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Cometh the hour … cometh the ideas?

May 21, 2016

There’s general agreement that appointing John Swinney as Cabinet Secretary for Education is a sign of how seriously Nicola Sturgeon is taking education. The Scotsman described him as being appointed to “fix” the education system, invoking images of Swinney with his head under the bonnet wielding a wrench. Or perhaps shaking a wrench threateningly in the direction of local authorities, which was more James McEnaney’s interpretation on CommonSpace.  Certainly, COSLA doesn’t appear at first sight to have joined others in formally welcoming his appointment.

Education produces a forest of statistics, often open to multiple interpretation, sometimes legitimately, sometimes less so. It’s likely one early impact of Swinney’s appointment will be a much stronger focus on using numbers to make the most presentable case – though with the added challenge that it can’t be too good, given improvement needs to be demonstrable in a few years’ time.   Swinney has a track record of vigorously defending contested figures against all comers.  The opposition is likely to be kept busy policing the way numbers are used to defend  policy on education.

So the new appointee will certainly make a difference to the presentation, with a more confident style than his predecessor and greater willingness to face down critics both likely. But the thought that one person can “fix” the education system suffers from a major flaw. It’s not people – however heavyweight and long-serving – alone that bring about major change. It’s people armed with ideas.

The distinguishing feature of serially-reforming England has been ideas – lots of them. It could be argued that English education has suffered from a surfeit of ideas  over recent decades, often running contrary to the instincts of many in the teaching profession and remaining hugely controversial.  But interventions with an ideological drive have, without doubt, resulted in change. In England, there was an open desire to reduce the role of local planning and make the system more led by parental choice,  based on a preference for markets over state planning as a mechanism for creating efficient systems, and a more nakedly political desire to reduce council powers.  It was matched with distrust of teachers, leading to more dictation about what was actually taught and (because market models were only trusted up to a point) interventionist powers for “failing schools”.

Scottish education reform has, by contrast, tended to be more about brokered change – not free of ideology, but the ideology more professional than political, and generally more open to variable interpretation locally.  It’s been a  more cautious, managerialist, less confrontational approach.  Many have welcomed the contrast with England.  It has not required politicians to come into office with big ideas about how the system needs to change – if anything, they have been praised for not doing so.

The framing of education now as a problem, the talk of radical change to close the gap in attainment between  pupils from different backgrounds, and the parachuting in of the Deputy First Minister, does not fit that model so well. It implies something other than cautious managerialism is the intention for the next five years.  But it’s less clear what ideas the government brings that will underpin its reforms.

In the SNP manifesto, there were references to greater local discretion on the one hand and more regionalisation on the other, and of course standardised testing.   However, exactly what new, transformational mechanisms such moves are expected to unleash remains unclear.  Does the party believe more choice for parents is a stimulus for change, or  more variety in the available models, or more direct local accountability to parents, or more planning over a wider area, or less variation between what’s available across Scotland, or more local professional discretion, or more intervention, at least in certain schools, or a different distribution of funding, or more economies of scale in support services, or less involvement by councillors, or something else, and for any of these, why is that, and which matter most? What does it make of the absolutely separate organisation of the education of the wealthiest suburbs of Glasgow, East Renfrewshire and East Dunbartonshire, carefully arranged by the Conservative government of 1992? Bearsden Academy (1 or more highers in 2014 = 86%) and Drumchapel High School (1 or more highers in 2015 = 15%) are less than 2.5 miles apart. Their staff work for different employers. There is nowhere you can go to compare  easily how much public funding they get per pupil, and it is no-one’s job to think about that, or about how the two interact (or, whisper it, their catchment boundaries). Is that regarded as a problem, or not?

The manifesto was both vague about precise intentions, and even vaguer about exactly how the party believes the levers and cogs of change could be better engaged than they have been to date, by doing any of the things it suggests.  Its presentation has not got far beyond the “something must be done, this is something” stage.

But if you don’t have an idea about why particular changes will achieve the effect you are after, the risk is of upheaval without improvement. There’s no guide to the massive number of important practical choices that lie behind any general plan. You don’t know which battles are important and which can be more readily conceded, what to prioritise over what.  Critically, as implementation  moves from the Cabinet table, to month after  month of civil service  submissions, to the legal draftsmen, to the Parliament, to budget discussions, to working groups, to agencies, and then to the people in charge of implementation locally, neither does anyone else.

Whatever your political position, the right thing is to want the Scottish Government to succeed over the next five years in improving the educational experience of all young people, but particularly those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

We have the big man. What are his big ideas?

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