Nods and winks to 'head power'

3rd December 2010 at 00:00

He's a crafty politician is Mike Russell.

After nods and winks about loosening up the delivery of education, after attending a multitude of conferences on school management, after raiding Scandinavia to pillage ideas and after putting his wet finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing, the Education Secretary has decided that there should be greater devolution of power to headteachers.

But - and it's a big but - the change will be implemented by replacing the existing guidance on devolved school management and will be drawn up by a former director of education, none other than David Cameron, past president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland.

This prompts the question of just how much change will be delivered? Since the dawn of devolution, there have been two forces pushing against each other: the first, for greater centralisation of Scottish education through control of finances and issuing of guidance; the second, for liberalising schools at the expense of local authorities.

At the outset, only the Conservatives were bellowing about greater school autonomy, suggesting that money should follow the pupil - as it does in New Zealand - and that the precursor for this would be to group schools into clusters, as was already happening in Glasgow. Another Tory idea was that parents who wished to establish schools should be able to access state funds, as happens in Denmark and Sweden.

Over the years, a few renegades appeared and suggested that schools could indeed be run differently, such as Fred Forrester, the former deputy general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

The Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition at Holyrood changed little, tacking first this way and then that. A lot of hot air was issued about diversity of provision and the freedom to be different, but schools remained constrained. The art of appearing to do much while doing little was perfected.

Then something happened: Labour lost the 2007 Holyrood election. There is nothing like a period in opposition for a party to fly a few kites and see where they go. Peter Peacock, former Labour Education Minister with a continuing interest in the service, suggested that schools could indeed be given greater autonomy, but this would require the centralisation of education away from the current 32 councils.

For a moment in 2009, you could not go to Scandinavia without meeting an MSP on a fact-finding trip, and the momentum was always towards schools having greater powers.

Then, just the other week, another former EIS leader and all-round educational big noise, Keir Bloomer, said schools should be liberated to be what they want to be. The breeze was becoming a force-10 gale.

But would the SNP lose support just at the wrong moment? Until now, it has been centralist on education to the point of being Stalinist. Would the rank and file accept the weakening of council authority? And would SNP councillors object?

Mike Russell's solution to this dilemma? Open the door to school autonomy, but leave it only ajar. No legislation; just guidance - and have it drafted by one of the councils' own commissars. Then, if the SNP needs Tory MSPs to stay in power, the Conservatives can push on that particular door and find that it opens a little bit more, making Russell everybody's best friend.

He has had no ideological awakening, no epiphany: he simply knows the way the wind is blowing, both in Scottish education and in the balance of power. He is nothing if not a crafty politician.

Brian Monteith hasn't fallen for the Education Secretary's cunning ruse to keep all on side.

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