‘McSchools? Not in Scotland’

You don't have to be an aunt Sally to see that this is exactly the kind of school the white paper in England is aimed at creating." Gordon Smith, head of Jordanhill school in Glasgow's West End, is describing why he has to be careful what he says just at the moment.

In his role as president of the Scottish Association of Headteachers, Smith describes why Scotland can't have more schools like Jordanhill. While with his other hat on, he talks about how great it is. It is a difficult line to tread.

Jordanhill is a comprehensive, non-denominational, mixed-sex primary and secondary school, which regularly tops league tables and wins awards – most recently a UK-wide prize for the best use of IT in the classroom. It used to be a teaching training college and has been allowed to remain independent. It is entirely self-governing, receives its budget direct from the Scottish executive and sets its own admissions policy. Within the salubrious area it serves the policy is non-selective, first-come first-served.
Jordanhill works as a cluster school with others in the district, providing free places in its upper school for children to do minority subjects. It buys into support services from the local authority but the plethora of smartboards around the school are evidence that its carefully managed budget sees more money ending up in the classroom. Smith and Jordanhill’s rector, Dr Paul Thomson, are pushed to think of things they miss about local authority control.

Anomaly or example, Jordanhill does have the potential to become a political UXB north of the border. The English white paper sees school autonomy and increased parental choice as policy goals.There are warnings that bringing in private firms to run trust schools could create McSchools or Burger King academies. But, although the bill may be carried through Westminster on the votes of Scots Labour MPs, there is “nae chance” of any of it happening in their home constituencies.

The education minister, Peter Peacock, has said: “Our agenda is choice within schools. It is not about choice between schools. We don’t favour a policy of choice between schools, which could be a substitute for universal excellence in our system.”

The Scottish Labour-Lib Dem administration is taking education in a very different direction. The most recent reforms on a very long list are: the abolition of compulsory testing; a review aimed at “de-cluttering the curriculum”, which is causing concern that specific subjects like history may no longer be taught; and the abolition of school boards. Local authorities retain strong control of schools and budgets, although they have been criticised in the Scottish press recently for not getting enough of the money into the classroom. In some council areas, education money is swallowed up by the cost of free personal care for the elderly.

But, despite the broad consensus of the main parties in the Scottish parliament (which does not include Conservatives) and the mainstream teachers’ representatives about what should be done, an ear placed strategically to the ground might detect a murmur asking if this arrangement is really reaping the results that might be expected from a massive £19bn investment in education since devolution.

Scotland is now spending more per head on education than virtually anywhere else on the planet. The figure for secondary education in Glasgow was almost £6,200 per head last year, up from £3,500 in 1999-2000, and in the same bracket as Scottish private-school fees.

But, despite all the investment, the most recent international measures of attainment show that, far from having the best education system in the world, as is sometimes claimed, Scotland appears to be gently sinking towards the OECD mean, behind England and the US, and even impoverished Latvia.

Some problems are obvious: for instance, the low level of parental involvement. Last year, a consultation exercise found that school boards involved less than 1% of parents, the vast majority white and middle class. It concluded that boards were not representative socially or ethnically of school communities and should be abolished. Uninvolved parents told the consultation they were put off by the formality of the boards and there was a move to replace them with loosely structured “parent forums”, where parents would simply represent the interests of their own child.

Scottish School Board Association chair Caroline Vass condemned the move, saying the new forums would be little more than “talking shops” that could be sidelined at will.

The revised parental involvement bill, due for its first full debate at Holyrood tomorrow, gives parent councils a role in appointing a headteacher but little else.

Professor Walter Humes, of Aberdeen University’s education department, argues that the new parent groups are part of a political agenda that is about giving people more responsibility without handing over real control of services. “There is a rhetoric about giving people ownership and empowering them,” he says. “When I hear these terms now, I reach for the sick bag. In all public policy the executive are talking about giving people responsibility, but decision-making power is kept firmly at the centre. This is a good example of it.”

There is not much evidence in Scotland that parents are hungry for a greater say. “There are two possible explanations for that: because there is a level of satisfaction with the school system or because there is a culture of dependency,” says Humes. “My own view is that people in Scotland tend to be too deferential to professionals in authority.”

The teaching profession north of the border has also recently successfully lobbied to end compulsory testing. From this spring, national progress will be surveyed with a random sample.

Bill McGregor, of the Headteachers’ Association of Scotland, defended the move, saying it would end the problem of teaching to the test. Parents would still be told what level their child was working at: “The only thing that will be different is that you can no longer compare your child’s performance with little Johnny three streets away.”

But McGregor and other headteachers do look with envy at the level of autonomy from local authority control in England. The 32 councils in Scotland run the schools in their areas, receiving policy from the Scottish parliament.

Ewan Aitken, convenor of the children and families committee of Edinburgh council, says: “In Edinburgh we aim to get 89% of the money for schools to the schools. But councils have to manage the budget in a holistic way and if you spend some of the money on social workers or youth crime initiatives, you may still be benefiting schools and education.”

Local authority control kept local democracy and schools tied to communities. “What they are doing in England will sever the links between schools and the communities they serve.”

Alistair McCulloch, a dentist and father of two, was for seven years head of the board of St Mary’s Episcopal school in Dunblane, one of only two to opt out under the Tories’ minority government of Scotland in the late 1990s. It was forced back into local authority control after losing a legal battle in 2002.

“I felt very angry we weren’t allowed to continue,” he said. “We were doing so well and it was such a rich experience.” Administration costs were almost two-thirds lower and the extra money went on class support, he said.

“Everyone gave a lot of their time. We took it seriously because we knew we were dealing with our children’s future.”

St Mary’s is now back under the hand of Stirling council. “Maybe it’s changed a wee bit, it’s under a different system. But it’s still a good school and the children are still happy and still working well,” says Mary Paterson, the current head.

But for McCulloch, Jordanhill’s continuing independence is a source of frustration. “If you were to look at the parental roll of Jordanhill, you would see that it is like a Who’s Who of Glasgow. And all those people can say: ‘I send my child to a state school’. And it’s a great school. But other people in Scotland aren’t allowed anything similar.”

The Guardian
February 21st 2006