Friday, 4 December 2009

"A prickly subject, but Russell's the man to tackle it"

This article was published in the Scotsman on Thursday 4 December. You can access it here.

"Scottish education is stuck at a crossroads. As school standards flatline, following a sustained period of unprecedented investment, the four main political parties at Holyrood don't show any signs of a clear direction of travel.

After ploughing in a cash injection of over £1 billion to fund the botched McCrone pay package, our putative political leaders sitting in the Scottish Parliament have very little to show for it. Little wonder they've resorted to those old political playground staples – name calling and the blame game.

Its just not good enough from our MSPs. Labour has been leading results-driven reform down south, but refuses to even contemplate education innovation in Scotland.

The Liberal Democrats can't seem to convince themselves that their universal embrace of local democracy is at all appropriate for the most important, and expensive, public service – our school system.

The Tories have still not recovered from their humiliation over their utterly failed push towards opt-out and are blindly fumbling around at the bottom of their reform cupboard in search of a market mechanism that would pass any popular test.

As for the SNP government, their school report card has been well and truly marked – and the half-term picture is bleak. The ludicrous drive towards class size limits of 18 – a number plucked from the ether – was always going to end up down a classroom cul-de-sac.

A phased approach towards 25, the actual and practical limit in all small schools that run composite classes – would have generated almost universal support from parents, teachers and, perhaps as importantly in light of this week's events, also with their own local education authorities.

The Scottish Futures Trust is more than a few school site starts away from matching the much-maligned public-private partnership (PPP) programme "brick for brick".

The Curriculum for Excellence is under sustained bombardment from the very people upon whom the government must rely to implement it with energetic enthusiasm – Scotland's school leaders. And teacher numbers fell faster than the sector's confidence in the education secretary throughout these past few months.

Meanwhile, under the cover of the concordat, local councils have been getting on with the job of seeking "Scottish solutions to Scottish problems" – which was meant to be the motivating factor, even part justification, of the Scottish Parliament.

The balance of power, and more noticeably of action, has shifted – away from central government and towards an increasingly confident local government, with councils of all political colours beginning to show real signs of education reform.

Whether it's Labour-controlled North Lanarkshire, leading on the modernisation of the comprehensive secondary school, or the SNP-Lib Dem coalition in charge of East Lothian promoting a mature and reflective debate on how best to run the schools in its area, local councils are recognising the fact that budgetary constraints demand new thinking on the design and the delivery of Scotland's school system.

This shift of power, and with it the introduction of local flexibility, has been barely perceptible against the background of noise being generated in and around Holyrood, yet it may well be the clearest signal yet as to the future direction of Scottish schools.

At its heart lies the educational elephant that has been an ever present in our school classrooms these past few decades – parental involvement.

There have been many attempts – all failed – to encourage parents to actively engage with the education sector. We've had everything from the Tories' School Boards – that were exposed early as ideological vehicles for opting individual institutions out of the local education authority system rather than a mechanism for real engagement – to Labour's botched School Councils, that were neither one thing nor the other, introduced with practically zero preparation or parental support.

It is time to take stock of Scotland's school system, to stop reflecting on past glories and for our political class to realise that standards will not rise unless local people – be they councils enabled to act with more freedom or parents positively encouraged to directly engage – are allowed in on the closed-shop of school education policy making.

It is time to wrest control from the administrators and the other defenders of the tired old status quo and give real power to those who have an interest in improving performance.

Now, the new education secretary has form here. In his previous ministerial roles, Mike Russell has shaken up the way other parts of the public sector do business with their customers.

From "encouraging" Historic Scotland to change its image from old fuddy-duddy to trendy, accessible, welcoming host, to pressing Scottish Water to directly channel its resources into supporting the Scottish Government's central policy purpose of enabling the developments that drive sustainable economic growth.

Mike Russell certainly understands the fundamentals of good-quality, efficient public services, and that they involve the engagement and participation of the people with whom these services must be designed and delivered.

This is a very shrewd – and in some quarters at least, readily forecast – appointment, and it will come as no surprise to anyone who has worked with him when he grabs the education establishment by the scruff of its school collar and faces it firmly in the direction of pupils and their parents.

It is simply inconceivable under this new minister that every one of our schools will be run on the failed centralised model of Her Majesty's Inspectorate for Education, where bowler-hatted civil servants fan out across the country dispensing their detached verdict on teaching and learning standards after a few days' inspection.

But there must now be an acceleration of real reform, with an emphasis on improvement through the engagement of those with most at stake in raising performance levels.

And if that means upsetting the fractious teaching unions, then this minister has at least written the book on 'Grasping the Thistle'."

Ross Martin, Policy Dircetor

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