The bill might or might not be in the post…

17th August 2018 at 00:00
Planned education legislation might have been shelved, but it is still hanging over the sector

When is a bill not a bill?

That sounds like the set-up to a joke, so what’s the punchline? Amid the furore surrounding some of the questions in the new Scottish National Standardised Assessments, you might expect the response to be “when it’s a beak” (see bit.ly/BeakSNSA). But no, I’m talking about a different activity just before this year’s summer break that sets up the punchline: “When it’s an education bill.”

For the past two years, we seem to have been on an express train with no stops and no junctions; a train heading towards legislation in pursuit of the Scottish government’s vision of a new governance landscape for education. At the heart of that was to be the headteachers’ charter, which would set out new roles, responsibility and accountability for heads. At the last minute, though, when the government was due to start the parliamentary process by introducing the education bill, a new stop was added to the map.

On 26 June, education secretary John Swinney announced that there would be no education bill (see bit.ly/BillDelay). Instead, an agreement had been reached with local authorities’ body Cosla that allowed Mr Swinney to pursue his goals more quickly than would have been the case through legislation. You can read all about it on the government website (bit.ly/FastTrackReform).

However, although plans for a bill have been set aside for now, a draft bill was published as part of this announcement – but it wasn’t introduced to Parliament. Instead, it is being presented as ready for introduction if the agreement with Cosla fails to live up to expectation.

There has been a lot in the media about this “change of plan”. Some referred to it as “the mother of all climbdowns”, which is quite a contrast to the government press statement’s line on “fast-tracking education reforms”. One group is telling us that this is a complete failure – the result of a flawed policy with little support; meanwhile, the government is presenting a success story that allows it to progress its journey more swiftly than the legislative process would otherwise have allowed.

Whichever side you choose to believe, Scottish education has to deal with the output of this process. To be clear(ish), that amounts to a government/Cosla agreement on education reform, accompanied by a draft education bill waiting in the wings should it be deemed to be required. So what does the “joint agreement” tell us? In simple terms, the government appears not to have changed its goal of an “empowering schools” agenda, although some of the features apparent in earlier proposals have been reduced or removed, while the role of local government has been bolstered.

Where’s the money?

The agreement is not a straightforward read. It has the feel of a document that has been subject to a lot of late adjustments and revisions by a number of authors, without a directing hand to pull all the amendments into a coherent whole.

The most striking example of this is the way in which it repeatedly refers to the education bill; as a result, the agreement can’t be read in isolation because what the bill says needs to be taken into account.

Crucially, the draft bill has been published with a range of supporting documentation. Included in that is a financial memorandum with a clear indication that, for the headteachers’ charter to be implemented, additional finance would be needed to support business-management functions in schools.

Disappointingly, there is no reference to that in the joint agreement. It seems from media comment since then that there is no plan to make resources available for this purpose. Whatever shape governance takes within Scottish education, and whatever view you have on recent events, schools need sufficient management time, as well as support staff, class teachers and external support, if they are to deliver the educational offer our children deserve and to which we all aspire.

Due partly to financial constraints and partly to a decision several years ago to cut teacher-education places for a couple of years, schools don’t currently have these things. Add to that an empowering-schools agenda that will bring with it new responsibilities for school leaders – a group who, in our annual AHDS workload survey, reported working about 60 per cent beyond their contracted hours. This will require further school-level resourcing (since lightening the load doesn’t appear to be on the to-do list).

A review of devolved school management (DSM) is promised as part of these next steps. It will be the fourth review of DSM I’ve seen in my 14 years as AHDS general secretary. So far, most heads I’ve spoken to don’t feel particularly free to shape spending in their schools. The agreement states: “Local authorities will continue to be responsible for the local authority education budget and the delegation of funding to schools. Headteachers will make decisions on the spending within that delegated budget.”

This is the current position. For the latest DSM review to be meaningful in terms of empowering schools, it will need to be significant and effectively applied across Scotland. Furthermore, the promise of greater control is only appealing if the available funding is adequate and isn’t accompanied by duties that further detract from school-leader capacity to focus on learning and teaching.

And, of course, if the agreement doesn’t deliver the changes the government is looking for, then the bill will truly become a bill once again. In short, it promises to be another interesting year for all in Scottish education.

Greg Dempster is general secretary of primary school leaders’ organisation, the AHDS

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