John Swinney: from bank manager to head boy

Written by Tom Freeman on 26 October 2016 in Inside Politics

Holyrood finds the Deputy First Minister "energised" about his new role as Education Secretary

Finance has dominated John Swinney’s life. Before being elected as an MP in 1997 he was strategic planning principal with Scottish Amicable, and apart from a stint as leader of the SNP – and the opposition – between 2000 and 2004, his political career is characterised by nine years holding Scotland’s purse strings.

In that time, he built up a reputation as a solid political heavyweight, respected on all sides of the chamber, and was promoted to Deputy First Minister in Nicola Sturgeon’s first cabinet. 
His switch from finance to education after this year’s Holyrood election therefore raised some eyebrows.  

Education is an entirely new venture for a man who has been often compared to a bank manager. 


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“When the First Minister asked me take on the role as Education Secretary, I felt I had done everything in finance,” he tells Holyrood

“I’d literally done everything. I’d done spending reviews, I had done budgets, I had done momentous fiscal framework negotiations with the UK Government in which we held our nerve and won. I’ve done economic recovery, capital stimulus, I’ve literally done everything.”

Even if the image of a staid, serious money man is not entirely accurate – Swinney is a keen marathon runner and also ran the SNP election campaign, travelling across the country in pursuit of votes – concerns that he may see education as primarily another economic stimulus package would be understandable. 

Surprisingly, Holyrood finds Swinney much more philosophical about the power of learning as a “bedrock” for people to lead fulfilled lives. 

“Essentially, education has got to create fulfilment for individuals in our society. In that respect, education is part of the foundations of people’s lives, and their experiences of public services,” he says.

Although he says he would have been “quite happy” to continue as Finance Secretary, leading Scotland’s education system is an “exciting and exhilarating” prospect because it “opens the doors for people”.

Swinney’s morning has been taken up with visits to various schools, an activity he says he has been allocating time for every week in his first four months in the job. 

He describes how a family support centre in East Renfrewshire he has just visited is linked with nearby primary schools and the local secondary to ensure connections to the different stages of the education pathway for vulnerable children are established.

“The early learning practitioners who are running the family support centre, the challenges they can predict for the young people coming in – they are children, babies coming in at a few months old –  they can predict where those young people will be if they don’t intervene and don’t try to help deliver better outcomes. They are absolutely focused.

“It’s a very interesting model, because it gets to the heart of the nature of collaboration between different stages in the learning process, seeing learning as a continuum, to go back to your original question. 

“Learning is a continuum, it is building on what you have learnt before, establishing strong foundations, building on those foundations and having everyone aligned to support that.”

Another example is a school in Wishaw using outdoor learning to “overcome some of the challenges people have encountered with education in the early stages”. Swinney says he accompanied a group of pupils from both P2 and P6 together. 

“In the formality of our lives we would call it mentoring, but in that situation [it is] a more informal way of nurture and support of children of different age groups. There’s a lot of very interesting practice that has been taken forward there, different ways in which education can be delivered.”

Although professionally Swinney has been focused on finance, like many, he has experience of the education system as a father of three children. His youngest, Matthew, entered primary two in August. Has his new job coloured the way he interacts with their education, or affected his relationship with his children’s teachers? 

“No, because I would have made no different choices. We made our choices about our son’s education over the course of the last few years, when he went to nursery, when he went to primary, and we wouldn’t have made any different decisions. 

“That’s because he’s in a strong, high quality education environment in a local school. He’s benefited from his participation in nursery education.”

Swinney says he can see the work of his predecessors in the role. 

“For example, Matthew would have gone to a thing called ‘rhyme time’ at the local library. It is a fabulous intervention to encourage the communication and play skills of young children. His mum would have taken him to that.”

He describes all the different activities available to children as a jigsaw.

“If you’re prepared to take part in each part of the jigsaw, it will make up to a really fabulous picture of education for a young person.”

Being Education Secretary does elicit a different response from people, however.

Swinney remembers his first appearance on the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme in his new role.

“I’ve done that Sunday Politics shift on countless occasions. Generally, no one would bat an eyelid about anything that I said as finance minister. The first day I did an interview as Education Secretary my inbox was crammed! ‘Good to see you on the TV, here are my thoughts,’ and so on. There’s a lot more dialogue.”

Some of that dialogue is in more informal settings. Do fellow parents and teachers nudge each other in the playground when he walks in? “Of course, yeah,” he says.

“People don’t miss their opportunity to raise with you, in all sorts of informal situations, their own perspectives on education. When I take Matthew to Friday night football and there are members of the teaching profession also watching their kids playing football, you’ll not be surprised to hear what the topic of conversation is.”

Swinney insists he isn’t one of those parents who harangues the referee with expletives from the touchline.

“No, I am definitely not one of those,” he says. “I’m very cautious of what my responsibilities are… but I do take every opportunity to hear and listen to what people are saying to me. Sometimes it’s a wide range of experiences and perspectives.”

Swinney’s relationship with the teaching profession has dominated his first few months in the job, after he inherited a workforce balloting on industrial action over workload and with serious recruitment problems in several parts of the country.

Early on he wrote to teaching unions asking them to put forward ideas on how to reduce workload, then brought them round a table with opposition parties to develop a consensual delivery plan. 

Based on recommendations in an OECD report on Scottish education, the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) would be “simplified and streamlined”, he promised, and a panel of teachers was appointed to advise on this.

Then, at the Scottish Learning Festival in September, Swinney announced guidance for teachers would be streamlined down to a few pages, promising “literally thousands of pages” of confusing guidance would “disappear”.

Particularly popular among teachers was the scrapping of the much derided unit assessments for CfE National 5 qualifications.

Scotland’s biggest teaching union, the EIS, suspended planned industrial action over workload in the wake of the announcement, but warned the Scottish Qualifications Authority to deliver on the promise.

The focus, Swinney tells Holyrood, has been on closing the attainment gap, something he has a mandate from the First Minister to do. 

“I am utterly certain in my mind that the closure of the attainment gap is delivered by a strong learning and teaching environment, but if you’ve got teachers who cannot get near delivering a quality learning and teaching environment because of unnecessary bureaucracy, overloaded work, too much assessment, too many forms to fill in, spreadsheets to tick, whatever it happens to be, then you’ve got to do something about that. 

“My objective was to ensure I tackled the obstacles in the way of enabling teachers to concentrate on learning and teaching.”

Feedback from teachers on the simplified guidance has been positive, he says. “It’s now simplifying what is expected of the teaching profession and enabling them to concentrate more and more on the strength of the values of learning and teaching.”

To close the attainment gap in ten years, Swinney says he must make “substantial progress” in this parliamentary term.

“We’ll do that by strengthening learning and teaching in Scotland, and we’ll strengthen it by addressing the issues that have emerged in the international analysis of Scottish education in the OECD report, which told us we needed to have more collaboration within education, we need to strengthen the middle and by enabling our schools to make more decisions tailored to the needs of the young people in front of them.”

As well as a council of teachers, Swinney also appointed a council of international advisers, international figures with the aim of learning on best practice from around the world. In addition to the authors of the OECD report, there are figures from the USA, Canada, Scandinavia, Malaysia and Australia.

The panel includes well-known educationalist Professor Alma Harris of the University of Malaya, who praised Scotland in 2014 for “putting the focus back on equality” in education.

She will be joined by Finnish expert, Dr Pasi Sahlberg, who told Holyrood in 2014 that Scotland should “find your own way” instead of emulating other countries.

Swinney says teachers have told him “these are the people who have influence on our pedagogy, and we’re lucky as a country to have them”, but how much stock will he take of their recommendations? Harris, for example, is unlikely to support Scottish Government plans to introduce standardised testing in primary schools. 

“Andy Hargreaves from the OECD, who is one of our council, encouraged us at the education summit to move from a culture of judgement to a system of judgement, his point being there is not the data available to be clear we are making systemic progress in our journey,” says Swinney.

“So yes, there will be differences of perspectives within the council of education advisors and the Government has got to listen to all of that, absorb that and reflect it in our thinking as an administration.”

Interestingly, there is no specific education legislation in Nicola Sturgeon’s Programme for Government, but there is a sense Swinney will have his hands full. The Government “nailed its colours to the mast”, he says, by saying education and the attainment gap would dominate the administration. 

“That is going to drive everything I do. That’s what will get me out of bed in the morning. And every decision I take, the test of it will be ‘does this help close the attainment gap?’ So if anybody asks what the focus of government policy in education is, well, that’s it, the closure of the attainment gap.”

Swinney challenges the notion a lack of education bills in the Programme for Government might represent a lack of ideas. 

“Within six weeks of being in office, probably even less than that, I set out a delivery plan which was a very deep substantial programme of reform, designed to achieve that vision of excellence and equity,” he says. 

But while the SNP could use its overall majority last term to dominate the committee system and pass legislation which could be described as more controversial, won’t the make-up of this parliament require more collaboration?

“When we get to the debate about closing the attainment gap, does anyone really believe that’s the wrong thing to be focused on? I invite them to debate it with me, and we’ll have a good old debate about it, but I’m coming at this from the point of view that I’ve seen this persisting in Scotland for far too long, and I want to be the Education Secretary who makes the big progress to close it.

“I’m not going to be distracted from that, and if folk want to debate it with me, fine, I’ll debate it with them.”

Holyrood points out debate is likely to focus on the how, not the why. Opposition debates in the chamber have already tested the Government’s resolve since the election. 

“Well, let’s see. I’ll listen with care to what people put to me, but I just want to be absolutely crystal clear that I’ll be testing it all against the closure of the attainment gap and if I think it’s side-tracking us away from closing the attainment gap then I won’t have anything to do with it, and I’ll be challenging people to articulate that point of view. That’s right across the board in this debate. 

“There should be no illusion. The First Minister’s been very clear this is her top priority, she’s put her Deputy First Minister in to pursue this agenda and her Deputy First Minister is intent on doing exactly that.”

But for all the fighting talk, it will become harder to ignore opposition to some of last term’s more controversial legislation, such as university governance, standardised assessments and the named person, which will require secondary legislation after the UK Supreme Court ruled it breached privacy laws.

“Well, parliament has legislated on higher education governance, parliament legislated on the Children and Young People’s Act, it did so with substantial and broad support for our position, and we’ve said on named person we’ve got particular issues arising out of the Supreme Court judgement which we’re doing the heavy lifting to address,” says Swinney. 

While his relationships with opposition parties look set to continue to be robust, Swinney’s relationship with councils has been increasingly strained, as local authorities saw moves to control teacher numbers and spending on certain elements of education services as a centralising power grab. 

Indeed, local democracy formed a core part of Swinney’s speech to SNP conference, where he pledged to “go further” with devolving decision making down to communities.

“We will review the roles and responsibilities of local authorities, and we will look again at the relationships between local authorities and health boards,” he told delegates.

“We aim to achieve nothing less than to transform our democratic landscape, protect and renew public services and refresh the relationship between citizens, communities and councils.”

This theme forms a central part of his school governance review as well, the conclusion of which might mean “further financial flexibility” being devolved to schools, using funds previously controlled by local government, Swinney has hinted.

He faced accusations of predetermining what the outcome of the consultation might be, by making the idea of schools being “empowered” to make their own decisions a “guiding principle” of exercise.

This is unlikely to reassure councils who already feel disempowered by central government. 

Swinney tells Holyrood the situation should be seen as “an opportunity” to build collaboration with the Scottish Government and with each other, reminding councils his proposals appeared in an SNP manifesto which secured 46 per cent of the vote.

“We trounced absolutely everyone else on that manifesto. Actually, local government in no way disputes the right of the Government to pursue its election mandate, and I welcome that.”
Discussions should be “constructive”, and focus on the attainment gap, he says.

“Just doing it the way we’ve always done, it doesn’t strike me as being a reliable route to closing the attainment gap, because we’ve got an attainment gap that has persisted for all of my adult life. 

“I view the five years that is ahead of us in this parliamentary term as our opportunity to interrupt that cycle. Interrupt it at every level. To interrupt it for new-born babies, to interrupt it for children who are going to two-year-old centres, to interrupt it for children going into early learning at age three, for those going into primary education, throughout their primary and secondary education, and in terms of their access to higher education. 

“We’ve got a five-year opportunity to interrupt that, and what I can promise Scotland is absolutely focused, consistent policy-making to address all of that. I invite everybody to work with me on that journey.”

But local authorities have seen themselves on the front line of austerity. Shrinking budgets have led to cuts in support staff, proposals to shorten the school day and a reduction in music lessons and other extra activities designed to enrich the learning experience. 

Investing in new ideas is hard to accept when it is becoming difficult to maintain what is already provided, councils say. Doesn’t Swinney have sympathy with that position?

“No,” he says, frankly.

“I’m not being flippant about it, Tom. I’m very familiar with local government financial settlements. I presided over them for nine years. Local government has been substantially protected from the effects of UK Government austerity by decisions I took. 

“If local authorities in Scotland were to go and compare their financial position with the financial position of their counterparts south of the border, they would see very clearly they have been substantially protected.”

Nevertheless, councils are being asked to do more with less. Swinney recognises there are “financial challenges”, but says it forms part of a wider debate about the delivery of public services and how they might be reformed. 

“Local government has not reformed the delivery of 32 different education services around the country. What about some collaboration? The OECD report said this. We need more collaboration. Where’s the collaboration been, with each local authority with its own education department? What I’m advancing in the governance review is collaboration across local government boundaries.”

He refers back to his examples at the start of our discussion. “Good practice in Scotland exists,” he says. “Very, very good practice. World-leading practice exists. The problem is it’s not systemic. 

“It might exist in one part of the country, it might exist in one school, but does it get shared and replicated or taken forward right across the country? No, it doesn’t. Because there isn’t enough collaboration. 

“There are financial solutions to some of the challenges that face local government long before it gets anywhere near reducing support staff. By encouraging more collaboration between individual local authorities in the delivery of education services, to give you one example.”

This hints at quite large-scale reforms of the public sector in Scotland, ones which may be resisted by current councils and possibly the teaching unions.

As part of a united front with councils’ umbrella body, COSLA, in the wake of the governance consultation launch, EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said he had told the Government it would be “an absolute folly to look at any kind of structural reorganisation in education at a time of reduced resource, because it would simply be distracting attention from what is important, which is how you support teaching and learning.”

And collaboration is only one of the recommendations from the OECD report. The international body called for a complete reboot of CfE, even giving it a new name, while Dame Ruth Silver’s Commission for Widening Access also called for some radical changes to university admissions and student support.

So just how radical is the SNP prepared to be?

“In a relatively short space of time, we have set out a delivery plan which fundamentally reforms Scottish education, the governance review starts a further process, the funding review, which I will launch in March, will undertake that further, the appointment of the widening access commissioner, which we’ll take forward in the next period, is another example. The review of student support.

“There’s five very substantive pieces of work. This will be a reforming government on education. 

“In addition, you’re going to get further progress on early learning and childcare. At all stages of the education journey, there will be reforms undertaken by government, focusing on the needs of learners, ensuring we focus on providing opportunities for young people to fulfil their potential.”

Although CfE “probably” needs a new name, Swinney says it does not feature on his “to-do list”.

He will continue his school visits, though. That morning, he attended the first session of a three-month engagement with pupils to gather views on governance, equity, how well young people’s voices are heard and whether the school has good links with their community.

Young people’s citizenship charity Young Scot will undertake the engagement across the country in partnership with Children in Scotland and the Scottish Youth Parliament.

The project is funded by £61,000 from the Scottish Government, and will seek the voices of young people from both urban and rural settings, in the care system, and those who have a disability.

The results will feed directly into the review of school governance, and must not be seen as “some top-down governance exercise”, according to Swinney, but will “bring in to play the views of a whole range of different stakeholders. Who could be more significant than the young people of Scotland?” 

“Buoyant, positive ideas” were aired at the session, he says. One participant, Ben, talked about “the importance of pupils having views and having them listened to, about how the education system should develop”.

Will this consultation extend into the Swinney household, though, Holyrood wonders. How much empowerment will be afforded to his own children?

“I can barely get a word in edgeways with Matthew Swinney, to be honest, with his views of the world and his education experience.”

Swinney credits this partly to his son’s school experience. 

“I remember as a primary seven pupil having to do a talk to my class. I remember it now, at the age of 52. It was such a big deal, having to do that. 

“My son is on his feet in front of the class every day of the week. A confident, expressive young man. 

“That to me is one of the big shifts in Scottish education. It’s a tribute to Curriculum for Excellence. It has changed the culture within our schools to make our young people more confident and more capable of expressing their contribution. That’s something Scotland should feel very proud of.”

There’s clearly no issue with Swinney’s confidence and expression now, and while he notes a change in the focus of the curriculum, there has also been a change in Swinney’s image. Those commentators who once compared him to a bank manager now refer to him as Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘head boy’.

He laughs. “Only if the head boy can be older than the head teacher, then I suppose it works!”

But couldn’t ‘bank manager’ to ‘head boy’ be seen as a backwards step? 

“I’m absolutely thrilled to be Education Secretary. I hadn’t thought about it before the election. I was concentrated on running the campaign, getting the party re-elected. I hadn’t thought about it, but I was delighted to do it. 

“Looking back, though, I wouldn’t have felt as energised about another five years in finance as I feel about the five years that lie ahead in education.”




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