Fear over proposed education reforms
A SENIOR Lochaber councillor has expressed concern that proposed reforms to the governance of Scottish education will pave the way for what he called a ‘raft of Soviet-style commissars’ decreeing what will happen in local schools.
Andrew Baxter, councillor for Fort William and Ardnamurchan and chairman of Highland Council’s Lochaber Area Committee, flagged up his fears during the committee’s discussion last week on Scottish Education Secretary’s John Swinney’s controversial proposals.
Earlier this year, Mr Swinney, also Deputy First Minister, unveiled proposals to set up ‘regional improvement collaboratives’ aimed at pooling and strengthening resources to support learning and teaching in schools.
This was to be part of a bigger tranche of reforms designed to tackle the attainment gap and improve standards in schools. The collaboratives were to be led by a regional director, who would report directly to the chief inspector of education.
But there was a backlash from local authority umbrella group, COSLA, which slammed Mr Swinney’s proposals claiming they would severely dimnish meaningful local democratic accountability for education in Scotland.
And there were accusations it amounted to a cynical ‘power grab’ by the government and that the changes would sideline council officials and local authority education committees.
The result was talks with the government which have resulted in an agreement that each local authority will have an input to one of six regional collaboratives in partnership with Education Scotland.
It has been reported these collaboratives will be accountable to the collaborating local authorities as well as reporting to the chief inspector.
But Mr Baxter remains unconvinced and told fellow councillors, including Highland Council leader Margaret Davidson, who was present, that the roll of the council in local education would be diminished under the government plans as they stand.
‘The government programme seems to actually be more about dressing up the centralisation of education and then giving the impression of the devolution of education,’ said Mr Baxter.
‘It is almost as if they were intending a raft of Soviet-style commissars decreeing what happens in our schools. Whatever side of the political debate you are on, these needs to be discussed at local level because this is the biggest fundamental change to the education system for a generation and it is only right it is discussed at a local level.
‘And it is right to have the opportunity to influence Government thinking before this goes through parliament.’
Mrs Davidson told the meeting: ‘I think the devil will be in the detail. The real issues are about regional governance and how attainment will be improved.’
She added: ‘Who head teachers will be reporting to is still not clear. I’m all for collaboration but the last thing we need is having all roads leading to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate [of Education] and the Deputy First Minister.’
Asked if he felt a bit more reassured following news of Mr Swinney’s climbdown on some elements of the reforms, Mr Baxter remained sceptical.
He told the Lochaber Times: ‘I’m worried that we [local authorities] will be left with all the bits no-one else wants, such as additional support needs and Gaelic support – the most expensive bits. I’m still not convinced this [latest agreement with COSLA] isn’t anything more than a bit of window dressing.’
Committee members noted the council has agreed to work with the Government, including through bodies such as COSLA and the Northern Alliance, in a bid to influence the proposals in a more positive and constructive direction.
Councillors also agreed to seek view on the proposals through discussions in their own communities, particularly through talks with parent councils.