What should be at the top of John Swinney’s to-do list?

27th May 2016 at 00:00
New education secretary needs to prioritise repairing the government’s rift with councils, say experts

Repairing the government’s broken relationship with councils will be the biggest challenge faced by Scotland’s new education secretary, sector chiefs say.

Deputy first minister John Swinney’s appointment as education secretary last week in Nicola Sturgeon’s cabinet reshuffle has been welcomed by headteachers, education directors and academics. And they agree that the former finance minister will bring “gravitas” to the role and help to keep education high on the political agenda.

However, it was Mr Swinney who went head-to-head with councils when they threatened to rebel last year over the SNP’s key policy of maintaining teacher numbers.

And he was also the man who drove through the latest local government budget settlement, which was branded as “unacceptable” by the council umbrella body Cosla.

The SNP manifesto, published last month, called into question the future role of councils in the delivery of education: it vowed to “extend to individual schools responsibilities that currently sit solely with local authorities” and “allocate more resources directly to headteachers”. The document also said that the SNP planned to create “new educational regions to decentralise management and support”.

And although Cosla told TESS this week that it felt “positive” about working with Mr Swinney, the body has previously complained about not being consulted over key decisions, including the introduction of national testing.

Privately, one director of education revealed to TESS last year that relations between the Scottish government and Cosla were “lower than a snake’s belly”.

John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland said that repairing that relationship is vital. “The local authorities are the education authorities and the first step will be to make sure all the politicians are fully engaged with the idea of working together to get improvement,” he said.

“That allows directors and headteachers to be a bit more confident and to take risks. But if you look at the manifesto, there are one or two things there that local politicians will want to know what they mean.”

‘Real signal of intent’

Primary heads will also be seeking clarity from Mr Swinney but their concerns are around national testing, said Greg Dempster, general secretary of primary school leaders’ body AHDS. He will demand assurances over the timing of the assessments and how the information will be used, he said.

Another priority is the recruitment and retention of primary headteachers, he added. Mr Dempster said: “This appointment is a real signal of intent from the government that education is indeed their highest priority.”

Secondary headteachers also welcomed Mr Swinney’s appointment. Jim Thewliss, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, said that his organisation was due to meet the new education secretary next month, and workload issues triggered by the reduction in senior leadership posts would be top of the agenda.

School Leaders Scotland will also call for a root and branch review of the system, which dictates headteacher salaries.

But will Mr Swinney listen? Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at the University of Edinburgh, thinks so, calling Mr Swinney “a very admirable politician”. He is diplomatic, but not overly emollient, and can get on top of his brief, he argued.

Professor Paterson added: “He is not someone who will back down but neither is he someone who will go in and be so confrontational that he will get nothing done.”

Ms Sturgeon has prioritised children’s learning with the attainment challenge, and Mr Swinney’s job is to keep it at the top of the political agenda, he said.

John Swinney: CV

Born 1964

Education Forrester High, Edinburgh;

University of Edinburgh, MA politics

Current role SNP MSP for Perthshire North, deputy first minister and education secretary

Career Business and economic development consultant prior to his election to Westminster in 1997. In 1999, he was elected to the Scottish Parliament and he led the SNP between 2000 and 2004. In 2007, he was made finance secretary; and in 2014 he was also appointed deputy first minister

Family His brother, David Swinney, is an English teacher and principal assessor for the subject at the Scottish Qualifications Authority. John Swinney has three children and is married to BBC journalist Elizabeth Quigley

Hobbies Hillwalking, running and cycling

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