Scottish Government’s education plans face a 'paradox' of compelled autonomy', claims former head

Written by Carolyn Scott on 6 December 2017 in News

Compelled collaboration and innovation is contradictory, a former head teacher has told the Education Committee

Frank Lennon - Scottish Parliament

Compelling schools to take on more autonomy is “perverse”, MSPs have been told.

Hearing evidence from education experts ahead of the expected introduction of the Education (Scotland) bill in 2018, the Scottish Government’s Education and Skills committee were told that compelling schools to take on more autonomy was contradictory.

Frank Lennon, a retired head teacher representing Reform Scotland’s Commission on School Reform, said: “The irony is that in order to give schools more autonomy we are compelling them to take more autonomy and that seems a bit perverse to me.”

Lennon added that, while in favour of increased autonomy and a school-and-teacher-led education system, this was “likely to be more successful if schools are ready for it.”

The committee also heard of the need to allow for schools to develop organic relationships with each other, in discussions around the regional collaboratives - six regional bodies that the Scottish Government hopes will allow schools to share expertise and innovation.

Lennon said: “The difficulty is that the government has defined these collaboratives - they’ve told the authorities which collaboratives they’re in, so they haven't come organically from the school. Argyle and Bute is in the same regional collaborative as Aberdeen.”

Danielle Mason, head of research at the Education Endowment Foundation, told the committee that collaborations can exist beyond geographical locations, drawing on examples from England: “In English Schools we have something called the Families of Schools database. What this does is collect schools together based on various attributes, such as the proportion of disadvantaged children, where they are, their results, and schools can look at how they’re doing compared to similar schools.”

Mason said that this form of collaboration can allow schools to say, “my school is similar to that school and they are achieving something. We can make a change to make that happen.”

This need for an “organic” process, that would allow schools to collaborate with others outwith the regional boundaries dictated by the Government, was echoed by Lennon: “We have to get away from the idea that there is a single model of collaboration that we can roll out to all schools. It’s not going to be like that,” he said.

He added that the system should be encouraged to generate its own innovations. “Why don’t we allow schools for themselves to decide when they’re ready?”

Education Secretary John Swinney has previously pointed to the Northern Alliance, a current regional collaborative across the Highlands and Islands, as an example of the success that these collaboratives could bring, though the Education and Skills committee today was warned that not enough was known yet about the Northern Alliance to truly judge its impact.

Dr Rebekah Widdowfield, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, told the committee that before a judgement could be made on whether the scheme had been a success they had to clearly identify the “indicators of success”.

“When we say the Northern Alliance has worked - and we’re not close enough to know whether it has or not - we need to be clear on ‘what do we mean by that? Worked on what basis?’”

Lennon suggested that the Northern Alliance benefited from being part of a more organic process. “It’s one of the paradoxes - we are not going to get collaboration unless we have high levels of autonomy. Mandated collaboration is not collaboration. The reason the Northern Alliance worked is precisely because it wasn’t mandated.”

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