Standards Act has unfinished work

26th November 2010 at 00:00

Given the importance of education to Scotland, it seemed appropriate that among the first pieces of legislation of the new Parliament would be an education Act. The clue to the preoccupation of the time is in the title - the Standards in Scotland's Schools Act, which I took through Parliament. Ten years on, has it made the desired impact?

The aim was that raising standards would be a continuous and systematic process. At the heart of the Act were placed new duties on ministers and local authorities to secure improvement, for local authorities to have improvement plans and schools to have development plans. The design was to develop a wider view of improvement than a narrow focus on attainment. The improvement framework was pretty managerial, but the direction of travel was set clear.

I am sure the Act brought a series of improvement planning initiatives that led to greater focus and clearer improvement strategies, but I have been disappointed that there has not been greater debate or use made of the mechanism for setting national priorities to keep the agenda fresh.

The Act also sought to reflect the new constitution - a Parliament with a legitimate interest in the success of education, when it was local government that delivered education. Ministers were given powers to determine national priorities, after consultation and with Parliament's approval. A concern of the time was that Parliament would suck up powers from local authorities and centralise; the Act therefore gave ministers and Parliament clear roles, with local authorities keeping responsibility for delivery.

It also established that councils would be inspected by HMIE. This did not go down well with the local authorities but, following assurances, they lived with it, and I believe it has provided a valuable tool to drive improved practice.

In addition, it provided the statutory basis for devolving more authority to headteachers. With no fixed level of devolved authority, it can still provide the framework for necessary further devolution of powers.

Right at its foundation, the Act attempted to make a very radical change. Until 2000, local authorities were required to provide "adequate and efficient" education. Hardly inspiring - go forth and be "adequate". The Act added a new right for individuals to be educated to the full extent of their potential, the aim being to deliver services ever more tailored to the needs of the individual child.

I don't believe we have yet ventured far enough down the road the Act intended. Perhaps through developing suitable national priorities, we can yet realise the intention of the statute, complemented by the Curriculum for Excellence.

At its most controversial, the 2000 Act provided a legal presumption that all children would be educated in mainstream schools. There is no doubt this has had an effect. Some will argue that it has been an entirely negative one, others that it has normalised the life of many individuals.

Working at its best, there will be additional classroom support for teachers, and a range of provision to suit the additional needs of individual children, while protecting the interests of the majority. Special schools continue to do an absolutely vital job.

The Act ended opting out - a divisive policy for the few, not the many. It made clear that such an approach in Scotland was not appropriate. School boards were, in part, designed to aid the opt-out strategy of the Tories. The Act re-focused the role of the board on supporting the improvement agenda. Later changes to create more flexible parent councils show the 2000 Act was simply a first step in reforming parental involvement in schools.

The Act sought to reform the General Teaching Council for Scotland, giving it new powers to strike off incompetent teachers. This was important symbolically and it was surprising that it had no such powers hitherto. In practice, I suspect, it had little effect, as the council could only act after a local authority had dismissed a teacher on such grounds - a rare occurrence. We should have gone further down the route to regular re-registration, but even the move we did make at the time was seen as bold.

In addition, we changed the make-up of the GTCS - in part to reflect its public-interest role, but also in a failed attempt to break the stranglehold of the Educational Institute of Scotland within the GTCS. The EIS is far too organised to allow juggling with electoral constituencies to get in the way. Subsequent changes to the GTCS show that the 2000 Act was just the start of wider reform.

Gaelic-medium education also featured. Provisions for councils to say what they were doing and what they were going to do to develop Gaelic-medium, signalled legitimacy and importance. But this was only a staging post, with further recognition enshrined in the later Gaelic Language Act.

The 2000 Standards in Scotland's Schools Act reflected the circumstances of its time. I have no doubt that it set out important provisions, and sent clear signals about the need for continuous improvement. It found an appropriate balance among the interests of Parliament, ministers and councils.

The powers on national priorities may yet be used imaginatively and with renewed purpose to prioritise further change. Devolved school management and more individualised learning seem to me key candidates. Discuss!

Peter Peacock was junior education minister and Minister for Education and Young People in the previous Labour Government.

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