In the debate about whether more power should be devolved to schools and headteachers, a picture has often been painted of councils stifling innovation and acting as a dead hand on schools. Schools lack enough of a say on spending while staffing structures and curricula are imposed from above, go some of the arguments.
There are, of course, two sides to every story and education directors’ association ADES hit back by saying “untrammelled powers” for heads could hurt vulnerable pupils.
And here it does seem that councils play a crucial role. Take exclusions: these have been rising in England but falling in Scotland and a key reason, say some experts, is the oversight and local accountability councils provide.
International advisers: Keep calm and carry on
However, the latest advice from the International Council of Education Advisers (ICEA) – highlighted in the papers for the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee last week – makes it clear Scotland has a problem when it comes to underperforming councils and schools. The minutes of the ICEA meeting in September state that the advisers said “a more consistent and coherent approach” was needed when dealing with “underperforming schools and local authorities”.
The advisers added: “Where there is persistently poor performance, the Scottish government should consider using its existing legislative powers to intervene in an underperforming local authority. To avoid reaching that stage, it is important to be more directive, and match leadership skills and competencies to problems in a more strategic way.”
For the first time last year, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) published national qualification results by education authority. They were based on the 2018 exam results and published in April. There has been much talk recently about the falling Higher pass rate but these figures – as you would expect – highlighted the extent of the variation across the country.
On this particular measure, Angus Council comes out looking worst: the Higher pass rate was 68.5 per cent, against a national pass rate in 2018 of 76.8 per cent (which fell to 74.8 per cent this last year).
The authority that performed best, meanwhile, could have been predicted before even opening the spreadsheet: in East Renfrewshire – a place, as cliche has it, full of "leafy suburbs" – 84.9 per cent of pupils sitting Higher achieved an A to C grade.
The figures on the proportion of pupils hitting the expected level for literacy and numeracy, published last year, also show marked variations by council. In Highland, teachers reported that just 60 per cent of pupils had reached the expected level for writing in P7, with only 62 per cent hitting the expected level for numeracy at this stage; the national figures were 74 and 76 per cent respectively.
Big differences in progress between councils were also found when Education Scotland looked at whether or not the gap was closing in Attainment Challenge authorities, which have had millions of pounds of public money ploughed into them. While Gayle Gorman, Scotland’s chief inspector, described the progress being made in Renfrewshire as “an absolute delight”, the progress in Clackmannanshire and East Ayrshire was deemed just “satisfactory”.
One of the things the government will be hoping pulls up the performance of the stragglers is the introduction of the Regional Improvement Collaboratives (RICs), which bring together neighbouring education authorities as well as inspectors.
It remains to be seen if, in a climate of budget cuts, another layer of management will result in improvements in schools. But whether RICs are the answer or not, the message from ICEA is clear: the Scottish government knows where the issues are – and now it must act.