and young people, in continuing to develop these plans.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. First, I must declare an interest. I am currently still a councillor on Aberdeen City Council. However, for the avoidance of doubt, I will be donating my local government salary to two charities in Aberdeen.
Before I move on to the substantive subject of the debate, I would like to spend a little time on more personal matters. I congratulate my predecessor, Ross Thomson, on becoming a member of Parliament. Ross, who was once also an Aberdeen councillor, will now take on the role of championing Aberdeen and the north-east of Scotland down at Westminster. I also pay tribute to the late Alex Johnstone, a past stalwart of this Parliament, whose passing was a devastating loss not only to our party but to Scottish politics as a whole. [
Those events and the magnificent success in getting so many Scottish Conservative candidates in the north-east elected as MPs, including two from our list, have allowed me to sit in the chamber today. It was most unexpected, but I am immensely pleased and honoured to be here. My welcome here has been profound, and I thank the chief executive and his staff for making my entry into the community of Holyrood such a pleasant experience, albeit that it has been bewildering at times. I also thank my colleagues and other MSPs across all the parties for their welcome.
Presiding Officer, you will notice that I am not in the first flush of youth, but over my 74 years I have learned many things. I have learned that my wife, Kate, is the most tolerant woman I know, having put up with me for 40-plus years. I have learned that my two dogs, Fingal and Bran, give me unconditional love, which I do not deserve. In addition, I have learned that the youth of today exhibit an energy and an enthusiasm for life, change and enterprise that is to be encouraged—and that includes my three children, who never cease to amaze me.
I have also learned that most people are honest and well meaning and that, at the end of the day, they just want to get on with their lives and to be well governed. Perhaps more important, however, I have learned that, for some people, life is just not very fair. It is up to us, in the chamber and elsewhere, to support those people as best we can.
The north-east of Scotland, and more specifically Aberdeen, has been my home for 45 years. The north-east is also home to whisky, oil, fish, agriculture and abundant tourism, and as such it is one of the beating hearts of the Scottish economy, so I ask the Scottish Government to look after us.
That brings me to the substantive issue of the debate. School governance is a matter that concerns everybody and one in which I have a particular interest as I have been involved in the education environment for some 25 years. As my colleagues Liz Smith and Jeremy Balfour have pointed out, maintaining the status quo in school governance is no longer an option for us. I am therefore very glad that John Swinney has finally begun to listen to what the Scottish Conservatives have been arguing on the issue for many years.
I am clear in my mind that we need to listen to what teachers and parents want for the education of children in their schools. However, I also believe that the reforms that were proposed in the recent governance review do not go far enough. The Government’s proposals on regional collaboration do not allow for greater diversity in governance structures.
Presiding Officer, I thank you. [
R ecent reports on Scotland’s education system have displayed mixed results. The PISA study highlighted the declining performance in science and reading compared with 2012, and a deterioration in those subjects since 2006. Numeracy has seen a decline over 2011 to 2015, and similarly over 2012 to 2016. It is also clear from the PISA study that, despite the Scottish Government’s efforts over the past decade, there is still an attainment gap between children from more and less deprived areas.
However, there are also high points to note. The number of higher passes has risen by almost 30 per cent since 2007, and passes at advanced level have risen by more than 42 per cent in the same period. More young people than ever are leaving school for positive destinations. In my constituency of Midlothian North and Musselburgh, it was reported last week that almost 93 per cent of Midlothian pupils went on to positive destinations in 2016, and the percentage in East Lothian is roughly the same. It seems clear from that that we are getting some things right, while other aspects need to be improved.
Last month, in order to better understand the issues, the Education and Skills Committee took evidence from 16 individuals who work in teaching in some capacity. The responses were highly informative. In all careers, employees have to be motivated through a maximum level of support and minimum levels of stress in order to be at their best, and teachers are no different. The individuals to whom the committee spoke made it clear that many issues can affect a teacher’s morale. The lack of progression, development and promotion opportunities was highlighted. Headteachers spoke of burn-out in running a school, and of how colleagues who saw their headteacher under such pressure were deterred from seeking promotion. There were references to excessive paperwork, in particular as part of SQA inspections, and suggestions that there was a lack of trust in and respect for teachers on the part of the SQA and Education Scotland.
The evidence from those interviews displayed that our teachers could be better supported, with the subsequent benefit of a higher-quality teaching environment for pupils across Scotland. When that is combined with information from the PISA study and elsewhere, the steps outlined in the Scottish Government’s education governance review are, I believe, the right ones to strengthen our education system and to continue the positive work that has been done to date.
The bottom line of the review is that education will be centred on children and young people, and the system will be led by well-supported schools and teachers. Giving young people a voice in their learning is key to ensuring that teaching reflects the needs of those being taught. Therefore, the Government is taking steps to promote that voice by supporting all schools to encourage pupil participation. It intends to consult on requiring every school to pursue the key principles of such participation. In that way, children can take an active role in the running of their school, both from an educational perspective and in relation to engagement with the local community.
The National Parent Forum set out a range of recommendations for how to improve the Scottish Schools (Parental Involvement) Act 2006, and those have helped to inform the next steps. There is an intention to strengthen the duties on schools to engage fully with parent councils, to expand the provisions in the 2006 act to involve parents from the early years setting onwards, and to make proposals on extending links between parent councils and pupils.
One point that has been strongly made throughout the governance review process relates to the importance of parental involvement with their child’s education outwith school. Evidence from the PISA studies shows that, when parents are interested in a pupil’s school activities, that child is more likely to want top grades and less likely to report dissatisfaction with their life choices.
I welcome the proposal to give every school access to a home-to-school link worker to ensure that families who need help with increasing the level of pupil engagement have that support. It will also allow more parents to become involved at a school development level, as well as supporting them at home. The Scottish Government is also reflecting on the National Parent Forum’s non-legislative recommendations to see what other steps can be taken. I look forward to hearing proposals in that regard in the near future.
One of the fundamental principles guiding the governance review is that the people who are best placed to make decisions about our children’s learning are those professionals who are qualified to do so, including teachers, headteachers and local authority stakeholders. That follows the conclusion that the OECD reached after its examination of the evidence gathered by the PISA studies. The OECD stated:
“At the country level, the greater the number of schools that have the responsibility to define and elaborate their curricula and assessments, the better the performance of the entire school system”.
I believe that the steps that are set out in the review of education governance are the right ones to bring Scotland’s education back to where it rightly belongs—at the top of the global charts—and I look forward to seeing progress being made over the coming years.
The issues and challenges that we face in education in Scotland have been well rehearsed and well aired today. We face challenges over literacy and numeracy, our international standing, resources and the pressure on teachers. In that context, of course we need reform; we need to look at what is going wrong and how we can put it right.
Where Labour agrees with the Government we will support its proposed changes. We agree with the proposals on career paths, targeted funding through the pupil equity fund, support for teaching and parental involvement in schools.
However, there are questions about the reforms. Johann Lamont put it very well when she said that there are questions around the assessment of the issues that we face, what they are and why they have come about. How the proposals will actually make an impact on or improve the situation is also far from clear—that has not been demonstrated so far.
I will focus my comments on the regional collaboratives—the central organisations and structures through which the Government will seek to drive its changes. To the extent that the collaboratives are about supporting teachers, their aims are laudable. We have lost some of the structures that we once had in our system. We have a range of local authorities in terms of size and scale, and some of them struggle to provide the same level of support that others provide. There has also been a loss of resource from teaching support.
The consultation showed that there is a lack of support for those regional structures. There are questions that we need to raise about the structure of what is being proposed. The cabinet secretary has stressed that the focus is on teacher-led measures and on supporting teachers. However, we need to look at two things: the proposed structures, with regional directors who will be appointed by ministers and who will report to the chief inspector, who in turn is described as the chief education adviser to the cabinet secretary; and the form that the collaboration will take—it will be mandated by statute and it will be illegal for local authorities not to collaborate. When we do that, it is hard for us to conclude that the structures are anything other than top down and that, when we join the dots, it is not collaboration but centralisation.
There are further problems. The OECD pointed out the need to strengthen the middle and to support teachers. If we are going to expand the role of headteachers, they will indeed need that support, but no new resource is being proposed. We will simply be spreading existing resource yet more thinly.
The points that were raised by Ross Greer and Jeremy Balfour about local accountability were well made. What we see through the proposed structure is a loss of local accountability. We will have regions backed by central Government. In the face of that, it is difficult to see how schools and headteachers will be able to question and challenge input and discuss recommendations and advice that come with direct backing from the cabinet secretary and central Government.
Perhaps the most worrying and questionable proposition concerns the role of Education Scotland. That is where the bulk of the staff will come from—it will be Education Scotland staff who will manage the regional collaboratives. That will mean a hugely increased scope for Education Scotland, which will look after not only inspection and education policy but the practical guidance for and implementation of the policy. If it was questionable for Education Scotland to have an inspection and policy role, surely there are issues of huge concern about the blurred role between inspection and practical advice. What capacity will headteachers have to say no to a regional director who that headteacher knows is employed by Education Scotland—the self-same organisation that might well knock on the door the very next day to conduct an inspection?
As members have pointed out, the evidence provided to the Education and Skills Committee questions the effectiveness of Education Scotland itself. Indeed, John Swinney’s very first act on taking up his role was to slash the guidance—guidance for which Education Scotland was responsible.
On the issues with literacy and numeracy, there are key questions for the central institutions of education policy regarding the implementation and design of curriculum for excellence. However, Education Scotland has not had its role analysed; instead, it has been rewarded and its role has been enhanced.
Furthermore, there has been no analysis of the role of the SQA, the curriculum for excellence management board or any of the other bodies. Such analysis has been sorely lacking, despite the cabinet secretary’s assertions over the year that the governance review would address the shortcomings and issues that have been identified.
Unfortunately, although there is indeed a need for change, the problem with the reforms is that they do not assess what the issues are. They do not consider the ways in which we can address attainment issues or assess the impact of curriculum for excellence. Most important, they make no analysis of the impact of falling resource levels through funding cuts. Without that analysis, they cannot be supported, because simply reorganising will not fix any of the issues.
I congratulate Tom Mason on his first speech. Regardless of his advancing years, we will no doubt be hearing from him for years to come.
Some members will be aware that I was on the Education and Culture Committee in the previous session. I have not spoken in an education debate for some time. Some of my colleagues might say that that is an improvement, but I would like to think that there are some people out there who think that I still have something to contribute.
I am aware that a lot of great work is happening in education across Scotland, but we have to move on, look to the future and see how we can do better. There is much in the Scottish Government’s document, “Education Governance: Next Steps”, that I find quite familiar from my time on the committee. The most significant point is that education should be centred round teachers, parents and, most importantly, our children and young people. The document also notes the importance of decisions being made as locally as possible. The new statutory powers will produce a headteachers charter, which will cover choosing school staff, deciding curriculum content within the broad national framework, and directly controlling more school funding.
During my time on the Education and Culture Committee, an argument that came up constantly was that, for any system to be successful, there needs to be parental buy-in. Parents need to take an active role in the school community, and we need to encourage that. Not all parents take an active role in school life, but time and again we see the difference that that type of involvement can make to a young person’s educational attainment. However, it is important that pupils are empowered as well. That is why I welcome the Scottish Government’s plan for strengthening and enhancing parent councils, and for every school to have a teacher or professional responsible for promoting parental, family and community engagement.
Joanna Murphy, chair of the National Parent Forum of Scotland, said:
“We are extremely pleased that Mr Swinney has announced an intention to consult on amendments to the Parental Involvement Act as part of the forthcoming Education Bill; we would welcome the introduction of a bill that modernises, extends and strengthens the legislative framework on parental engagement.”
That is a very important point. I believe that we have talked about school communities, or about schools being part of our community, for far too long, but—as with a lot of other things—schools have not been quite as proactive in our communities as we would have liked. Schools need to be the centre of our communities. I believe that, by ensuring that decisions are made in the local school community and by teachers locally, we can help to promote that engagement and empower parents, teachers and young people.
As a former councillor on Renfrewshire Council and member of the council’s education committee, I know the importance of local democratic accountability. I see that the proposals still offer that accountability through our local authorities, but the regional improvement collaboratives give people the opportunity to work together, which local authorities have not been great at. We have talked about the issue for a long time, but they have not been good at sharing best practice and ensuring that we get information out there.
We need to strengthen support for teachers and share best practice, and I have supported the idea of a body that would do that for some time. During my time on the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee, and during my time on Renfrewshire Council, there was much talk of the sharing of best practice, but there have been few examples of that happening. I believe that that is where the proposal can become something exciting and transformational. By building up networks in local authorities and opening up communication between educationists, people can find out quickly who is doing what and where, and what the results have been, and they can share that best practice. Nothing in life stays still and I believe that such a structure can be a catalyst for new ideas and further strategic thinking. The fact that teachers will be supported by attainment experts and that there will be a pool of talent available for headteachers to choose from is a step in the right direction.
It is not about reinventing the wheel. There is a lot of great work happening out in our local authorities, which will continue to be the employers, providing human resources and other support services. Most important, the democratic accountability will remain with councils for the schools in their areas and for the appointment of new headteachers.
I have worked with a number of headteachers. In the Renfrewshire Council area, around four senior headteachers are leaving. David Nicholls, the headteacher of Gleniffer high school, is retiring after 40 years in teaching. When we speak of leadership and headteachers, I automatically think of people such as him. David has been involved in education so long that he was at the school when my wife, Stacey, was a pupil. Replacing such expertise can be challenging for local authorities, but, by using many of its proposed powers, the Scottish Government will encourage the right people to aspire to the role of headteacher. It is all about what can be done to change young people’s lives and giving them the tools so that they can do that. That relates to the Scottish Government’s £750 million attainment programme, which includes £120 million this year for pupil equity funding that will go direct to headteachers.
It is early days, but I think that the Scottish Government has provided us with a positive place to start looking at ways in which we can share best practice, engage with parents and ensure that our children have opportunities to achieve all they can in their school life.
I declare an interest as my daughter is a secondary school teacher, and I congratulate Tom Mason on his first speech in this chamber.
I welcome the direction of travel for school governance that John Swinney has indicated today and I recognise that it has long been championed by Liz Smith and her team on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives. It is refreshing that, every now and again, the Government takes ideas from parties around the chamber, even if the source of the inspiration for change remains officially undisclosed. Mr Swinney will be happy to know that the Scottish Conservatives magnanimously accept our part in helping the Scottish Government to shape its thinking.
The cross-party agreement is positive, but the cabinet secretary’s proposals do not go nearly as far as we would like. Perhaps we should describe the plans as being similar to the standard of a certain low-cost airline: they promise to go somewhere, but they land some distance away from the place we would expect, with onward travel still required to get to the destination we desire.
Members would be surprised if I did not take a moment to discuss the pupil equity fund and its potential uses in areas such as outdoor learning. In many ways, the fund is a reflection of the cabinet secretary’s wider reform agenda: the proposal at its core is a sound one, but it remains to be seen whether it will do what is intended. The cabinet secretary has expressed his support before in the chamber for using equity funding to support provisions such as outdoor learning and, importantly, transport costs for school trips. Several conversations with bodies such as the National Trust for Scotland and RSPB Scotland have highlighted the decline in the number of schools visiting their sites in recent years; the most common reason given is the cost of transport.
Outdoor learning, or time that is spent learning outside the classroom, can have benefits for learning inside the classroom. Physical activity leads to improved focus, and fresh air and physical fitness benefit mental health and concentration. Some people question whether that is the best use of time and funds, but those are people who see education as pupils sitting neatly in rows in a classroom all day and every day. However, how best to deploy the funds for the benefit of their charges should be a decision for teachers.
As has been expressed, the regional improvement collaboratives might add another layer of bureaucracy. There is an uncomfortable sense that the creation of the collaboratives means that schools will swap one point of central control for another, so it is important that we understand how close to the school the decision-making process will be. As is often the case with politics, it is not necessarily the policy itself but its implementation that defines its impact.
With that in mind, the proposals seem to call for Education Scotland to be both referee and player when it comes to curriculum development, as Tavish Scott mentioned. How does the cabinet secretary expect Education Scotland to be seen as an impartial auditor of the curriculum when it bears some of the responsibility for its creation?
Like Liz Smith, I will highlight Newlands junior college as an example of a greater autonomous approach and a demonstration of what can be done when new ideas and innovation are allowed into education to address a problem. I was pleased to visit the college last year to see at first hand what it is doing. It takes disenfranchised young people and helps them to find purpose and direction. Ultimately, those young people go on to positive destinations and they input positively into their communities. Nobody is suggesting that the same idea should be applied across the country, but it does not have to be—that is the beauty of offering greater autonomy. We need specific solutions to address specific local problems.
There is a need for a pragmatic approach and to do what works, instead of following the constant desire for a uniquely Scottish solution. The challenges in the Scottish education system are not unique to Scotland; other nations have experienced them and acted. We know what works but, instead of taking a big, bold leap, we are presented with a watered-down alternative. We have decaff autonomy—it has the same appearance, but not enough kick.
What our education system needs more than anything is innovation. Giving schools greater autonomy gives headteachers a greater opportunity to try new things and to tailor their approach to the particular circumstances of their pupils and staff. The world that pupils enter when they leave school continues to evolve. The curriculum for excellence appears to recognise that the range of skills that pupils need when they leave school has changed significantly, particularly in an economy where people are now considerably less likely to have the same job for the duration of their working lives.
I will conclude with a quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche:
“The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.”
We need to think differently. Every student is an individual. Teachers and headteachers need headroom and flexibility to get the best out of their pupils and ensure that youngsters have every opportunity to succeed.
I declare an interest as I am a board member of the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre. I also congratulate Tom Mason on his maiden speech in Parliament. I empathise with his comments about his dogs and his wife. I have only one dog but, as someone who has lived for 20 years with a now-retired teacher and union rep, I feel that I have a unique insight into today’s proceedings.
In the short time I have, I will concentrate on the funding issues that have been talked about this afternoon. We should remember that the “Education Governance: Fair Funding to Achieve Excellence and Equity in Education” consultation document is out at the moment, and I encourage people to contribute to it.
In his opening remarks, the cabinet secretary said that we are clear that, if we are to deliver transformational change to our education system, it must be underpinned by fair and transparent funding that puts schools at the heart of decision making. The way in which we fund schools needs to recognise the crucial role of the school and support the collaborative and flexible culture that we are seeking to develop.
We must also remember that, in 2014, the Accounts Commission published a report that suggested that it was how local authorities decided to spend their education budgets rather than the overall spending that had the most impact on attainment levels. Getting the funding to the people who are most in need is what matters.
That is what the governance review is all about. It is about school and teacher-led education with the pupil at its centre, and with the decisions about those pupils being taken by those closest to them.
In order to talk about the future and where we might go with this, I have to talk about what is happening right now in my local area. North Lanarkshire Council, a Labour administration that is being supported by the Tories, attempted to divert PEF funding from the control of their headteachers and use it to backfill some of their own education cuts. Thankfully, the Government prevented that but the result is that 198 classroom assistant posts have been lost from North Lanarkshire, which has had a devastating impact on the schools and pupils affected by the decision.
For years, we heard it said over and over again in the chamber that the council tax freeze was underfunded. I refuted that claim and, of course, in his previous role, the cabinet secretary also refuted it. When the local authorities were given the opportunity to raise the council tax by up to 3 per cent to fund such services, North Lanarkshire Council was one of those that chose not to do so.
We want headteachers to have the autonomy to determine how PEF is used to tackle difficult and persistent attainment problems, and for them to be able to focus on the key business of learning and teaching. The development of a fair, more consistent, transparent and targeted method of allocating funding would be to the benefit of all our pupils.
The Government’s document contains two options. One is a legislative, more standardised and Scotland-wide approach to allocating the maximum amount of funding directly to schools, and the second is to build on the success of the pupil equity funding approach, targeting a greater proportion of funding directly to schools and basing it on the specific needs and factors that are known to impact on performance and outcomes.
The majority of school funding will continue to be channelled through local authorities—democratic accountability will not be impacted by the proposals—which will continue to have a role in ensuring that public resources for education are properly accounted for.
I am sorry; I do not have time today.
Specifically, the new regime will be consistent and transparent.
Empowering headteachers to focus on the key business of learning and teaching is imperative. They must have the autonomy. They will be consulted on developing and moving forward—the headteachers charter will be developed in consultation with headteachers—and they will be able to benefit from regional support and collaboration to make sure that throughout Scotland, all our headteachers have support and advice to ensure excellence in curriculum, learning, teaching and assessment.
We move to the closing speeches. I am disappointed to note that not all members who have spoken in the debate are present for the beginning of the closing speeches.
I do not entirely blame them, Presiding Officer.
I congratulate Tom Mason on his first speech in the Scottish Parliament—he is not here, but there we are—and his very kind words, which those of us who knew Alex Johnstone for a long time will entirely relate to.
Given that we are trying to have a debate about young people, I would like to mention 17-year-old Seumas Mackay who, last night, won the 800m at the island games. I mention it because he beat an athlete whom Brian Whittle used to coach.
I could not resist that.
Even worse, Liam McArthur was there to watch it rather than me.
This is an important debate for two reasons. First, Liz Smith, Iain Gray, Daniel Johnson and many others across Parliament have recognised that there is merit in the proposals that the cabinet secretary and the Government are making—as do I. However, although many of us accept that there is some merit, there are also concerns, which are principally based on the evidence heard by the Education and Skills Committee over the previous year. I hope that Mr Swinney will accept that many members are being entirely consistent in the points that we made about those concerns, particularly in relation to Education Scotland. That is the basis of the questions that we are asking the Government today. As Johann Lamont is right to say, do not shoot the messenger, but at least recognise the concerns that have been raised over some time.
There are significant challenges for Scottish education. Members of all political persuasions have set those out. I am sure that the Government accepts—perhaps privately—the teacher vacancies situation, the need for more classroom assistants, the pressure on additional support needs, the financial pressures on classrooms and the attractiveness of the teaching profession to undergraduates and to people thinking of changing profession. Those are all really significant issues that need to be constantly worked on, which is why I made the point about the national improvement plan and the importance of Parliament regularly keeping on top of what is happening.
Jenny Gilruth was right and many members will agree about the importance of visiting schools—in my view, the best part of the job—and listening carefully to classroom teachers, subject teachers and headteachers. I am sure that I am not the only member to note that those teachers have consistently said that implementing curriculum for excellence, the change to the exam structure and the workload pressures are the three aspects of education and their jobs that have come at them so significantly and consistently over the past year. That is why many of us have sought to make the point about being realistic about the challenge that Scottish education faces.
I want to be clear about my support for the direction of travel and for schools being at the heart of any reforms, and the importance of the right support around schools to allow that to happen. Many of us have made the case for school clusters and that structure, which can and does work very effectively.
Gillian Martin made the point about the northern alliance and its role. She was right in her argument. My point to the cabinet secretary in that context—we will debate this issue in the autumn when Parliament resumes and after he has given us further clarity—is that his proposals, if I read them correctly, are for a mandatory regional structure and a mandatory responsibility on local government to collaborate in those regional structures, yet the northern alliance appears to be a structure that is working very effectively without any need to make it mandatory. As Johann Lamont has put it and as others have said in committee, there needs to be evidence to back up the suggestion that not all is working effectively in different parts of Scotland. The evidence might be there; it is for the cabinet secretary to lay it out to the Education and Skills Committee and the Parliament.
I want to reflect on the case for reform of Education Scotland. Bob Doris rightly said that those of us who argue for reform need to set out our proposals, which is entirely fair. I have believed for many months that Education Scotland is a conflicted organisation, given the two quite distinct roles and responsibilities it has. It was difficult for Bill Maxwell, the previous chief executive, to come along to the committee and to hold together that inherent contradiction. I hope that his successor—whoever Mr Swinney appoints in the fullness of time—will not have to do the same. That is why many of us have made the case for sensible and constructive reform, which is about supporting schools, rather than leaving in place a situation that I do not believe provides the right form of challenge to bring about the improvement that we are all demonstrably in favour of achieving.
James Dornan, in his capacity as convener of the Education and Skills Committee, made a strong argument about teachers responding to the proposals and speaking to the committee. That has had merit in the past and I believe it has strong merit in the context of reviewing the proposals.
Brian Whittle said of the reforms that it is not just the policy but the implementation that matters. That indeed will be the test of what is being proposed.
As others have done, I congratulate Tom Mason on having made his first speech in the chamber. The sense of privilege in being here and having the opportunity to make speeches has certainly not worn off for me after more than a year in the job.
The Greens are open to working with the Government to improve Scottish education, even though we believe that the proposals are fundamentally misguided. Although we oppose the general direction of the reforms, I will highlight some areas where we can work with the Government—or where, at least, we believe we can do so.
Initial teacher education needs to improve and to become more consistent, in particular in areas such as equipping teachers to support pupils with additional support needs. I do not underestimate how difficult it will be to do that while respecting the independence of our universities, but I look forward to seeing what the Scottish Government proposes.
I agree that routes for career development need to be improved. I regularly hear feedback from teachers who wish to progress their careers without making an immediate leap into management, as Jenny Gilruth highlighted.
Members will be aware of my particular insistence that support for pupils with additional support needs has to improve significantly. As our understanding of additional support needs has developed, so has our ability to identify pupils who need extra support. We now recognise that one in four Scottish pupils has an additional support need, although there is a range—from very low levels of support being needed for pupils with mild dyslexia, to high levels of support being needed for pupils with more significant learning disabilities or physical disabilities.
The nationwide figure is one in four, but the figure varies considerably from one local authority to another. The figure is less than one in 10 in South Ayrshire and more than one in three in the Highlands, and the variation is too high to be natural. It has also become clear that there must be enhanced quality-assurance procedures for provision of additional support needs. When considering the enhanced role for Education Scotland—or, preferably, for a distinct inspectorate—thought must be given to whether and how support for additional needs is being provided, and how inspections can properly assess that to ensure that there is not a postcode lottery for proper support.
Even if those issues are addressed, that will not tackle the most pressing challenges for Scottish education, which are, as the Government’s consultation responses summary notes, budget cuts and staff-related issues including workload.
The Government now faces the result of 10 years of budget cuts. We could spend—and have spent—more than one afternoon debating where the cuts came from and whether they are fair, but I would rather look to what we can do now. We have the tax-raising and financial powers to put money back into education. It is a matter of political choice if we do not use them and instead see a growing number of cuts in teachers and support staff.
The Greens will support the Labour amendment—especially given the point that it makes about restoring budgets and staff numbers. Bob Doris asked which reforms the Greens would support. We support an evidence-led approach and we simply do not see the evidence for wholesale structural reforms—it is certainly not in the Government’s documents. However, one reform that we would support is the ending of Education Scotland’s inherent conflict of interests, through the creation of a separate independent inspectorate. We will therefore support the Liberal Democrat amendment.
Does Ross Greer support the proposal on who makes final decisions on employing teachers? Headteachers can be restricted in respect of whether they can award permanent contracts in that they have sometimes to accept surplus teachers from elsewhere in the local authority area, rather than make positive and proactive choices by appointing teachers themselves. Would Mr Greer consider movement on that?
We have significant concerns about the proposal to move employment responsibility to headteachers. I have lodged a number of written questions on that and would like to come back to it in a future debate, once I have had answers to those questions. At this point, we are not minded to support the proposal.
Members may recall that the last time he brought it to the chamber we did not support Tavish Scott’s proposal to separate the roles of Education Scotland, but we did pledge to consider the suggestion seriously. We have done that now, and we believe that the argument has merit.
Gillian Martin mentioned the Green amendment and refuted our suggestion that the proposals will take power away from councils. Councils strongly disagree—and they are right. We cannot pretend that moving powers down to overburdened headteachers and up to unaccountable regional structures will leave councils with the same responsibilities as they had before. They will have significantly less power and responsibility, but they are the democratically accountable bodies. A particular concern that has been raised with me is the priority that will be given to Gaelic-medium education, if local government is to have a weakened role. I hope that the Scottish Government will take that on board.
The problem in the process so far has been that the Scottish Government has not taken on board concerns and feedback. Jenny Gilruth rightly asked us to go out and speak to teachers, but teachers have spoken—quite clearly—directly to the Government throughout the consultation. The Government’s documents note the overwhelming opposition to the proposals, but it will carry on regardless.
The Scottish Government cannot claim that it does not know what the problems are. From the consultation, from multiple reports from the Education and Skills Committee and from work that has been undertaken by teaching unions and others, the problems of budget cuts, staff reductions and workload are clear. We can fix them, but the proposals do not aim to do so. They will instead take us in a direction of travel with which the Conservatives may be comfortable, but too many people who have significant stakes in education—teachers, parents, pupils, educationists and professional bodies—are simply not comfortable with it. Neither are we. The Scottish Government needs to think again if it is serious about improving Scottish education and not simply centralising its control over it.
The Greens will oppose the Government’s motion.
In his opening remarks, Mr Swinney said that he wants a world-class education system. Who would disagree? We have heard today that there is consensus around the need for change in order to improve standards in the education system, and to give our young learners the opportunities that they deserve. Things cannot go on as they are.
In moving the amendment in his name, lain Gray explained why Scottish Labour believes that the status quo just will not do. We fundamentally disagree with the cabinet secretary’s diagnosis and prescription. Unlike the Tories, we will not support the Scottish Government motion, and we will certainly not support the Tory amendment.
The cabinet secretary’s consultation was a golden opportunity to listen with an open mind to what people who are working in our school communities have to say, and to develop a reform package that is based on what they know will work, rather than on what will not.
When my daughter—who, unlike Jenny Gilruth, is not a fan of homework and who, like the cabinet secretary, would like to make it go away—was at nursery school, the early years teacher used to encourage the class to put their “listening ears” on. That is a lesson that would have served the Scottish Government well. If the responses to the consultation had been properly listened to, we would be having a very different debate today.
Ross Greer made the points very well that the reforms have clearly been opposed and that there is no evidence to back up the plan on which the cabinet secretary has settled. Simply moving the existing education resource around without delivering the urgent investment that is required to support learning in the classroom will contribute nothing to closing the attainment gap.
We heard from Alex Rowley about the impact of cuts. The pupil equity fund has been much welcomed, but it amounts only to spin if there is no honesty about the deep cuts that have already been enforced. Nothing in the proposals directly addresses the key concerns that were raised in the consultation process: staffing issues and budget cuts are the key barriers to educational improvement.
Despite the spin, the focus of the reforms is structural and centralising. The creation of an overarching education council that is directly answerable to the Government, with regional directors being appointed by the cabinet secretary, will lead only to removal of local accountability and to more bureaucracy, which is the exact opposite of what is intended. Therefore, the cabinet secretary should stop, listen and reset his plans.
The Government has had a decade in power: it has had 10 privileged years to look after the education of our children and to give them the best possible start, but in those 10 years we have seen falling education budgets and falling attainment. That begs the question: where are the progressive SNP voices? Who in the SNP is speaking out about the underlying issue of inadequate resources? Who in the SNP is prepared to admit that imposing unnecessary bureaucratic reform will not raise standards or close the attainment gap? Our children will—again—continue to pay the price.
The facts speak for themselves. There are 4,000 fewer teachers, 1,000 fewer support staff and even bigger class sizes than was the case when the Government came to power. Spending per pupil across all ages is down since 2012.
Mr Dornan had an opportunity earlier, when he used the privilege of his position as convener of the Education and Skills Committee to make a speech, to be honest about the debate that we are having. He switches between his hats incredibly neatly.
What we need to close the attainment gap is urgent investment in our classrooms and our schools. I think that Mr Dornan would agree with that, if he was prepared to be honest. That is how we will deliver high-quality pupil-centred learning. We need more teaching staff.
The reforms largely appear to offer nothing more than a bureaucratic top-down restructuring of the system, which will have little effect on helping our teachers to do their job on the ground. Daniel Johnson made an excellent point: where is the analysis of the impact of falling resources? With not a single extra teacher or a single extra penny being promised to deliver the reforms, it is difficult to see how the system-based reforms will remedy the problems of resources, teacher numbers and teacher time.
We welcome from the reforms the opportunity for enhanced career development opportunities for teachers, the delivery of the pupil equity fund and the emphasis on parental involvement by enhancing family learning, and the role of home-school link workers. I have previously asked the cabinet secretary in the chamber for more information on how many home-school link workers will be recruited. Any update that he can provide would be appreciated.
The reforms offer significant new powers for headteachers, but we need clarity on the scope and scale of the new powers, as the headteacher charter progresses.
Without clear guidelines on accountability and responsibility for providing human resources support, the changes—I hope that Mr Dornan is listening—will place even more risk and burden on our teachers, rather than reducing them. There are a number of former teachers in the chamber who should be alive to those risks.
Additionally, any procurement—
Finally, Presiding Officer, we have entered into this discussion about how to reform our education system because we all want to tackle the attainment gap. We are seeing, in black and white, that the responses to the Government’s consultation have largely been ignored.
Way back in March 2013, the commission on school reform published a detailed document “By diverse means: improving Scottish education.” Headed by Keir Bloomer and consisting of cross-party representation—I was the Conservative rep—as well as experts who had no party baggage, it was a serious attempt to suggest ways in which we could improve Scotland’s educational performance. Nothing has happened since to do that; we have got worse.
Our paper started with two quotations. The first, from the French philosopher Montaigne, was:
“By diverse means we arrive at the same end.”
The second, from General George S Patton, was:
“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”
In other words, we should trust people to do a job and allow them to do it in different ways. It was clear then and it is clear now that the education system in Scotland is too uniform. That might not be the case for Labour, whose position in the debate has been unclear; it is even more unclear following Monica Lennon’s speech.
That excessive uniformity is why the Scottish Conservatives have been arguing for years that we need greater diversity in the system and that we need properly to empower headteachers. On that point, it is good to see that the SNP has finally arrived at the table—it is talking about autonomy, leaving teachers free to teach and involving parents more—but, of course, the devil is always in the detail. When we look at the detail, things start to unravel.
The background, as Liz Smith, John Swinney and Colin Beattie have all said, is that our educational performance is in the “See me after school” category. Our standing internationally has declined since the SNP came to power. That was highlighted by last year’s PISA scores, which Liz Smith recounted. We learned only at the weekend that more than half of school leavers last year did not have a maths qualification at national 5 or above. If education really was the SNP Government’s top priority, we would not be in this position.
The commission on school reform argued that future improvement would be achieved only by promoting increased variety in the system, and that the way to achieve that would be to increase the autonomy of schools. But what is autonomy? John Swinney uses the word, but I wonder whether he understands it or wants it. “Autonomy” is
“freedom from external control or influence”,
or the right of an organisation to govern itself. That would mean, for example, schools being able to commission services from whomever they chose. That would be genuine autonomy.
Is that what John Swinney is proposing? The answer is no. If someone wanted to design a system that was more bureaucratic and centralised than the one that we have now, they would have to look no further than the cabinet secretary’s blueprint. If John Swinney was a localism proponent, he would be saying to the parents of pupils at St Joseph’s primary in Milngavie that they were free, if they wanted to do so, to make their school autonomous from state control, but he is not. He would not be setting up an extra layer of governance—the regional improvement collaboratives—which will be reportable and accountable not to locally elected members, but to him.
When I suggested to Mr Swinney in the chamber recently that that might be the arrangement, he denied it, but the evidence is in his own paper. In describing how the giant new bodies will be run, it says that they will be
“led by a Regional Director, to be appointed by the Scottish Government and provide a direct line of accountability for the performance of the regional improvement collaboratives to Ministers.”
So there we have it—John Swinney will appoint the regional directors and they will be answerable to him. Any pretence that the new structure is about empowering anyone other than John Swinney is—despite his earlier protestations—a smokescreen. Our children’s education is in the hands of Mr Swinney; woe betide anyone who steps out of line.
What will the new bodies—of which there will be up to seven—actually do? They will provide educational improvement support and produce an annual regional plan and an associated work programme. Councils will have to meet a new legislative duty to collaborate on certain functions.
What is left for local government in all this? It is being stripped of powers. Councils will be left with a few admin functions and HR. What is the point of having education committees any more or, as Jeremy Balfour said, education directors? There is no point.
Daniel Johnson, who wanted to intervene on me, rightly mentioned the loss of local accountability. He is entirely right: John Swinney talks about empowering headteachers, for which the Scottish Conservatives have been calling for years. The generous Mr Swinney is going to allow them to choose their staff, to decide on curriculum content—which they can do anyway—and to have control over more, although not all, of their funding.
However, just in case anyone has any ideas above their station, Mr Swinney warns darkly in the same paper that
“The freedom for headteachers to choose the staffing mix and management structure within their schools could have implications for the national pupil-teacher ratio.”
That suggests to me that heads cannot decide on staffing numbers. That is not true autonomy—although Gillian Martin seems to think otherwise.
John Swinney wants to create a system in which schools will be answerable to two bodies and, ultimately, to him. He is stripping councils of powers and going down a regionalisation route; indeed, we can be certain that this is the route that the SNP wants to go down with council services, full stop. We need more autonomy and choice in schools, but this approach is not that. I hope that John Swinney is really prepared to listen to the many voices in the chamber.
I extend words of welcome to Tom Mason on his introduction to and first speech in Parliament, and I wish him well in the task to which he has committed himself of representing constituents in the north-east of Scotland. I also very much associate myself with his kind words about Alex Johnstone, a parliamentary colleague who displayed all the attributes of a fine parliamentarian in working with members across the political spectrum and who is dearly missed by all of us in Parliament.
Since I became the education secretary, 12 months ago, the one thing that has been crystal clear to me is that there is a diversity of opinion about what to do in education, and that diversity has been on display this afternoon. [
.] That was not meant to be a funny remark, although I appreciate my natural hilarity in the chamber; it is a statement of the reality of the debate that there is no true holy grail of what is absolutely the right thing to do. That is why I said in my opening remarks that the Government is interested in working with others to address the issues contained in the governance review.
I gently point out to the Conservatives that there is a bit of a natural contradiction between some of the arguments that Graham Simpson and Jeremy Balfour marshalled and those that were marshalled by Brian Whittle and Liz Smith. Brian Whittle and Liz Smith argued strongly for giving ever more power to headteachers—indeed, much more power than is envisaged under the review. Naturally, that power would have to come from somewhere, and that would be local authorities. On the other hand, Graham Simpson and Jeremy Balfour argued for the preservation of local authority power and responsibility. I am all for diversity of opinion, but I point out to Parliament that reconciling what has been argued by the Conservative Party front bench would be a bit of a challenge even for me.
I can clarify for Mr Swinney that we are saying that the creation of these new regional bodies amounts to greater centralisation, not autonomy. Headteachers will be answerable to regional bodies, not locally accountable elected members.
I will talk about the regional collaboratives in a second.
The accusation—or, I should say, the inference—that has been made is that I do not listen to teachers or members of the teaching profession. However, I want to make it clear to Parliament that, on my frequent visits to schools around the country, I spend a significant amount of time speaking privately to and listening to teachers, headteachers and members of the profession, and many of the issues that teachers have raised with me are the reasons for the proposals that are before Parliament today.
Despite all the differences of opinion, there is a lot of agreement in the chamber, and one area of agreement relates to the Government’s commitment to empowering teachers and headteachers and putting schools at the heart of the reforms. Those sentiments have been expressed powerfully to me by teachers.
We had that discussion before, when the Education and Skills Committee gathered evidence from teachers. The cabinet secretary dismissed that evidence and said that he had spoken to teachers and that they agreed with him. The Government’s own formal consultation process now disagrees with him, but he posits to us the idea that all the teachers whom he speaks to on his visits support what he is doing. Can he not see that that is not a valid way to govern?
People cannot accuse me of not listening to teachers and at the same time accuse me of listening to teachers, which is precisely what I am doing in the process.
Let us turn to some other areas of agreement, including the issues around regional collaboratives. Iain Gray said that he can see merit in the regional collaboratives providing educational improvement services. That is their purpose. Johann Lamont made the case—I think that I heard her correctly; if I misrepresent what she said, she can correct me—for requiring collaboration between local authorities. That point was made powerfully by George Adam, who said that local authorities have not been good at sharing best practice. The northern alliance, which Mr Scott talked about, is a voluntary collaboration that I welcome, but it is the only effective collaboration in the country.
I receive advice, as Parliament does, from Education Scotland and the Accounts Commission, both of which have highlighted weaknesses in educational improvement services that are offered at the local authority level. The regional collaboratives are an attempt by me to address those issues and ensure that every school in the country, no matter where it is, has access to regional improvement services.
I do not accept the characterisation that there is no collaboration. In fact, I go back far enough to remember the regional councils, where there were good examples of liberation at the local level and work across councils. We have a problem because of the fragmented nature of local authorities.
My point is that the model that the cabinet secretary has produced is highly bureaucratic. It hurts the brain even to read about what it does. We should be working to people’s best instincts to work together, and there is already a lot of good practice.
I agree with the sentiments that underlie Johann Lamont’s intervention. I want to see liberation at the local level in schools, but I also want to see collaboration on best practice across a wider canvas. That does not currently exist in sufficient abundance or sufficient depth. That is not just my opinion; it is the assessment of Education Scotland and the Accounts Commission.
It is clear that there is agreement today on parental involvement—the National Parent Forum of Scotland has warmly welcomed our proposals on that—and on career progression pathways. I take from the debate that there is substantial agreement on the details, but I accept that there are issues to be addressed relating to regional collaboratives and the role of Education Scotland—particularly those issues that are raised in Tavish Scott’s amendment. That is why I set out in my opening remarks that we will not have top-down regional collaboration or shift power towards ministers. That is not what we want.
That will remain a key responsibility of local authorities as part of the process. We set out in “Education Governance: Next Steps” the important role that we expect local authorities to take in strengthening and developing those aspects of educational practice.
I made the point that we will not have top-down regional collaboration.
If Mr Gray will forgive me, I must draw my remarks to a close.
I also clarified that education policy will be the responsibility of the Scottish Government. The Scottish Government owns the responsibility for education policy. That responsibility is not owned by Education Scotland; it is owned by me as the responsible cabinet secretary. I have no problem with Tavish Scott’s amendment, because we will satisfactorily address those issues.
I am sorry that I could not take an intervention from Mr Gray. He accused me of wanting to run schools from St Andrew’s house and of not trusting teachers. I put on the record that I have no desire to run schools from St Andrew’s house and that I have every desire to trust teachers. That is why I am bringing forward proposals to empower teachers and the teaching profession.
I want to see an active, all-systems approach to improving the capacity and capability of Scottish education for one important purpose: to transform the life chances of every young person in our country. That is at the heart of the proposals that we have brought forward, and that is why the Government will talk to interested parties about how we can advance from the level of agreement in Parliament today in order to take forward and implement those reforms.