Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Governance Review – Frank Lennon

This is the first in a series of three blog posts which consider two recent government documents: the Statement for Practitioners from HMCIE (August 2016) and ‘Empowering teachers, parents and communities to achieve excellence and equity in education: A Governance Review’ announced in the Deputy First Minister’s (DFM) speech to Parliament (13 September 2016) launching a consultation on school governance.

The full significance of the Scottish Government’s governance review, which could usher in a historic transformation in Scottish school education, can only be seen in its historical context so it is worth reflecting on this at the outset.

Although by the end of the 16th century Scotland already had four universities it was not until the 17th century that the Scottish Parliament began passing Acts which led to the establishment of schools. It was the School Act of 1696 which established the world’s first truly national education system. Crucially, this Act not only provided for the establishment of a school in every parish, it also made financial arrangements to cover the costs of a salaried teacher. Thus the issue of how Scottish schools were to be established and run – school governance – has been a national concern for as long as we have had a national education system. Over the centuries since, schools have been established, funded and run by churches, by the larger towns, by societies and by individuals, with the level of government intervention varying. For over a century after the union of parliaments in 1707 for example, major Government intervention in the national education system was severely curtailed, until in 1840, the first inspectors of schools for Scotland were appointed. By 1864 a national review of Scottish education was felt necessary and the Argyll Commission was set up.  This led directly to one of the seminal pieces of legislation in the history of education in Scotland, the Education (Scotland) Act of 1872 passed by the UK Parliament.  This created a ‘Board of Education’ for Scotland, established the responsibility of parents to see that all children between the ages of 5 and 13 received education and provided for the funding of education from local taxes. The 1872 Act thus took the governance of schools out of the hands of churches and societies and made it the responsibility of local elected bodies known as School Boards.

By the end of the nineteenth century the Scottish Education Department, created in 1885 and until 1945 Westminster-based, was beginning to take Scottish education in a different direction from that in England and Wales. The most striking development from then until the end of the Second World War in governance terms, was the creation in 1918, of 36 local education authorities to replace what had become an unwieldy system of nearly 1,000 School Boards.[1]  In addition, schools which were still owned and run by the Catholic Church came into the state education system and accepted the same governance arrangements on condition that they be allowed to retain their denominational character. School governance thereafter effectively ceased being of national concern even when, in 1936, the Education (Scotland) Act was passed, the only significance of which lay in its definition of Scottish primary education as covering the seven years from age 5 to age 12 and the clear separation of the primary and secondary stage.

The period after 1945 saw a series of major reports reviewing primary and secondary education none of which made any reference to school governance. The major policy focus from then was on providing educational opportunities for all pupils, although many of the recommendations were not put in place until the 1960s. In the case of primary schools change focused on the curriculum: for example, ‘Primary Education in Scotland’ (often referred to as ‘The Primary Memorandum’) was published in 1965.  In secondary education, there was structural change with the removal of selection for secondary education at age 12 and the introduction of comprehensives. However major these changes appeared, they were not accompanied by new governance arrangements and schools continued to be run by the same local authorities.  At this same time, changes were introduced to the public examination system which made national qualifications accessible to a wider range and larger number of pupils and this, once again, was accompanied by changes to the curriculum.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s changes to secondary education continued to focus almost exclusively on the curriculum and assessment systems. The publication in 1977 of The Curriculum in the Third and Fourth Years of the Scottish Secondary School (The Munn Report) and Assessment for All (The Dunning Report) furthered the process of providing a secondary education that was suitable for all and continued the long tradition of reform in the system ignoring school governance. Currently, the legislation regulating Scottish education is derived from an education act of this period: the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 as amended in 1981 and by subsequent legislation notably by the Standards in Scotland’s Schools etc Act (2000) one of the first Acts passed by the new Scottish Parliament. This Act significantly moved the legislative focus away from the duties and responsibilities of local authorities to provide education, to a focus on a child’s right to an education in a “mainstream school”. And although it made several specific requirements of schools (eg the requirement to publish annually a Standards and Quality Report and Handbook for parents and a Developments Plan), it made none in relation to how schools were to be run. This attention to the entitlement of parents, followed amendments in 1981 to the 1980 Act, which had given parents the right to choose a school for their children and made far-reaching changes in the provision for children with additional support needs by establishing the Record of Needs.  Official Reports published subsequently in the 1980s continued the focus on curriculum and assessment:  ‘Teaching and Learning in the Senior Stages of the Scottish Secondary School’ (1983) dealt with the failure of the post-fourth  year curricular and examination structure to cater for the increasing number of students continuing in school beyond the statutory leaving age; and the Scottish Education Department’s ‘16–18s in Scotland: An Action Plan’ (1983) which dealt with the curriculum for non-advanced vocational education for the many students in S5 who were struggling to cope with Highers and who had little prospect of achieving usable qualifications.

Thus, throughout this entire period the changes in Scottish education were largely confined to the curriculum and assessment systems and even when their reach was wider, it never touched on school governance.  Moreover change tended to be government inspired and introduced in a ‘lockstep’ fashion with every school being required to implement with the same change at the same time. Thus in spite of developments which permitted a degree of teacher influence – for example on the Scottish Examination Board (now the Scottish Qualifications Authority) and on the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum[2] (now Education Scotland)[3], at no point in the history of change in Scottish education were schools seen as having any decision-making or policy-making roles either individually or collectively: schools, in large part because of their lack of autonomy, have never been encouraged to act as initiators, far less leaders, of any policy change.  On the contrary, the role of schools has been concerned with the efficient “delivery” (to use one of the government’s current favourite terms) of policies conceived and composed elsewhere and handed down from above.  The role of Head Teachers therefore, has been principally concerned, not with leading change but with the efficient management of change.  Scotland has not had a school-led system of education far from it: rather, the system has required schools to be implementers not creators and their leaders to be compliant with the prevailing policies.  Thus evidence of any serious systematic attempts to devolve decision-making powers to schools, far less to develop their capacity to become dynamic creative leaders, is almost impossible to find. Indeed, it was not until the passing of the School Boards (Scotland) Act of 1988 that there was any systematic attempt to change any of the prevailing governance arrangements in Scottish schools.  This legislation however, far from empowering individual Head Teachers and their schools, effectively empowered parents at their expense by ‘devolving’ to parents additional powers and casting them in the role of change agents by giving them statutory powers to influence the appointment of senior staff (including the appointment of Head Teachers themselves) and to approve the Head Teacher’s proposals for spending the school budget.  The publication of the Parents’ Charter in 1991 (revised in 1995), if anything, bolstered this devolution of power to parents rather than to schools.

Such developments were nevertheless rare and with the publication in 1992 of the Howie Report and the Higher Still programme in 1994, Scottish educational reform reverted to its default position of being preoccupied with reviewing the curriculum and assessment systems. In 1996 the possibility to break with this preoccupation presented itself with the wholesale reorganisation of Scottish local government.  A complete tier of administration was removed with the abolition of regions and the creation of 32 local authorities (a throw-back, in numbers at least, to the 1918 position). This might have been an opportunity for a more diverse range of models to emerge but, unsurprisingly, there was no change in the governance arrangements for schools.  Since devolution in 1999, the change agenda has continued to be dominated, as in virtually every previous period, by curriculum and assessment: Curriculum for Excellence and the new National Qualifications are but the latest manifestations of this tradition, albeit in their reach and scale, perhaps the most all-encompassing to date.


Frank Lennon recently retired as headteacher at Dunblane High School


[1] More than 200 new secondary schools were founded between 1900 and 1918)

[2] The Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum (SCCC) and the Scottish Council for Educational Technology (SCET) were merged in 2000 to form Learning & Teaching Scotland.

[3] Established in 2011 by the merger Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS), HM Inspectorate of Education (HMIE), the National CPD Team and the Scottish Government’s Positive Behaviour Team