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One Direction (no not them)

We are one week in of the new Scottish government and we have had a few announcements about the direction of travel for our schools and education system. The first was made by Nicola Sturgeon and was around the appointment of John Swinney as the new Cabinet Secretary for Education and Deputy First Minister. Mr Swinney was already Deputy First Minister in the previous Scottish Government and had previously held the position of Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Constitution and Economy. A bit of a mouthful, but basically meant he was Finance Minister. The previous Cabinet Secretary  for Education, Angela Constance, had been given another post in the new governmnent, that of Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities. Ms Constance had not had an easy ride in her previous position and had struggled with being the voice-person on education as she had to announce, and support, a range of controversial measures seemingly designed by the First Minister as she sought to make education a priority for herself and her government. These included the re-introduction of standardised testing in Scottish schools and the controversial Named Person legislation around Getting It Right For Every Child.

Commentators seem undecided about whether Mr Swinney's new role is a promotion or demotion. Certainly the First Minister would argue that this is no demotion as she continues to put education front and centre of her new administration. 'Judge me on education', has been her mantra, and she has spoken frequently of her determination to close the equity gap between Scotland's most advantaged and most disadvantaged learners, and to raise attainment for all learners. At the same time she completely fails to detect any irony or conflict in those two stated aims. She has announced various measures, including those mentioned above, many of which seem to many observers to point to the adoption of features found south of the border, in England. It would also seem that a lot of government rhetoric seems to re-enforce this belief. She has stated she wanted a strong and experienced person in charge of education, and John Swinney would seem to fit that brief. Some are worried that he has been brought in to take on the teaching unions and others within the system who might be ready for a fight with some of the intended actions already announced, and others still to be revealed. In addition, the unions have already indicated their unhappiness with workload and the beuracracy that have become attached to the Curriculum for Excellence, amongst other issues.

So there is no doubt that whoever was to have the education brief in the new government needed to be resilient and be an experienced political operator, and few would deny that John Swinney fits the bill in that respect. What he has in terms of political nous he possibly lacks in terms of educational knowledge and experience, though I do believe he has a brother who is a secondary English teacher. So, he is on a steep learning curve in trying to get up to speed with his brief, and also to keep up with the First Minister who seems to make some pronouncement or another  on an almost daily basis. The SNP election manifesto contained more announcements on education including the setting up of Regional  Boards to oversee schools, almost all of whom are currently under Local Authority control. There was also a promise to devolve more budget and power directly to Headteachers, and these were seen as a possible aimed at loosening the control of local councils and strengthen the control of schools by central government.

In her first speech in the Scottish Parliament, following the election, the first minister again set out her prioritisation of education as one of the central planks of her government. She identified the appointment of John Swinney as an indicator of her commitment to deliver on her pre-election promises for education and schools in Scotland. She also announced the creation of an International Council of Education Advisors to help the Scottish government and advise on education, and teaching reform and development. The membership of this body is yet to be announced but people like myself hope it includes experts such as Alma Harris, Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves, Carol Campbell, Yong Zaho, Helen Timperley, as well as experts from closer to home like Mark Priestley, Stephen Ball and John MacBeath. Our worry is that the 'experts' chosen will be those most likely to support the agenda already set out by the First Minister. Watch this space on that one.

Another announcement last week was that there was to be a 'major summit' of education leaders around 'closing the attainment gap between schools.' She accompanied this with a caution against inertia 'We intend to be bold and to move forward with purpose and with pace.' I am not sure of the purpose of this summit, and who will be invited, but it will be interesting to see if it brings an open and frank exchange of views and opinions, or whether it is carefully stage-managed by the government and Education Scotland in order to seek notional endorsement of decisions already made. Scotland is a small country and the education community is quite well linked, and also small. So it is difficult to keep much quiet or secret and we are already hearing stories of various models, that involve schools being taken out of local authority control, being discussed by various think-tanks and at government level. This only re-enforces the fears of many that decisions have already been made and steps identified for the way forward in the very near future. This is why it is imperative that those within the education system in Scotland engage in the debate, and are truly consulted, and why any 'experts' being consulted or asked for advice are truly expert and impartial in their advice. I would suggest consulting with CEOs of Academy chains in England fails that test of impartiality.

Yet another announcement was made by the new Minister for Finance, Derek Mackay, which was that the role of local councils in managing and running of schools needs reforming. He pointed out in an interview that there was nothing wrong with local councils running schools 'but that we could do things differently in the future,' particularly when it comes to the funding of schools. He went on to say that it was the government's intention that Headteachers would have more autonomy over how they use school funding through Devolved School Management budgets and procedures. He stated that they wanted more government funding to go directly to schools and Headteachers, so they could set and meet local priorities. There are times, when such a scenario can appear quite appealing to school leaders, but I still believe that there is an overwhelming majority of opinion that believes schools should remain under the auspices of local authorities and councils. All of this talk just adds more credence to the view that the Scottish government is trying to introduce an acadamisation model by stealth into Scottish education.

There is no doubt that education and equity remains a high priority for the Scottish government, as it should be. In order to achieve the aims set out it will require consensus and collaborative action by all in the system. The actions we take will need to be informed by credible research about what works and needs to be sufficiently nuanced to reflect the Scottish context. I know the First Minister wants to act and, like all politicians, wants to act quickly. The danger is, the quicker change is imposed the more who are left behind and the less sustainable becomes the impact. Everyone I know in the profession supports entirely the government's aims, but none of us can deliver on these on our own. All have to work together towards this common purpose and, whether Ms Sturgeon or others like it or not, these aims can only be achieved over time, and neither can they be imposed from above.

 It would be better for Scotland if her legacy for Scottish education was that, during her time in office,  she had set up the structures and understandings that allowed the system to address meaningfully the issues identified, and that she matched these with other government policy and action in all sections of of our social and political infrastructures.


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