Education: who decides?

Mind the gap between rhetoric and reality on education says Mary Campbell.

After the summer my eldest child will be joining thousands of children across the city as they make the leap into primary school. For any parent it’s an exciting and nerve-wracking period, and we all put trust in schools to do the very best for our children.

As a councillor and Green spokesperson on Education, I gain additional insights. The single largest service Edinburgh City Council runs is education. The Council currently manages most elements of how schools are run, from employment and maintenance to supporting pupils and making sure standards are met.

If the Scottish Government has its way, that will no longer be the case. In a bid to raise standards and reduce the attainment gap, the Scottish Government plans to shift responsibilities into the hands of the so called “regional improvement collaboratives”, which will support individual head-teachers within schools.

Head-teachers, in turn, will become more like the boss of a small business, directly responsible for staff and how the school operates. Councils will still own and maintain schools and they will be the employers of teachers. They just won’t have much say over what happens in schools. It’s a significant shift in how schools are run.

The aims of the Scottish Government are entirely the right ones. But it is not clear how changing the institutional arrangements for schools will actually deliver improved standards and reduce the attainment gap. If we want real and lasting improvement to our children’s education, it will come from what happens in the classroom, at home and in playgroups and nurseries well before children reach school. If we are serious about equipping our young people for the 21st century and giving everyone an equal chance, those are the relationships that matter.

There is plenty of evidence already on what teachers, schools and other bodies can do at a practical level (for example, a Joseph Rowntree report “Closing the Attainment Gap in Scottish Education” in 2014). It shouldn’t matter who does it, but that it gets done. The risk is that the Scottish Government’s reforms are simply a distraction that will take focus away from what is going on in the classroom. That’s a real risk if the examples of adult social care and police reform are anything to go by.

More decisions should be made at a school level, and local representation matters. That includes making sure that parent and pupil voices are heard. The Scottish Government says, rightly, that it wants to strengthen the role of parents and pupils in education.

Here in Edinburgh, the council has led the way on this. Over the last four years it has had a parent on the Education Committee, chosen by the parent councils of the city. It’s given a voice to concerns of parents and offered invaluable guidance to the committee.

During the council elections the Greens proposed further reform, arguing that an additional parent and a senior pupil from among pupil councils should also sit on the Education Committee. Together this would give parents and pupils three places on committee, the same as are guaranteed, by law, to churches.

Sadly, since the council election, the ruling SNP/Labour coalition has reversed this progress. Not only has it declined to increase parent and pupil representation it has stripped the sole parent representative on committee of any voting rights.

Of course, this all might be moot. If the Scottish Government reforms win the day and the council’s role becomes that of payroll and collective jannie then it hardly matters who is on Education Committee.

It is very clear that the gap between rhetoric and reality will need some watching.