John Swinney defies unions, parents and councils over education reform

Scotland's Deputy First Minister John Swinney Credit: PA

The easiest thing to do in government is... nothing: not to change anything, to leave well alone, to let sleeping dogs lie.

That's not a choice that Nicola Sturgeon and her Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, have made when it comes to education.

Mr Swinney has embarked on a programme of radical reform aimed at raising standards and closing the attainment gap between pupils from better and less well off backgrounds.

To do this he plans to give headteachers more power, create regional 'collaboratives' to drive the changes through, and have a system of assessment of pupils, which is standardised across Scotland.

These proposals are not proving popular with what some would describe as the education establishment, most notably Scotland's councils, the teaching unions and the main parents' organisation.

The move to 'empower' heads by giving them the right to choose most of their own staff, including teachers, and implement the Curriculum for Excellence to suit local circumstances, has met ferocious opposition.

Put simply, the Educational Institute for Scotland (EIS), the main teaching union and a powerful voice in the land, says heads should not be given extra powers and advocates collective leadership in schools.

Councils in the form of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) object on the grounds that the plans will take power away from local authorities who, legally at least, are responsible for education.

On top of that the Scottish Parent Teacher Council has grave reservations warning, "authority and autonomy for headteachers must not translate into authoritarian or autocratic approaches."

That is already a formidable trio of opposition but in order to get these reforms through Mr Swinney, who is the education secretary as well as Ms Sturgeon's deputy, needs to introduce legislation at Holyrood.

As the SNP is a minority government it will need the support of at least one other party. Currently Labour, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats are opposed to the reforms, or at least major parts of them.

Which leaves only the Conservatives broadly supporting the changes but given the SNP's anti-Tory rhetoric Mr Swinney would feel more than a little uncomfortable relying on Ruth Davidson's party.

Which means that Mr Swinney has one heck of a job on his hands to get these reforms through, and there are many observers who believe that faced with such widespread opposition he might back down.

Having just interviewed him for Representing Border, there is no sign that he will do so. He and the First Minister - the most powerful figures in the Scottish government - are determined to see this through

According to Mr Swinney "education can transform the life-chances of young people in Scotland..." and these reforms are vital to continue that transformation.

His recent announcement of the latest block of funds which go directly to headteachers - some £5 million to schools in the south of Scotland - is the forerunner to the wider reforms.

The money to heads "empowers schools within Scotland by money directly to headteachers to shape and influence the education of young people..", Mr Swinney told me.

What then of view of the school leaders union which said one of its members - speaking presumably for others - found the prospect of these additional powers, under the headteachers charter, "terrifying"?

Mr Swinney told me: "There's countless headteachers who I talk to around the country who are clamouring to secure the type of influence and flexibility that the Scottish government is talking about in the headteachers' charter.

"These are some of our greatest professionals, the leaders of our education service in every corner of Scotland and I think we should trust them to lead the education, give them the flexibility that they require to enhance the educational opportunities of young people."

He added: "That's what our reforms are all about, about empowering schools, empowering headteachers and making sure that does the most important thing and that's improve the education outcomes of young people in Scotland."

I understand Mr Swinney has also been struck by recent visits he has made, in particularly to schools where problems have been identified, the head changed and standards have improved.

What of the claim the new system will be more bureaucratic - heads getting powers, councils continuing to be legally responsible, collaboratives above them, Education Scotland (including the school inspectorate) above them, and ministers setting policy?

I understand the Deputy First Minister believes that these fears are overblown.

The cabinet secretary is convinced the collaboratives can do what he thinks councils cannot achieve - adding heft to the drive to improve schools overall and close the attainment gap.

Councils can identify problems and what needs to happen but track the results, but they often are not big enough and cannot make the change happen, he believes. The collaboratives can.

In the cabinet secretary's view, Education Scotland, at the heart of the collaboratives, is driving the changes, though Mr Swinney had to compromise to allow council officials a great role in the regional bodies.

And Mr Swinney has told Education Scotland officials to get out from behind their desks writing policy documents that ministers believe few read and have little impact, and go into schools and classrooms to help drive up standards.

Now, it is fair to say that the unions, parents’ organisations, and the councils will not accept much of this analysis - indeed some will reject it in its entirety.

And they will make their formidable lobbying presence felt when the Bill to enact these reforms comes to Holyrood, and find sympathy from at least three opposition parties.

As he pushes ahead with his plans I wonder if Mr Swinney ever thinks back to Tony Blair's efforts at public sector reform under new Labour?

The former Prime Minister spoke of having "scars on his back" from the process, so difficult was it to effect change, including in education.

So, does Mr Swinney have scars on his back as a result of pushing ahead with controversial reforms? If he doesn't yet, there's a good chance he will have by the end of the process.