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Education Reforms

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 25th June 2019.

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Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Presiding Officer, the relentless focus of this Government is to deliver an education system in Scotland that raises attainment for all, closes the attainment gap and enables all children and young people to fulfil their potential.

During my statement to Parliament on 26 June last year, I set out our landmark agreement with Scotland’s local councils, which provided a clear and shared agenda for the empowerment of schools, instead of introducing legislation. At that time, I undertook to return to Parliament with my assessment of whether sufficient progress on our shared ambition had been made to satisfy me that the non-legislative route was the right one. Therefore, I am grateful for this opportunity to provide Parliament with an update on the progress around school empowerment and our related programme of education reform. My statement this afternoon is accompanied by a publication that provides additional detail on work in this area.

International evidence demonstrates that successful education systems are those in which decisions about the education of our children are made as close to them as possible. That is why we are committed to empowering schools to empower headteachers, teachers, parents, pupils and the wider school community to make the key decisions that affect the educational outcomes for children and young people. With our partners in local government, professional associations and other stakeholders, we are taking steps to

“put teachers, parents and communities in the driving seat”.

Together, we are building a school and teacher-led education system.

A crucial element of this Government’s agenda has been recognition of the importance of excellent school leadership and, in turn, the empowering of headteachers to more effectively lead our schools. Published in February, the headteachers charter aims to ensure that schools have wide-ranging decision-making powers over what matters—learning, teaching and the curriculum, their resources, staffing and budgets—and that they make those decisions by involving their whole school community. That delivers on the policy intention that was originally part of the draft Education (Scotland) Bill. The charter supports a culture of empowerment that enables all professionals to contribute to the agenda of improvement.

The charter, in combination with linked school leaders guidance, is now being used by schools and—crucially—has been co-produced. I am grateful for the shared work that led to the production of the charter, and I am particularly pleased at the pace with which it has been delivered. I am also pleased to be able to report that, today, we have published updated devolved school management guidelines. The new guidance, too, has been developed in partnership with local government, to improve on existing advice and—crucially—to reflect the expectations and opportunities of an empowered school system, including the headteachers charter.

The Scottish attainment challenge and pupil equity funding have empowered schools by allowing them to design solutions and take decisions that are specific to their school community. It is important that we now capitalise on that and deliver broader budgetary decision making to our schools.

I have committed to providing high-quality support for school leaders, many of whom are beginning to operate in an increasingly empowered environment. With that in mind, I am pleased that, last month, Education Scotland expanded the support that it provides for headteachers and will now provide a range of professional learning opportunities that are specifically focused on school empowerment. That, in combination with our investment in the Columba 1400 headteacher leadership academies, with the Hunter Foundation, will provide school leaders with the skills and confidence to flourish and deliver improved outcomes for the communities that they serve.

We are deepening the support that is available to schools, through regional improvement collaboratives. Through enhanced engagement and support across local government, which is supported by additional Scottish Government funding of around £5 million this school year and focused support from Education Scotland, the regional improvement collaboratives have significantly enhanced their capacity to support collaborative working across the system and deliver region-wide approaches to improving outcomes for our children and young people. That is evidenced by the delivery of the September 2018 regional improvement plans, increased engagement with and support of the teachers networks across each region, and focused regional interventions on attainment, curriculum development, leadership development and quality improvement.

An interim review of the establishment of the regional improvement collaboratives, which was published in February, recognised the significant early progress that has been made in establishing local governance, leadership and buy-in across each regional improvement collaborative area. We will commission a further review later this year, again in partnership with local government, to assess development and impact.

We are committed to ensuring that pupils and parents are provided with the opportunity to influence decisions that relate to their school. That is more important than ever in an increasingly empowered school system. In July 2018, we developed a comprehensive plan, in conjunction with local government, to improve parental involvement and engagement: “‘Learning together’: Scotland’s national action plan on parental involvement, parental engagement, family learning and learning at home 2018-2021”. The plan demonstrates our long-term commitment to putting parents at the heart of their children’s learning and reflects the importance that we place on parental engagement in a range of Scottish Government education policies and initiatives.

Learners in our schools rightly expect their voices to be heard and valued. The headteachers charter places a central expectation on headteachers—and, through that, to the wider empowered system—to support and encourage children and young people to participate in decisions about their own learning and the life of the learning community. In April 2018, in advance of the school empowerment reforms, Education Scotland published practical guidance to schools. We will continue to promote that guidance and support to schools, so that they can better support learner participation.

It is important that the work to take forward the joint agreement is placed in the context of wider education reforms. In particular, I was pleased to note last month’s publication of the report of the independent panel on career pathways for teachers. It is an exciting report, which will generate new and ambitious career pathways for teachers and increase the attractiveness of the profession. I expect the Scottish negotiating committee for teachers to put in place the conditions for new pathways by August 2021.

It is also important that we recognise and support a wider range of practitioners who work with our children and young people. We decided against the creation of a broader education workforce council, but we are working with local authorities to enhance the support that is offered to a wide range of education practitioners, including college lecturers, instrumental music instructors, school librarians and home-school link workers.

It is vital that we understand the impact of our endeavours in empowering Scottish schools. We need to know where change is having a positive effect and where greater focus might be required. The early evidence that is available provides me with cautious optimism that the types of empowered practice that I expect to see are now becoming more common.

Education Scotland has previously published thematic inspections on readiness for empowerment and on curriculum leadership, and it has today published the findings of a further inspection on parent and pupil participation. While making it clear that we are only part of the way through this journey, the reports indicate that local authorities are taking positive steps to embrace the principles of empowerment as set out in the joint agreement and that the education system is committed to collaboration and co-production.

The readiness for empowerment review, which was published in December 2018, noted that

“almost all local authorities are committed to developing an empowered education system with the aim of improving outcomes for learners, reducing inequalities and closing the attainment gap.”

It is important that we all take responsibility for the change process, and I am pleased that three local authorities are trialling a self-evaluation framework. I am also pleased that an overarching evaluation strategy is being developed that will bring together all available evidence on empowerment in our schools, which will help us to monitor progress.

Equally important is the assurance that I have received jointly from Her Majesty’s chief inspector of education, as chair of the joint agreement steering group, that partners remain firmly engaged in and committed to the work. That has highlighted to me and to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities that real progress has been made and that the practice of empowerment and school-based decision making is becoming increasingly evident in our schools.

The chief inspector has stressed to me the importance and the value of the collaborative approach that we are taking with local government and other partners in the delivery of the reforms. She believes that progress has been made sooner than would have been the case through legislation and reassures me of the continued commitment of all partners to work together in supporting the delivery of an empowered system that improves outcomes for children and young people. That includes a clear objective of promoting and building on the work that has been done to date, developing further guidance and engaging with the wider system—with schools, teachers and others who are involved in children’s learning.

Although I am heartened by those positive messages, I am under no illusion that we remain at a relatively early stage in our efforts to change the culture of school education in Scotland. The joint agreement and the recently agreed teachers’ pay deal provide us with the stability that is required for real and long-term system change to take place, but we must maintain our collective focus and ensure that meaningful improvements are delivered.

When I last addressed members on the issue, in June 2018, I made it clear that, if sufficient progress had not been made in the forthcoming 12 months, I would return to Parliament and introduce an education bill. This afternoon, I have set out my view that progress is being made in a genuinely collaborative spirit and that a culture that is based around empowerment is starting to take root in our schools. It is clear to me that we would not have come so far in such a short period if we had relied on introducing an education bill. I am also assured that the Government’s long-term vision of a school-led education system is shared by our partners in local government. The chief inspector has further endorsed and recommended to me the continuation of our partnership approach.

Given all of that, I am able to confirm that the Scottish Government will not introduce an education bill as a means of driving school empowerment. Instead, we will continue to work in partnership with local government, teacher representatives and the wider education sector, and we will collectively ensure that schools are supported to take the key decisions that are relevant to them. I am optimistic that our collaborative approach, through which we share a view of empowerment and collectively take responsibility for change, will result in improved outcomes for Scotland’s children and young people.

Achieving excellence and equity for all of our children and young people is the core purpose of this Government, and these reforms are central to that work. Given the importance of this agenda, I would be pleased to return to Parliament in a year’s time once again to provide an update on this vital work.