Improving attainment in Scotland’s schools: an enhanced role for Councils

Hillhead School 

George Black, Visiting Professor, IPPI

George Black
Visiting Professor, International Public Policy Institute

10 November 2017

Major concerns over reforms

If one change of mind is rare in politics then two changes of mind is even more so. In an earlier blog, "Major reforms to schools in Scotland and the role of local authorities", I raised concerns about the Scottish Government’s plans for major reforms to the governance of schools. In particular, I raised concerns about the future role of local authorities and the lines of accountability for head teachers. I was not alone, as concerns were also raised by local authorities and head teacher representatives.

However, most commentators, including myself, expected the Scottish Government to press ahead regardless, especially as many of the concerns had been raised previously during the formal consultation period.

Councils to now take the lead on collaboration

It therefore came as a real surprise when the Scottish Government announced that, after discussions with local government, it will now be Councils, and not Education Scotland, which will lead the new “Improvement Collaboratives”.  Furthermore, the six regional collaboratives will now be led by a coordinator, appointed from within existing local authority staff.

These individuals will be accountable to each local authority within the collaboration, elected members across the region, and to the Chief Inspector of Education Scotland. This represents a significant change in government thinking which previously proposed that the collaboratives would be led by a Director appointed by and reporting to Education Scotland.

Councils to retain responsibility for educational improvement

Arguably, an even bigger surprise is the proposed move away from making head teachers directly responsible under statute for raising attainment and closing the poverty-related attainment gap. This move has been omitted from the most recent consultation document “Empowering Schools” which instead focuses on making it a duty for head teachers to collaborate with others to achieve excellence and equity in schools. This means that local authorities retain democratic control over educational improvement.

Fair Funding – issues ahead

The Scottish Government have now completed their consultation on “Fair Funding to achieve Excellence and Equity in Education”. Education is the largest single part of Councils’ budgets and local authorities will rightly be concerned about a greater share of funding going direct to schools, particularly if it is at their expense.

But they will also be concerned that, unless there is an increase in the overall level of funding available for education, some schools will lose out at the expense of others. It is hard to see any school receiving less funding as a result of changes regarding it as fair. Having changed its mind on two occasions now, the Scottish Government has to get it right when it comes to the money.

Measuring Improvement: stretching targets

Consultation is also coming to a close on “Measuring the attainment gap and milestones towards closing it”. It is proposed to use stretch aims that are based around the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) and use a basket of eight key outcome measures, half of which relate to literacy and numeracy. The attainment gap for the majority of these measures is on average around 17 percentage points and the aim is to reduce this gap to 11 percentage points by 2020, and to 5 percentage points by 2025.

Much is at stake for this Scottish Government

Although the reforms which are now proposed are not as radical as they initially were, the target levels for improvement remain extremely challenging. Leaving aside the concerns about funding, the big issue now will be the substance of the detailed improvement plans. Will they be sufficient to achieve the ultimate aim of raising attainment and closing the poverty-related attainment gap? Improving the education and life chances of children and young people is described as the defining mission of the Scottish Government, so much is at stake.