Expert advisors have warned that giving schools more power risks opening the door to market-driven approaches that would damage education in Scotland.
They have also said that the Scottish government should avoid an over-reliance on legislation to drive educational reform – in a report published just two hours before education secretary was due to make a major announcement on the country’s long-awaited Education Bill.
The International Council of Education Advisors (ICEA) – including internationally well-known figures in education such as Alma Harris, Andy Hargreaves and Pasi Sahlberg, and others such as Virgin Money chief executive Jayne-Anne Gadhia – was formed by the government in 2016.
In the advisors’ first formal report, they warn that a key plank of planned education reforms – devolving more power to schools over issues such as curriculum, staffing and finance – could have harmful effects if “individualism begins to grow within the Scottish system”.
It adds: “This is a particular concern if the empowering-schools agenda does not have the appropriate checks and balances in place to monitor quality effectively and to manage markets.”
The advisors caution that “it is important that the system is not seduced by some of the perceived advantages of other systems, or borrows strategies that would not sit easily with the core values and beliefs that underpin the Scottish education system and wider civic society”.
They point to the example of England, where “the market is a key driver, and quasi-independent public service organisations funded by the state tend to lead the way”, as seen in the academies programme, and to other countries where free schools and charter schools are prominent.
The ICEA wants the government to “consider the implementation of its reform programme so far, and to keep any legislative interventions to a minimum” – advice that the education secretary is expected to heed when he makes a statement in the Scottish Parliament at 2.20pm today. The advisors say that progress in Scottish education is rooted in a “collaborative approach” across the system, “rather than [by] pursuing a legislative approach”.
The advisors say “it is important that the system does not inadvertently erode some of the considerable strengths of the Scottish education system”. They warn that mandated reforms “might further undermine confidence and trust across the system” and “exacerbate the sense of nostalgia or loss across the system and create further resistance to change”.
They praise Scottish education for its “dual focus on excellence and equity”, and see “encouraging evidence that outcomes for young people are
improving year on year”, although they add: “There remains, however, a significant challenge to raise the overall level of performance for all young people.”
The advisors say that “the Scottish education system is very good, with many strengths, not least in the quality and commitment of its teachers, but it has the potential to be even better”.
Education secretary John Swinney said: “We will now consider the recommendations in the report in full, using them to inform our National Improvement Plan, as we continue our ambitious journey of empowerment and devolution to drive improvement in Scottish education.”
The University of Glasgow's Professor Chris Chapman, speaking on behalf of the ICEA, said that the establishment of Regional Improvement Collaboratives – designed to help teachers and other education professionals work more closely across local authority borders – “provides the mechanism to embed and extend collaborative improvement across Scotland, adding: “The coherence and cohesion of these efforts offers a once in a generation opportunity to transform Scottish education.”