IF history, theology and Spider-Man comics have taught us anything, it’s that with great power comes great responsibility. Unless, of course, you delegate some of that responsibility to someone else. Then, when being held to account, you can simply point in the direction of that other person and, when everyone turns to look, leap out of the nearest window and crawl deftly down the wall.
John Swinney, of all people, should be aware that “extra powers” can be a poisoned chalice. As former Finance Secretary, he must know that new responsibilities plus old budgets adds up to tough decisions and even tougher scrutiny. Yet as current Education Secretary, a role in which he seems increasingly ill at ease, he seems determined to pass the buck.
John Swinney, of all people, should be aware that “extra powers” can be a poisoned chalice
In a bruising debate at Holyrood this week, he spoke about his desire to empower “the people who know children best” (by which he means teachers, parents and the pupils themselves) to make decisions about their education. He wants too see decision made at the most local level possible, with schools working together in “regional collaborations”.
The problem is that almost no-one involved in Scottish education seems to want this. We know because the Scottish Government asked them the questions and then published the answers. And no-one could accuse them of fudging the analysis in their report, snappily titled “Education Governance: Empowering teachers, parents and communities to achieve excellence and equity in education”. It’s all there in black and white: the current system of education governance is not broken, and therefore does not need fixing, respondents said. The barriers to progress are budget cuts and staffing issues.
It’s all there in black and white: the current system of education governance is not broken, and therefore does not need fixing
So if the people Swinney reckons know best don’t want a new system in which they are empowered, are they to be empowered against their will? And if so, how will they be held accountable for their decision-making? Headteachers are not elected – they are employed by local authorities. If they do not succeed in reducing attainment gaps, and boosting literacy and numeracy across the board, what will the consequences be?
There are many reasons why some thrive and others struggle, and it is correct to say that dedicated and hard-working headteachers will be aware of the challenges their pupils face. But that doesn’t mean they’re in a position to directly address them. To the majority of pupils the headteacher is little more than a figurehead – a curious type of teacher who sits in an office all day instead of standing in a classroom, taking the odd break to dish out stern words to those who misbehave. The young people don’t see what goes on behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain; the leadership and pastoral responsibilities that already come with the big salary and special status.
To hold headteachers solely accountable for every pupil’s progress is simply not reasonable
Headteachers can talk to pupils and request meetings with parents. They can pass on concerns to other agencies and attend children’s hearings. But they cannot set and enforce bedtimes, or remove TVs and games consoles from their pupils’ rooms. They can’t escort anyone from their home to the bus stop. They can’t ensure a parent or carer takes an interest in the child’s timetable or helps with their homework. So to hold them solely accountable for every pupil’s progress is simply not reasonable.
Some months back a friend received a letter from her son’s school about the Pupil Equity Fund, a pot of £120 million that is allocated directly to schools based on the number of P1-3 pupils in each who are registered for free school meals. (Of course, since 2015 all children in these classes have been eligible for free meals, but the original criteria are still used as a crude assessment of poverty.) Headteachers are required to spend this extra cash on “additional staffing or resources they consider will help reduce the poverty-related attainment gap”.
My friend is highly educated, well-informed and takes great interest in educational theory and innovations in creative play. But she was a little suspicious about being asked for her views. Either, it seemed, this apparent consultation was nothing more than an exercise in lip service, or – perhaps worse – the input of affluent parents like herself was genuinely being sought and would potentially shape how the money was spent. Her instinct was that breakfast clubs for all would benefit those in poverty without stigmatising them, and she knew there was robust international evidence to support this – but the money was for targeted interventions, not universal ones. The school intended to use it to take on additional staff, who would deliver specific literacy and numeracy programmes to those falling behind.
There simply wasn’t an army of unemployed teachers standing by, just waiting to be called up by hundreds of headteachers acting in isolation
In the end, it seems nobody got their way. The school stuck to its original plan, and doubtless many others pursued similar approaches, but these specially trained extra staff turned out to be in short supply. There simply wasn’t an army of unemployed teachers standing by, just waiting to be called up by hundreds of headteachers acting in isolation, rather than as part of a planned and co-ordinated nationwide strategy.
So now we have the SNP and Tories on one side, saying decision-making should be devolved further, and Labour and the Greens on the other, arguing the planned changes are actually a centralising power grab that strips out local authority accountability. Fortunately, teachers are used to making their voices heard over the top of rows and squabbles. They have spoken on this. And they have said no.
A version of this article first appeared in The National.