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

Local Government & education reform – Jim Goodall

In the context of the proposed New Deal for local government and in the context of its responsibilities in relation to the provision of school education, what needs to be done to improve the relationship between local authorities and the Scottish Government and its agencies, agencies such as Education Scotland and the SQA?

When one begins to consider that question, other questions quickly emerge. Some examples of these are given below …. in no particular order. They all relate, in one way or another, to where the authority, formal authority, in relation to the detail of the curriculum of schools and its delivery lies, including the assessment and certification of young people.

Currently, by default, decision-making authority in relation to the curriculum has been abrogated by the Scottish Government and its agencies. That position needs to be challenged and the legitimate authority in relation to these matters of local authorities reasserted.

Some of the questions which need to be addressed in any discussions about how the balance of authority can be shifted to reflect the legitimate role of local authorities are set out below. Finding answers to these would be a pre-requisite of improving relationships between central and local government but also a pre-requisite of securing improvement in the learning outcomes of all of our young people. The questions, and there would be many more, are framed in deliberately ‘controversial’ terms; they do not have straightforward answers.

Professor Hayward’s recent report makes repeated reference to the need for changes in Scotland’s assessment and certification systems to be grounded in and to take full account of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child. In looking to address the issues this raises would it be within the compass of a local authority to do so for young people in the senior phase of their schooling by providing them with the ‘financial capacity’, e.g. a charged Young Scot card, to do so by deciding what they wanted to learn, how and with whom, where and when they wanted to learn? Would there by any legal barrier to it doing so? Increasingly, there appears to be a recognition that the purposes of the Senior Phase in Scottish secondary schools are different from its preceding years; does this argue for local authorities and the communities they serve organising the delivery of school education to take explicit account of such a consideration? Would they feel in any way empowered to take such action?

If, in looking at Professor Hayward’s recent report, a local authority decided that implementing the arrangements developed from its recommendations by the SQA, or its successor agency, was not in the best interests of the young people in the senior phase of its secondary schools would it be free to provide these young people with access to assessment and certification arrangements from another, accredited agency, e.g. one offering GSE and A Level awards? Are local authorities in Scotland obliged, legally, to seek certification for their young people through the SQA, or its successor agency?

The job description of head Teachers and other senior promoted staff in schools should reflect and emphasise the primary and significant extent to which their accountability is to their employer and young people and their parents and carers and not to the Scottish Government , and that this accountability relates as much to the curriculum of their schools as to anything else. The curriculum of their schools is a matter for local determination in the context of the decisions of the local authority which employs them. This is a position which local authorities need to reassert strongly. What stops them doing this?

Historically, the curriculum of Scottish schools, both primary and secondary, has been ‘enforced’ not by law but by the inspectorate who, when reporting on school inspections, will give credit to schools whose curriculum is compliant with a ‘national model’ and report negatively on deviation from such models. Such actions carry no legal force.  Local authorities should support schools in challenging such reports where their conclusions are unjustified. To accept such reports without question is to accept by default the ‘national model’ prosecuted by the inspectorate irrespective of its relevance to the young people in a school and the community it serves. What alternative inspection models might be  adopted to provide schools with feedback which would support their improvement rather than judgement on the extent of their compliance.

Local authorities and the Scottish Government should both be committed to promoting diversity of school provision in relation to the curriculum and to supporting the independent evaluation of initiatives of interest. No one’s interests are served by the former doing nothing more than complying with the dictates of the latter. Are there lessons we need to learn from Kirkcudbright Academy’s Curriculum Flexibility Project’s experience?

As a TES article of 14.05.2010 reported, a Glasgow University evaluation, sponsored by the Scottish Government, of Kirkcudbright Academy found its experiment of presenting all pupils at the end of S3 for Standard grades and extending the choice of academic and vocational courses across S4-6 delivered “sustained improvements in standards”, a better staying-on rate and “an impressive breadth of opportunities second to none in Scotland”.

The project started in 2003 and saw pupils choose their subjects a year earlier than normal – at the end of S1 – and sit Standard grades in S3 rather than S4. Pupils then followed a programme combining academic subjects with life and work skills in an extended upper school of S4- 6; their results placed them significantly ahead of comparator schools.

Other schools followed Kirkudbright’s example and achieved similar, positive oputcomes.

The final evaluation noted that it “would be catastrophic if the current reforms at national level required the school to abandon its integrated and flexible curriculum”.

They did, particularly the government’s blanket veto on early presentation for SQA  exams in S3.

The then headteacher of the school is quoted in the article as saying “in each and every case, the right kind of assessment at the right time offers pupils the opportunity to show what they can do” and “despite convincing evidence from this and several other schools, we are now told that the end of S3 is the wrong time, but why is this if the pupils have covered the ground successfully and are ready to meet the challenge? What empirical evidence is there to tell us that S4, or indeed any other stage, is the right time?”

Headteachers, their local authority employers and young people and their parents need to be encouraged and incentivised to innovate and seek diverse solutions to the challenges which schools fac; Kirkudbright Academy illustrates how that could lead to the school improvement of general significance. School improvement does not result from the imposition of uniformity and a desire to secure compliance with centrally-determined policy. School improvement arises from diverse means.

Headteachers and other local authority staff with education remits talk and behave increasingly as if it is their job to implement advice and guidance emanating from the Scottish Government and its agencies, e.g. Building the Curriculum 3 and 5 produced by Education Scotland. Local authorities through these employees and in discussion with school staff, parents and young people need to assert their right to examine such guidance, comment on it and to decide to what extent, if at all, it should apply to their schools; through their education committees, they should be translating what is, in effect, curriculum advice and guidance emanating from the Scottish Government and its agencies into policy informed by local circumstances, needs and ambitions, policy which head teachers and their staffs would be responsible for implementing. What is the legal status of the guidance emanating from and agency such as Education Scotland?

In effect, local authorities need to decide if, in relation to the school education which they are responsible for providing and in the contexts created by the Scottish Government and the advice and guidance which it and its agencies produce, they wish to assert their legitimate role in developing practical and deliverable policy informed by an understanding of local needs and aspirations. The alternative is that they should continue to treat advice and guidance as directions and to continue to be the largely supine agents of the Scottish Government in respect of all aspects of the curriculum including its assessment and certification. Whose interests are served and how does improvement result from the latter position?

The Scottish Government and its senior political representatives need to speak with care about the provision of school education and need to avoid making statements, especially ‘vows’, which become, by virtue of their positions, the de facto policy of the Scottish Government. The consequences of such statements are not always positive and often unintentionally negative. Would the adoption of more measured, research-based and inclusive approaches to policy development be welcomed?

In addition, local authorities need to approach with care the ‘compact’ they have agreed recently with the Scottish Government; if previous ‘compacts’ are anything to go by they result in the generation of new ‘chains of commend’ all of which put the latter at their pinnacle and which generate tensions which lead to their early collapse; ‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’.

Jim Goodall spent his career working in education. More recently he was an elected councillor in East Dunbartonshire and its Education Convenor.



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