Improving the education and life chances of our children and young people is the defining mission of this government. This commitment is the driving force behind our education reforms. We are delivering improvement to ensure our young people have the opportunity to succeed.
There are already many strengths in Scottish education. More of our young people are getting excellent exam results and going on to a job, training or continuing their studies. We have a strong curriculum that has the needs of children and young people at its centre.
And, crucially, we have fantastic teachers who are passionate about learning and teaching, and who are making a positive difference to children’s lives.
At the heart of our reforms is a simple, powerful premise: that the best decisions about a child’s education are taken by the people who know that child best – their teachers, headteachers, parents and the young people themselves. We are already giving £120 million of pupil equity funding directly to headteachers to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap in their schools.
And although many within the education system have argued against change, the recent Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) and literacy scores underline that we can, and we must, achieve more.
That is why we are reforming the system, so that the key decisions in a child’s education are taken by schools. We will put the power to directly change lives into the hands of those with the expertise and insight to target resources at the greatest need.
Schools will have sweeping new powers and the freedom to improve learning and teaching, making decisions as they think best.
The new powers will be guaranteed in a statutory charter for headteachers, who will have responsibility for raising attainment and closing the poverty-related gap in their school. They will be able to choose school staff and their management structure. Schools will have control over curriculum content, within a broad national framework. Schools will also have greater direct control of finances and we have launched a formal consultation on proposals for a fair funding system.
Schools will lead, but they must have the support they require to succeed.
So all other parts of the education system will share a collective responsibility and work within a strong support framework made up of three key pillars:
- Enhanced career and development opportunities for teachers;
- Improvement services delivered by new regional collaboratives;
- Support services from councils.
New career pathways
The first pillar will see teachers strongly supported throughout their careers.
I know there is still too much bureaucracy generating unnecessary workload for our teachers. We remain committed to freeing teachers to teach, and continue to work with their professional associations on further steps we can take to achieve this.
But we must also focus on professional learning and collaboration.
We will streamline and enhance professional learning so that there is a coherent learning offer to teachers. Improved support through collaborative practice in new regional models and school clusters will also significantly build the capacity of teachers.
We know that some teachers have been frustrated at the lack of opportunities to progress in their careers. So we will work with the profession to design new career pathways to develop and reward leadership skills, pedagogic expertise and subject specialities.
And we will continue reforms to initial teacher education to ensure new teachers are well prepared, with consistently well-developed skills to teach key areas, such as literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing. We will also continue to develop new routes into teaching that attract a broader range of high-quality graduates, including in priority areas and subjects. Let me be clear: any new route into teaching will have to meet the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) tests, including a partnership with a university to maintain credibility and academic rigour. This government will not remove this crucial guarantee of the quality of teaching in Scotland.
We recognise that the success of a school and teacher-led system rests on the availability of the right support – support that is not currently available consistently.
The second pillar – a revolutionised offer of support and improvement – will build capacity for educational improvement within the system. We know that teachers want to constantly improve, for the simple reason of wanting to do better for our children. To help them do that, we will establish Regional Improvement Collaboratives to pool and strengthen resources, to support learning and teaching in Scotland’s schools.
Led by a new regional director reporting to the chief inspector of education, these collaboratives will provide educational improvement support through dedicated teams of professionals from Education Scotland, local authorities and others.
They will facilitate collaborative working, sharing best practice, supporting collaborative networks and partnership approaches tailored to their local area. Importantly, each individual School Improvement Plan will be a key driver in defining the support that schools receive from these collaboratives.
I welcome the steps that have already been taken by local authorities to embrace this approach, and we will work with local government to expand and deepen this work.
Vital role for councils
The third pillar of support will be delivered exclusively by local government. Local authorities will retain a vital role in our education system, with responsibility for a wide range of education support services, including payroll and HR, as well as democratic accountability for the number of schools in an area and the selection of headteachers. This will create an empowered system, underpinned by collaborative working and a strong improvement-support function, operating within a clear national framework.
The Scottish government and national bodies have a key role to play in this regard and I have announced plans to reform the GTCS, bringing it together with other professional development bodies in a new Education Workforce Council for Scotland, which will register not just teachers but other education staff, too. Some changes can be delivered without legislation and we will work with partners to deliver these quickly. For others needing legislation, we will bring forward an Education Governance Bill in 2018.
At the heart of all our reforms is a simple plan: we will free our teachers to teach. We will put new powers in the hands of our heads. We will ensure that parents, families and communities play a bigger role in school life and in their children’s learning. And we will all – government, councils and agencies – support our schools to do what they do best: transform the life chances of our children.
John Swinney is deputy first minister and education secretary in the Scottish government