Scotland has 32 local authorities for a population of just over 5 million. That means, amongst other things, 32 local education authorities. One, the charming Clackmannanshire which admittedly has sensible working arrangements with neighbouring Stirling, has 3 secondary schools. Local education authorities have, in parts of England, been denuded of powers and often meaning as schools go their own way. However, that can create a situation where better off areas have school boards well served by, in effect, pro-bono accountants and lawyers, while schools in poorer areas have difficulty finding board members at all. That’s a problem where the school board controls the school. In Scotland, though, the problem lies at the other end of the spectrum. No school is without sensible oversight – but the price for that is that heads are often stymied in their imagination and provision is staid, staple and not innovative. Indeed, in Scotland the Head is also known as the main education officer for the school. In other words, the boss is the Director of Education.
I’ve come across directors of education who are quite brilliant and some who have been a lot less so. The same with heads. But the general point in Scotland is that the Scottish local authorities have, for years, been dominated by a single mindset embodied in the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) which has sought to preserve its own power at the expense of innovation. COSLA has typically been controlled by the Labour Party. With Labour rendered pointless at the moment in the Scottish parliament, it’s COSLA where Labour still has a bit of power to battle the new SNP ‘establishment’.
Sir Tom Hunter, a big business figure who takes a serious and considered position on educational matters, has come out today attacking the lack of experimentation and innovation in Scottish Schools. The SNP administration should take that as a call to arms. For years, Labour in Scotland as a whole did little or nothing to innovate in Scotland – it was too in thrall to COSLA and the councillors who controlled it. Labour’s lack of innovation in Scotland led to it’s irrelevance today. So Hunter’s criticism applies more to the Scottish establishment over the years than to the SNP in particular. The SNP is in a much better position to move on innovation than Labour ever was. And Sir Tom might just get at least some of the movement he wants.
First, the SNP isn’t in thrall to a body which wants to hog power to itself at the expense of improving services. If you want a highly-paid officer to defend the status quo under local authority officers across Scotland, you’ll want COSLA. Second, though, the SNP is beginning to realise that it’s so dominant now, and Labour in Scotland so awful, that it isn’t going to go the final mile to independence by simply kicking the weakling around the playground. The SNP has already shown it can govern competent steady-state Scotland – that’s how it’s got to where it is. Now it needs to show it can innovate too, and take a bit of risk. That’s what governments do. The test for the SNP now, and until the next referendum, is whether it’s more than just a Labour-bashing machine – whether, in other words, it can improve the country rather than simply win elections.
There are plenty of competent officers, teachers, heads and educational academics in Scotland to devise some new schemes which ensure all kids are protected from poor practice, but also that some meaningful innovations can be given their head. Even if some won’t succeed – that’s the nature of risk and innovation, of course. It sounds like they might to this though, and if they do they’ll have at least one big business innovator and educational thinker on board.
Let’s hope Nicola Sturgeon can conquer her fear of appearing to agree with the Tories on this occasion. Sometimes, it’s a sign of strength to accept that your opponents have at least the germ of good point.