Scotland was once widely considered to have one of the best education systems in the world – a structure of schooling which focused on the potential of the child rather than the social status of their parents.
The same boast cannot be made today. The rest of the world has caught up, and according to international testing, many countries have surpassed Scotland too. According to research carried out by the Sutton Trust, the cleverest Scottish schoolchildren are a year behind their English contemporaries in science education. Additionally, the most able children from deprived backgrounds in Scotland do not reach the same level of attainment as their less deprived classmates.
As a result, Scottish Conservative Leader Ruth Davidson has accused the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon of failing a generation of Scottish pupils, arguing at First Ministers Questions that Sturgeon’s legacy is a:
“Generation of Scottish children who are being left behind in the race for qualifications and for future jobs”.
The Scottish Government has admitted that the report’s findings are unacceptable. However, Ms. Sturgeon also pointed out that the report in question uses old data and pre-dates £750 million of education funding which has been allocated to Scottish schools. Indeed, the Sutton Report relied on data from the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, where Scotland recorded its worst ever results.
Since then, the Scottish Government has put in place a number of measures which it argues has led to signs of a “narrowing of the attainment gap”, a record numbers of exam passes, and record numbers of school leavers moving into “positive destinations”. At the same time, both Ms. Sturgeon and Education Secretary John Swinney accept that more needs to be done to improve education in Scotland.
With education such a hot-topic – repeatedly raised by both MSPs and the media – it can be expected that education reform will take up a bigger portion of this Parliament’s second year. Indeed, John Swinney has already announced a series of measures which can be used to extrapolate the future direction of education in Scotland.
The Governance Review – Empowering teachers, parents and communities to achieve Excellence and Equity in Education
In September 2016, John Swinney launched a review into the governance of education in Scotland. The review closed on the 6th of January and the results are expected to inform a new Education Bill which will be introduced in 2017.
A key component of the review is the Scottish Government’s exploration of ways in which more decisions about school life can be driven by schools themselves, rather than at local authority level. Currently, however, legal responsibilities for delivering education and raising standards in schools sits mainly with local authorities. The Scottish Government therefore sought expert and practitioner views on how best to devolve powers to the schools themselves.
While the results of the report have not yet been made public, Mr Swinney has previously stated that certain aspects of education currently controlled by Local Authorities, such as funding, could be passed over to the schools themselves which would enable them to take decisions, based on local circumstances, to give children and young people the best chance of success.
In doing so, the Scottish Government has also made clear that it does not intend to take schools out of local authority control altogether, and does not intend to adopt English) policy in terms of academies and free schools.
The Pupil Equity Fund
Formally announced in the 2017/18 Scotland Budget, the Pupil Equity Fund is a £120 million pot of money provided through the Attainment Scotland Fund and allocated directly to Head Teachers. The schools can use the money at the Head Teacher’s discretion to reduce the poverty related attainment gap.
As such, the funding will reach schools in every local authority area in Scotland and will be allocated based on the numbers of pupils in P1-S3 eligible for free school meals.
The theory behind this new measure is that Head Teachers are better placed than local authorities to understand the unique needs of their students and that giving them the direct power to target funds will enable standards to rise. This move sits comfortably with the long-term education plans (as outlined above) which will see more powers move from Local Authorities to the schools themselves.
The combination of both of the measures outlined above points to an Education Bill which will include a transfer of powers from local authorities to individual schools. However, the worry for many, such as General Secretary of Scotland’s largest education union, the EIS, is that the new approach will push Scotland closer towards the English system of Academies and Free Schools, which he says is embeds division based on socio-economic factors.
As such, the Scottish Government will need to walk the line between producing meaningful reform which produces tangible results, while also ensuring that Scottish schools remain under democratic control and do not divide the education of the population on the basis of location or socio-economic status.