Major reforms to schools in Scotland and the role of local authorities

Hillhead School

George Black, Visiting Professor, IPPI

George Black
Visiting Professor, International Public Policy Institute

12 July 2017

More power for Head Teachers

Last month (June 2017), the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills John Swinney MSP announced major reforms to the governance of school education in Scotland.  At the heart of the reforms is the proposal to make Head Teachers responsible under statute for raising attainment and closing the poverty-related attainment gap.

Head Teachers will be responsible for selecting and managing the teachers and staff in their schools, and deciding on school management and staffing structures. They will be supported by seven regional improvement collaboratives, responsible for providing educational improvement support to teachers and practitioners through dedicated teams of professionals.

A stronger inspection regime

Education Scotland will be given a significantly enhanced role and purpose and will have a strengthened inspection and improvement function. Inspection will be a crucial tool that supports the system-wide goal to continuously improve. There will be a renewed focus on professional learning and leadership, providing clarity and coherence to the national landscape, and delivery will be through the new regional improvement collaboratives.

Reduced powers for local authorities

Councils will remain democratically responsible for the provision of early learning and childcare, but not for primary and secondary education. To put this in context, education is the largest single part of local government spending, accounting for almost half of all Council spend. In 2015/16, total gross expenditure on education was nearly £5 billion. Of this sum, nearly 90% was spent on primary, secondary, and special schools, with only 8% being spent on early years and childcare.

A new duty will be placed on Councils to collaborate to support educational improvement on a regional basis, and they will continue to be the employer of the education workforce within their schools and local authority early learning and childcare settings.

Further clarification needed

(i) Lines of accountability

One of the most important issues requiring clarification is the lines of accountability for Head Teachers. In particular, how will they be held accountable for performance? Who will they be accountable to? And, what action can be taken about underperformance?

(ii) Restrictions on flexibility

The relationship between Head Teachers and the new Directors of the regional improvement collaboratives also needs to be clarified. Under the proposals, Head Teachers will be free to decide on school structures. But what about a school which is considered to be underperforming? How much flexibility will the Head Teacher have to operate a school management structure which differs from that of other schools, in similar circumstances, that are performing better?

(iii) Management of resources

The proposals make it clear that Head Teachers will be responsible for selecting and managing the teachers and staff in their school. But what about managing the staffing budget for a school? Assumptions have to be made about sickness absence and the need for temporary cover, for incremental growth in salaries, and for overtime. And estimates have to be made of pupil numbers. All of these factors can change, both within and between years, particularly movement in pupil numbers. Who will Head Teachers be accountable to for the management of resources?

(iv) Partnership working

Another important issue to be considered is how schools will contribute to the wider public sector landscape. Education is an important contributor to Community Planning Partnerships, Health and Social Care Partnerships, and Child Protection Committees, to name but a few. The direction of travel in recent years has been for local partners to work together to address challenges in an integrated way, putting the child or young person at the centre of their plans. It is not clear how Head Teachers will contribute towards this work.

It is also not clear what the relationship will be between Head Teachers in primary schools, and early years’ establishments; and between Head Teachers in secondary schools, and colleges and universities.

(v) Implications for other Council services

Such is the scale of the reforms that there will significant be implications for other Council services. It seems inevitable that there will be a downsizing in the senior management in Education, and some of the functions such as finance and human resources, or management of the schools estate may be absorbed into the central support functions of the Council as a whole.

(vi) The future shape and role of Councils in Scotland

Over the past few years, councils have seen a number of functions transferred out of their control. Police and Fire services have been transferred to national bodies; adult social care, and in many cases children’s social care, has been transferred to new Integration Authorities; and responsibility for educational improvement is now being passed to Head Teachers. The Council of 2019 will have significantly reduced responsibilities as compared to five years ago.

The question that now has to be asked is – what is the future role of local government in Scotland?

I will come back to this issue in future blog posts.