Education, education, education is once again a priority in Scotland. In the Scottish Queen’s Speech at the beginning of the month, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon set out the SNP’s programme for government, including the promise to ‘deliver the most radical reform of how schools are run since devolution began’ through the introduction of an Education Bill. This is not the first time Sturgeon has promised action on education. Early on as First Minister, she claimed her priority would be to close the attainment gap between the rich and the poor. And yet, the SNP are now under more pressure as not only has this not become a reality, but education standards are rapidly falling. Last year, Scottish schools dropped in world rankings, with tests on maths, reading and science falling to ‘average’ for the first time since 2000. The Scottish Government has also published results showing a drop in Scottish literacy rates, with now less than half of thirteen and fourteen year olds performing well in writing, leading to Prime Minister Theresa May claiming the falling standard of education is a ‘national scandal’. Now more than ever, the SNP need to be seen to be combatting the problem their critics are claiming they have caused.
But are the SNP going about this the right way? John Swinney, Deputy First Minister and Education Secretary, discussed early plans in June for the Education Bill, suggesting wider powers for headteachers and continuing with Regional Education Boards, a supposed ‘middle layer’ of support, encouraged by the OECD which is supposed to be extra support for teachers. The idea would be that these reforms would give teachers and parents more freedom to focus on closing the attainment gap.
And yet, teachers are not so sure. In June, an Education Governance Review was published after the government sought the opinions of a wide range of educational professionals for their opinion of structural reform. The results reflect a widespread belief for ‘no need to fix something that is not broken’ and ‘a strong opposition against the uniform establishment of educational regions’. With results like these, it really draws questions as to why and how the government is justifying these reforms, unpopular and seen not to particularly benefit educational attainment. The benefits of such a reform are unclear, and despite assurances that the reforms should reduce workload for teachers, there are fears the reforms could potentially increase bureaucracy, lose local accountability, and weaken democratic representation.
The changing role of headteachers is also shrouded in mystery as well. It is suggested that headteachers would be responsible over funding, staffing, curriculum content, as well as raising the attainment and closing poverty-related gaps. In theory, these functions focus primarily on the welfare and education of students, removing unnecessary jobs which would distract headteachers from their core goals of supporting students. Critics have argued that these reforms don’t really improve the powers that Scottish head teachers already have. Liz Smith, the Scottish Conservative Education Spokesperson, described the reforms as ‘half-baked and only pay lip service to real devolution’. Indeed, headteachers in Scotland already have control over the curriculum, as well as control over staffing and school budgets. It’s not entirely clear yet how their role will be changed, and doesn’t appear as radical as the SNP government is suggesting.
This Bill is one to keep an eye out on in the future, but the motives behind these reforms seem confusing. All evidence points to these reforms being highly unpopular and not really recognising the problems behind Scottish education. It appears to be a distraction from the real issue – a failure to fund resources in schools to an appropriate level. Rather than reform and radicalism, all I can see is a reshuffle that just serves to annoy teachers even further rather than deal with the root causes of the problems.