As the UK government is poised to turn every English school into an academy or free school in an drive to improve education performance, the question must be asked if such an approach would be appropriate in Scotland – or is there potential for a uniquely different model north of the border?
The Hometown Foundation, a registered charity, has been engaged in various initiatives designed to improve education in Scotland. We have identified several innovative schemes. These include pupils getting cost-effective additional tutoring on a group basis, rather than on their own; and a retraining scheme to give teachers higher levels of proficiency and confidence. However, our main priority at present is to help teachers and parent groups to form state-funded autonomous schools, putting teaching professionals back in charge of the education system.
Recent reports by the likes of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development show that Scotland has been falling behind other countries, including England, in educational outcomes. This is causing concern for employers and academics, as well as for parents; these concerns must be addressed as soon as possible. Every day lost to barren consultations to placate vested interests will result in even more young Scots having to leave school without the tools that they need to make a success of their lives.
The foundation firmly believes that a good quality and inclusive education – irrespective of religion, background or wealth – underpins every successful society. Not only is it important to keep up with our competitors, we must also enable our children to achieve more prosperous and fulfilling lives as well.
We believe that a combination of progressive, innovative and proven solutions is needed to improve the quality of education available to all pupils in the state sector.
A significant part of the problem in Scottish education relates to areas of responsibility. At present, direct responsibility for raising standards and improving education does not reside with the school or headteacher.
Funds are passed from the Scottish government to local authorities to provide education and raise standards. Local authorities are not hands-on or properly accountable for standards, and their involvement also adds a great deal of bureaucracy and cost. Scottish education has largely been based on the comprehensive system, which was introduced just over 50 years ago. Despite this system being regarded by many as not being as effective and efficient as it could be, there has been real bias against change and an unjustifiable defence of the status quo.
This resistance has come mainly from individuals and organisations that have vested interests in maintaining it, including teaching union representatives; from people who are not truly putting pupils, teachers or, indeed, attainment first.
In England, to introduce greater autonomy and freedom from council control, there has been an aggressive programme of academisation. This will lead to all schools being academies or free schools by the end of 2022.
Predictably, this move has not been without its critics, mainly again from groups with an interest in maintaining the current local authority system for ideological, political or financial reasons.
The Hometown Foundation has now assisted three parent and teacher groups to prepare and submit business plans for state-funded autonomous schools to the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon.
There has been a lot of attention given to the cases of St Joseph’s Primary in Milngavie, East Dunbartonshire, and the Al-Qalam School in Glasgow, but interest extends far beyond faith schools. Two further business plans were scheduled to be submitted before the end of last month and we are currently working with another four groups. All have demonstrated diverse approaches and innovation, as well as presenting reasoned cases for more cost-effective delivery.
During submission of the business plans to the government, there has been a level of media coverage. While there has been significant support, some concerns have been expressed that we would simply be mirroring what has been happening in England, that it is “privatisation by stealth”, that standards could fall and that there would be no consistency.
In line with other highperforming educational systems, such as those in Shanghai, Singapore and Finland, we believe that there is a lot to be gained by giving autonomy to schools. It not only allows the headteacher to be accountable and responsible, it also creates an environment where the ownership of education is more of a team effort. It is important that the best teachers are appointed and fully supported by both parents and receptive pupils.
The Hometown Foundation is promoting a model specific to Scotland, built on innovation, collaboration and engagement. The idea is not simply to adopt what is happening south of the border. The best aspects of what is working well will be embraced. We believe that it is possible to create a new state-funded education system that is more responsive and diverse, which, of course, is a recognised prerequisite for learning organisations.
Standards will be maintained through the establishment of an autonomous school framework, with schools working in clusters, sharing best practice and enhancing the existing Curriculum for Excellence.
The foundation remains encouraged that the Scottish government has said that it has “an open mind” with regards to state-funded autonomous schools, and that it was prepared to engage with our charity in advanced discussions about opening such schools.
We are keen that as many headteachers, teachers and parents as possible contact us, so that we can explain the range of benefits that flow from the autonomous model.
The foundation will work with and support any group that shares its core belief – that every child deserves the best possible start in life, irrespective of background, religion, wealth or ethnicity.
Bill Nicol is director of the Hometown Foundation