Let's join the Middle Ages

31st January 2014 at 00:00

Quite understandably, much New Year forecasting has centred on high-profile events in Scotland such as the referendum, new National qualifications, the Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup.

There is much to look forward to. But perhaps there's a need to look beyond this to the effects of the continuing financial restraints on education, and ask questions about the consequences for the role of education authorities in Scotland.

Scottish education has yet to face the worst excesses of the coalition government's austerity measures, but it seems likely that local authorities will be forced to make large cuts in 2014-18.

Hard decisions on education are yet to be made, but there's been little sign of the shared-service approaches that can result in efficiency and improved outcomes. Will we see long-term strategic decisions? Or the short-term salami slicing of budgets that results in postcode lotteries for learners?

The largest of the local government services are being squeezed, so will we still see money prioritised for local sacred cows and pet projects that nod to council electability?

It will be fascinating to see how many cuts take place in the worlds of chief executives and finance support. Why not have one payroll service for Scottish teachers? Why have 32 separate IT services and personnel services?

It is disappointing that these things have not changed - every pound saved could be used to support front-line services. We should take a hard look at the whole idea of the function of education authorities.

Decisions taken by some councils suggest a lack of priority for certain aspects of education and have led to the realisation that there is perhaps a more efficient way of supporting schools through a new "middle tier". Getting this tier right is critical in most progressive education systems.

In Scotland, some councils are so thinly staffed that 32 effective middle tiers is an impossibility. The role of director has changed hugely since unitary authorities were introduced, and perhaps because it is not statutorily required on councils, the position in some cases is either disappearing or downgraded. There is also a worrying lack of specialist knowledge in some quarters.

A Scottish Parliament, a Scottish government, a large Scottish public education service (with local and national responsibilities, complexities of role, responsibility and priority) - it all points to a rethink. Even in the best of financial times, we are too small a country to maintain the status quo, and we should be encouraging diversity of approach, particularly to address underachievement among the socially disadvantaged.

We are anticipating a year full of hopes, victories and disappointment - Scottish education should also prepare for a debate on the role and nature of the education authority, and the "middle tier" we need.

Bruce Robertson is education policy adviser at the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland.

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