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Empowering Schools Consultation in Scotland

The Cambridge dictionary defines consultation as follows:
a meeting to discuss something or to get advice or the process of discussing something with someone in order to get their advice or opinion about it.

The Scottish government likes to consult. At anyone time they seem to have quite a number of consultations ongoing. They have so many that they even have a separate section on their website detailing these. As I write this, they currently have twenty nine different consultations taking place. These range from 'Improving the Protection of Wild Mammals in Scotland' to a 'Consultation on Free Bus Travel for Older and Disabled People and Modern Apprentices.' Included in the current raft of consultations are quite a few that have an education focus or element including 'Extending Children's Rights-Guidance for education authorities and school staff on assessment of capacity and considerations of wellbeing of children who have attained 12 years of age in respect of additional support for learning in school education', 'Section 70 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 - draft guidance for users of the section 70 complaint process', 'National Improvement framework: Consultation on measuring the attainment gap and milestones towards closing it', 'Consultation on Excellence and Equity for All: Guidance on the presumption of Mainstreaming' and most recently 'Empowering Schools: A consultation on the provisions of the education (Scotland) Bill'.

The quantity and variety of the consultations demonstrates the government's commitment to democratic and open working,  which will include all stakeholders, to some extent, in the development of new policy and legislation. Looking at the scope of these consultations provides you with a snapshot of government priorities and focus. Given the commitment made by the First Minister towards improving Scottish education, it probably comes as no surprise to see the number of consultations taking place with regard to education and schools. I would suggest however, that the number of such consultations, and their focus, would come as a surprise to most teachers and school leaders slogging away in schools every day. remembering my own time as a school leader and the number of glossy Scottish government documents that used to arrive, almost on a weekly basis, about consultations or pointing to new policy and legislation. In the latter years of my career, these were replaced mainly by electronic notifications with more and more documents being made available online. We had to print them out ourselves if we wanted a copy, or request a copy to be posted to us.

My reaction to most was 'This is obviously interesting, but I just don't have the time at the moment to look at it in detail. I will print it out, or make a note, and come back to it later.' Most times, I never came back, as I was so busy with the day job of leading two schools. When I did think something was that important and crucial it required my immediate attention, I would create time to get to it and respond. I would also flag up to staff about such consultations, but I suspect 99% of the time, or more, staff paid them little heed, because they too were extremely busy with all they had to do. So, most consultations got few responses and little attention. The general feeling would be that 'someone will tell me when any of this is going to impact on what I do.'

I don't think this was an unreasonable response given the complexity and busyness of our daily roles, and the plethora of information from Scottish government, Education Scotland, Care Commission, HMIE, Local Authorities and various other bodies that flooded schools on a daily and weekly basis. We had to prioritise our time and our focus, and our priority was always the learners, learning and teaching. We know the other stuff is important, but we got to it when we could, and we would prioritise that as well!

As I have said, when I thought something was really important, I would get to it as early as possible and flag it up to staff. If I was still a school leader I would definitely be flagging up the latest consultation i.e. 'Empowering Schools: A consultation on the provisions of the education (Scotland) Bill.' This most recent consultation for all those involved in education in Scotland is going to have significant impacts on how we work, and those impacts will be felt by all teachers, and all school leaders. 

In the Foreword to this consultation John Swinney states, 'We know that to achieve success our education system needs excellent school leaders and teachers, strong curriculum and improvement support, more transparent measures of progress, and engaged pupils, parents and communities. The reforms set out in this consultation will strengthen all of these elements of Scotland's education system and empower headteachers, enabling them to adopt a relentless focus on improving learning and teaching.' Bold claims for structural changes within the system that seem to have been decided on by the Scottish Government with little real consultation with elements of the profession within Scotland. Be in no doubt, that the changes proposed in this paper are going to happen, some are already underway. The 'consultation' is only to gather feedback and views on the proposals that may help shape some of the detail and procedures when they are brought into place.

Having said that, I think every teacher and school leader, as well as other partners within the system, including parents, need to be active participants in this consultation exercise. Some of the headline changes proposed include:
  • The establishment of a Headteachers' Charter which will be set in statute their key responsibilities
  • Headteachers to have power to lead learning and teaching and design curriculum within general framework
  • Set as a duty that headteachers and leadership teams collaborate with other schools and partners
  • Require headteachers to involve school community (pupils, parents, staff) in key decisions
  • Local authorities to retain over-arching duties and participate in Regional Collaboratives to support schools.
  • Headteachers have full responsibility for appointment of staff in their schools
  • Shared accountability between headteachers, local authorities and collaboratives
  • Local authorities will retain their duty to improve school quality, but will do this through collaboratives
  • Remove the requirement for local authorities to develop separate improvement plans
  • Give headteachers the ability to choose their team and decide promoted post structures
  • Local authorities to remain as employers of all staff
  • Delegation of staffing budgets from local authorities to schools
  • Strengthen and clarify parental involvement in schools
  • Pupil participation in schools will be enhanced through general principles that will allow schools to shape what this looks like themselves
  • Regional Collaboratives established to support teachers and others working with young people
  • Each collaborative will produce an improvement plan by January 2018
  • The responsibilities for standards will be taken over by a new Education Workforce Council For Scotland, replacing GTCS
  • All professionals working in schools will fall under responsibility of the new workforce council
  • All professionals will need to be registered with the new council
As you can see, there are some major and significant changes going to happen in the structure of Scottish education, with great implications for all involved.

That is why I have already responded to this consultation and why I would encourage everyone involved to find, or create, the time to do the same. I have already stated that this is a done deal, as far as the government is concerned, but I think we all need to contribute in order to help shape what this new structure may look like, as well as to point out any areas we are not happy about, or where we think what is proposed has gone too far and is unhelpful to schools, learners and the profession. you may feel some of the proposals have not gone far enough.

Personally, I would have much preferred Mr Swinney to emphasise more, and focus more, on supporting and developing excellent learning and teaching in his preamble, because I think most people recognise, and research has shown, that this is the factor that has the greatest impact on performance of schools and learners. Indeed, the government's own panel of international educational advisors has recommended that the focus needs to be more on this, as well as school leadership, rather than structural change, if the government is to go some significant way to achieving its goals for education. We need to keep supporting and developing our teachers and school leaders to become the very best they can be, in order to achieve our aims for our schools, our learners and society. Structural changes may support this desire, but continual professional development is key. But we are where we are, and we have to engage in order to get the best outcomes we can for our learners, and our education system.

I believe we all are seeking the same outcomes, and we have a professional responsibility to help shape the journey to achieving them, as best we can. hopefully this is being discussed amongst clusters and organisations, but I think it important individuals take the time to respond too.

The consultation is online at consult.gov.scot It does take a while to complete, but you can save it and they will email you a link to your form and your answers. The consultation is running for three months till the end of January 20018.

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