Throwing money at the problem is not the answer

24th June 2016 at 00:00
The debate about who should hold the education purse strings rumbles on but schools, government and agencies must work together to tackle poverty’s detrimental effects

I read with interest the ongoing debate on education funding. Since the recent appointment of John Swinney as education secretary, we have had much debate in the press, with various interest groups coming forward with their views on how finance should be divvied up.

Local authorities body Cosla (unsurprisingly) has come out strongly against giving money directly to headteachers, arguing that councils are best placed to decide, School Leaders Scotland (equally unsurprisingly) has come out strongly for giving the money directly to secondary school headteachers so that it “can be directed towards local priorities”, although they are content for councils to continue to handle HR, buildings, quality assurance and services for additional support needs (thanks for that).

Derek MacKay, our new finance secretary, has said the plans would give “real power” to schools. However, there is no detail on what real power means. I stand with Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, in cautiously welcoming the move.

When I came to Glasgow in December 2007, there were 140 removals from the register by exclusion; last year there were two. Our secondary pupils are attending school, on average, seven days more than they did 10 years ago. More young people than ever before are gaining Highers and the achievement that I am most proud of is that 33.9 per cent of our school-leavers now go on to higher education – 10 years ago it was 18.2 per cent.

So, what has changed? Well, we set high-level priorities and then asked our schools to align their local priorities to them. Our schools serve very diverse communities – there is not a one-size--fits-all in Glasgow – therefore, it is critical that they work with their local communities to agree on the priorities that meet their needs.

Rightly so, we hold our schools to account for their outcomes for young people. For example, when one school amended its curriculum so radically that it resulted in notably fewer pupils achieving qualifications, we intervened and insisted that the curriculum was changed. We have focused relentlessly on the core business of learning and teaching: if it doesn’t impact on what happens in the classroom, then we ask heads to stop doing it.

I believe that we have empowered heads to lead their schools as senior managers of the authority. They develop their curriculum to meet the needs of their children and young people. In best practice, they do this in partnership with parents, carers and their pupils.

Despite much pressure and excitement from the media, we did not make rules about how many qualifications young people should sit in the senior phase. There has never been a “Glasgow curriculum”. Instead, we debate and challenge each other in a climate of professional trust and confidence. The result is that each school has an evolving curriculum that is being reflected upon and improved.

Working with headteachers, we have just conducted an in-depth look at the broad general education in secondary schools. We will share the findings openly with all schools so that we can continue to learn and improve. We will shortly embark on a similar exercise at primary level, again in partnership with heads.

We encourage innovation and creativity, but all young people need to be included and to be achieving. Local independent models of education that claim to have 100 per cent success are omitting to count the young people who were sent back to their schools after one year. Councils rightly remain responsible for all young people in their care.

Our headteachers work exceptionally hard – they are expected to do more and more as finances have become tighter – and the past two years have been very difficult because of the shortage of teachers.

Meanwhile, children and families are becoming more complex and distressed, particularly those living in poverty. Our headteachers need protection so that they can concentrate on leading learning – any additional workload linked to financial bureaucracy cannot be allowed.

I see our role in the education authority as one of support and challenge. We support through making best use of available resources and we challenge to have the highest expectations for every child in our care.

Sometimes, this can create conflict: a child misbehaving owing to difficult personal experiences can be trying, but removal from the register through exclusion won’t help that child, nor will placing him/her in specialist provision. Our significant investment in groundbreaking enhanced nurture is keeping more children and young people in education, with positive outcomes.

But back to money. Heads welcome more cash – who doesn’t? However, are bucketloads of money the answer? Remember Schools of Ambition? Lots of money was given directly to secondary schools to develop local projects on raising attainment and addressing the impact of poverty. But few of the schools chosen at the time have continued those projects, even though they were all signed off and supported by local and national government at the time.

The Audit Scotland report of 2014 showed that spending on education in Scotland had in two years dropped by 5 per cent in real terms, yet attainment had increased in the same period. My ask of Mr Swinney, who has wisely not spoken directly on the tricky issue of funding, is to exercise some caution and avoid the snake-oil salesmen (and women!).

I am passionate about making a difference, but education services in Glasgow cannot do it on their own; the same is true across Scotland.

Believing that giving money directly to heads is the answer is overly simplistic. It will take all of us working together in a strong climate of professional trust and confidence to reduce the impact that the growing spectre of poverty has on our children.

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