Are we witnessing the first stirrings of a battle for the soul of Scottish education? TESS has spoken to a charity that offers to support anyone who’s fed up with the prevailing model of council-run education, and wants to put power in the hands of teachers and parents.
Hometown Education Learning Partnerships (Help) emerged from £500 million plans to build a South Lanarkshire settlement owned and managed by residents, including two primary schools, a secondary and a research centre.
It was to be called “Owenstown” after Robert Owen, the 19th-century social reformer, whose achievements included establishing the world’s first workplace nursery. Owenstown has hit the planning buffers, so now backers are focused on the educational aspect. As Help director Bill Nicol says: “Our main priority at present is to help parents form autonomous schools to put teaching professionals in charge.”
This is more than a flight of fancy. Parents from St Joseph’s Primary in Milngavie, East Dunbartonshire, have already drawn up plans for their closure-threatened school. First minister Nicola Sturgeon has shown an interest, while learning minister Alasdair Allan is keeping an eye on progress.
Nicol thinks innovation is urgently needed to address “serious concerns” about less-than-stellar educational standards identified by the likes of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Certainly, his appeal to cease endless “barren consultations” on education will chime with many. But can ideas like his ever get off the ground in Scotland?
The Scottish schools system has many pluses, notably its relative cohesion and the enduring commitment to the comprehensive ideal (more on the latter next week). But it can feel monolithic, and many will have nodded ruefully when Professor Mel Ainscow – drawing on his experience of turning around education in Manchester and Wales – cautioned that local authorities often failed to trust teachers and could become a “dead hand” that blocked innovation (“There are lessons from England – both good and bad”, News, 12 June).
The Help plans will almost certainly hit more than a few brick walls, and detractors will point to the worst failings of a similarly radical idea that’s much, much further down the line – England’s academies programme. There is a peculiar tension in Scotland: on one hand, Curriculum for Excellence is not short of international admirers for its ambition to create a flexible system that helps all children to flourish; on the other, Scottish education has a strain of stubborn conservatism.
For all CfE’s fine words, how far have we actually moved from a system that pivots around the headlong dash to Highers in S5? Of course, as Plato is said to have put it, necessity is the mother of invention. Perhaps, as councils brace themselves for years of budget cuts, the time is right to let others take some of the educational strain.