Landmark reforms or the Great Governance Guddle? You decide

23rd June 2017 at 00:00
The latest education reforms may look familiar, but if change is always cyclical, education’s fundamental problem remains a constant: the attainment gap between rich and poor

Last week, the Scottish government revealed its long-awaited “sweeping reforms” for how education is to be run, widely described as the most significant changes in several decades. But was it really just the Great Governance Guddle?

There were few surprises. The renewed strength of Education Scotland, including the decision that it should absorb the Scottish College for Educational Leadership, may have confounded critics who wanted a split of its inspection and curriculum-development roles. But it fits education secretary John Swinney’s narrative about consolidating areas of expertise: the sharing of endeavour across local authority boundaries through “regional boards”, now rebranded as “regional improvement collaboratives”, was flagged up from the start of the governance review.

The SNP has habitually taken a pragmatic approach to government that eschews radical and rigidly ideological reforms. It’s an approach that echoes New Labour – foreign policy aside – with its centrist attempt to keep everyone (sort of) happy. And, in one sense, it worked a treat in political terms last week, by neutering parliamentary opposition over education governance: Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith welcomed the devolution of more power to headteachers while expressing mild regret that the reform did not go further; her Labour counterpart, Iain Gray, rather than launching into attack mode, welcomed Swinney’s refusal to let schools opt out of local authority control.

Questions remain, however. How big a deal, for example, is the imminent establishment of six or seven regional entities from Scotland’s 32 local authorities? Swinney sees this as a common-sense move to pool expertise and get schools working together across artificial council boundaries, as has already happened with the Northern Alliance. It could, however, also hand government more power: six sheep are easier to herd into a pen than 32.

As so often happens with supposedly landmark reform, those who have been around long enough have seen it all before. Certainly, the regional collaboratives sound uncannily like the old system of regional advisers that existed before Scotland was carved into 32 council areas in 1996.

If education reform is cyclical, education’s fundamental problem has remained a constant: the attainment gap between rich and poor.

Last week, the University of Stirling hosted the European Conference on Curriculum Studies. Opening keynote speaker Lyn Yates, of the University of Melbourne, criticised policymakers’ tendency to see schools as the solution to every problem. In reality, she said, school “can do some things, but it can’t suddenly produce a different world”. Notwithstanding an argument made to me by John Swinney immediately after Professor Yates’ speech – that education’s influence can be understated and that it is often at the vanguard of great social reform – her point is crucial.

Social inequality in the UK is greater than in most developed countries, and the Grenfell Tower disaster in London last week was a searing reminder that the poor are still routinely treated with indifference, or even callousness, by those in power. As long as that remains true, education will forever be blighted by attainment gaps.

The UK and Scotland are in limbo, as the Brexit and independence questions are likely to rumble on and dominate policymakers’ thinking for years. The galumphing elephant in the room is that whatever education reforms emerge from Holyrood or Westminster in the meantime, young people’s success will depend largely on the social impact, for better or worse, of constitutional futures that remain unknown.

Education governance is a bandage; social justice is life-changing surgery. One of these days, we need to work out how it’s done.

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