How academies could soon march north of the border

30th October 2015 at 00:00
And national testing seems likely, writes a TES Scotland reporter

It emerged last week that a Scottish education charity had published a practical guide to setting up state-funded autonomous schools. Its contents have been seized upon by parents in an affluent Glasgow suburb, who are desperate to stop their local primary being closed by the local authority.

Meanwhile, Scottish central government ministers are said to be making “encouraging noises” about the prospect of a community opening and running a state-funded school.

All this will sound very familiar to those who have grown used to the emergence of academies, and latterly free schools, on the English side of the border. What’s more, it was only last month that the Scottish government announced plans for a standardised system of national assessment. National testing has, of course, existed south of Hadrian’s Wall for more than two decades.

So, has Scotland, which has always had its own fiercely independent education system, suddenly decided to emulate England’s approach to running state schools?

If that is the case, the change of heart could not have come at a more unlikely time. It’s not just that Scotland seems to be moving steadily towards political independence. As far as education is concerned, Scotland remains wedded to the comprehensive ideal: its new curriculum decries high-stakes exams; local authorities still control the vast majority of its schools; and the Scottish National Party has all but obliterated opponents with its left-wing agenda.

Perhaps most significantly, the feeling remains among Scots that they are the superior British nation when it comes to education.

An un-Scottish solution

But beneath the surface, something is stirring. Hometown Education Learning Partnerships (Help) is a charity that wants to act as a catalyst, assisting communities that would prefer to run schools themselves with greater autonomy.

The publication of its guide was timed perfectly for parents in Milngavie, near Glasgow, who want to save St Joseph’s – the only Catholic primary in the area – from closure. They believe this can be achieved by opting out of the control of East Dunbartonshire Council. It all sounds like a distinctly un-Scottish, almost right-wing solution.

Yet Scotland’s SNP first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is actively considering the proposals, having met with the parents twice. Behind the scenes, her ministers are understood to sound positive about the idea. Help director Bill Nicol believes such innovations are urgently needed to tackle “serious concerns” about the nation’s schools, highlighted by its position in global Programme for International Student Assessment rankings. “Scotland’s education system, once ranked among the best in the world, has fallen behind many other countries,” he says (although the latest Pisa survey placed Scotland above England in two out of three areas – see panel, far left.)

But there is growing controversy over Scotland’s plan for standardised national assessment. Scottish educationalists have seen the impact of testing and league tables on schools south of the border. Generally, they perceive the policies to be products of less progressive attitudes that should be avoided.

Ms Sturgeon insists the aim is to improve the system, not to monitor teachers, and says that she abhors league tables. Few doubt that those sentiments are genuine; nevertheless, it seems likely that unofficial league tables will still emerge.

Appetite for new ideas

But if English-style change in Scotland does arrive, it may not all be unwanted. There was recently an enthusiastic response on Twitter when English academic Professor Mel Ainscow – with his experience of turning around education in Manchester and Wales – told TES Scotland that local authorities often failed to trust teachers and became a “dead hand” that blocked innovation.

Willingness to explore new ideas is widespread. Plenty of open-minded people want to learn from the best of the academies programme and see if a distinct Scottish approach, which devolves a lot of the power from local authorities, can work. But things move slowly in Scottish education. There is no chance of the quick-moving, radical change seen in England.

Most Scottish educators still take comfort in feeling that teachers’ professionalism is accorded more respect north of the border. The General Teaching Council for Scotland, for example, has rejected overtures from Teach First to expand its scheme to fast-track high-flying graduates into the classroom.

In June, Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT union, told members of Scotland’s biggest teaching union, the EIS, to be thankful they did not work in England. Scotland should be proud of its “functioning local authorities” and collective bargaining (a 2.5 per cent pay rise over two years was finalised for Scottish teachers this week), she said.

“Your system may be very far from perfect,” Ms Blower conceded. “But I can tell you it’s a jolly sight better than the paradigm we’ve got at the moment.”

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