A landmark was reached in the gestation of the controversial Education Bill last week, when the Scottish government published its analysis of nearly 900 consultation responses.
Here, Tes Scotland looks at the key issues that emerged in the consultation and where the government can expect trouble ahead.
Which aspect of the reforms generated the biggest response?
The “headteachers’ charter”, which would devolve more power and responsibilities to schools. A larger chunk of the report’s analysis was taken up with this than any other aspect.
What was the tenor of responses?
The report highlights “general support for the concept of headteacher empowerment” and “some advantages” in headteachers having more influence over staffing and school funding” – but also myriad reservations.
What are some of the perceived downsides?
That the charter could increase heads’ workloads and lessen their focus on “their core role of leading learning and teaching”. There are also fears that heads do not have the “necessary skills or expertise” to handle some of the roles that the charter may give to them, particularly around business management and staff recruitment, while some say that more autonomy risks creating inconsistency in schools’ staffing. Another “key disadvantage” cited is that “the recruitment process could be susceptible to bias as headteachers may recruit individuals they know rather than those most suited to a post”.
Are there suggestions for how heads could be supported through the changes?
Yes, lots, such as training – covering budgeting, workforce planning and “enhanced interpersonal and communication skills” – and reassurances that heads could still rely on support from local authorities. Headteacher organisations argue that a lack of support, rather than a lack of expertise, among their members could derail the charter’s aims.
What about extra specialist staff?
These are seen as crucial, whether they are specialist advisers such as lawyers or accountants or – more commonly cited – business managers. School Leaders Scotland general secretary Jim Thewliss tells Tes Scotland that “if we are to become leaders of learning, then we will require support staff in every school, particularly an appropriately qualified and trained business support manager”. Similarly, Greg Dempster, general secretary of primary school leaders’ body AHDS, says members are already worried – even before the reforms have been applied – that “they cannot focus sufficiently on learning and teaching”, and that the charter would take things farther in the wrong direction, unless they are able to employ business managers.
Does the report mention elephants in the room such as severe local budget cuts and chronic teacher-recruitment problems?
Yes. Calls for higher staffing levels are repeatedly made in the consultation responses.
Any other significant trends in the report?
The incipient “regional improvement collaboratives” (RICs) have a lot of work to do to overcome widespread scepticism. Although more respondents (195) backed RICs being in the Bill than did not (133), 97 said they did not know and 249 did not answer (the total of 674 responses discounted 196 submissions to the consultation that followed a standard text), meaning that less than a third of submissions were supportive.
What are some of the concerns over RICs?
That they will create extra bureaucracy, cover unwieldy and large areas and are unnecessary because there is already effective collaboration between councils. A smaller number of respondents saw a danger of centralisation and loss of local accountability.
What about the idea of an Education Workforce Council – covering a wider range of education professionals – replacing the General Teaching Council for Scotland?
More respondents backed an Education Workforce Council (EWC) than did not, but factoring in those who did not express an opinion, just over a quarter of respondents lent their support. Common concerns included “dilution of professional teaching standards”, a “dumbing down” of the concept of professionalism and a loss of identity for teaching. There were also questions over the independence and accountability of the proposed EWC.
What was said in the responses about parental involvement?
The Education Bill proposes to make the legal duties in relation to parental involvement in schools clearer and stronger, and to encourage stronger collaboration between school leaders and parents. There was support for more parental involvement in principle, but less so for legislation to enshrine this. There were concerns that it is difficult to ensure that parents from a wide range of backgrounds get involved.
How was the report received politically?
Scottish Greens leader Patrick Harvie – whose party often supports the SNP government – last week used his slot in First Minister’s Questions to accuse Nicola Sturgeon of presiding over “reforms that nobody but the government seems to want”. He argued that the reforms were a distraction from the urgent need for more resources in education, following the loss from schools of thousands of teachers, additional support needs staff, librarians and counsellors.
What about the larger opposition parties?
Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith MSP called for “a wholesale move away from central control of education towards schools themselves”, arguing that, for all the government’s talk of giving schools autonomy, “the imposition of large, top-heavy regional collaboratives will do the opposite”. She added that “clear lines of responsibility and accountability do not, as yet, exist in the proposals”, leading to “some very uncomfortable results for the SNP”. Labour education spokesman Iain Gray said the consultation analysis showed that support for the reforms was “at best lukewarm and divided”.
Was there any indication from first minister Nicola Sturgeon that the direction of travel might change?
No. She insisted that the RICs are “all about providing support for frontline teachers” and that the reforms, more generally, were “putting teachers and parents at the heart of decision-making in the life of a school, because we know that decisions that shape the education of young people should be made by the professionals who know them best”.
She added, however, that there remained “things that we need to do outside schools to help to close [the attainment] gap, and much of that will be done through our reforms around social security and child poverty”.