Agenda article by Councillor Stephen McCabe, newly appointed COSLA Spokesperson on Children and Young People, writing in a personal capacity.

"It may come as a surprise to some, but I agree with much of what John Swinney had to say in his ‘Agenda’ piece of 13 June on Education Governance.

There are many strengths in Scottish education. Most young people are achieving excellent exam results and moving into positive destinations when they leave school. Scotland does have a good education system, with great teachers and engaged pupils.

It would have been nice if Mr Swinney had recognised the contribution Councils have made in delivering these successes.

Like the Cabinet Secretary, I am not content to rest on my laurels however. As a Council Leader, and just as importantly a father, I am every bit as passionate as he is about helping all our children and young people reach their potential. Where we disagree is on how to achieve this.

Mr Swinney clearly sees Councils as part of the ‘problem’, while I see Councils as a key part of the ‘solution’. His Education Governance reforms - which are opposed by professional associations, parent groups and trades unions - are designed to side-line Councils while I believe Councils and democratically elected Councillors should be at the heart of driving improvements in attainment.

We live in our communities. Our children and grandchildren attend local schools.

We want only the best for them and their fellow pupils. We attend parent council meetings to listen to the concerns of parents and head teachers. We know our schools and they know us.

Stung by criticism from opposition politicians of the ‘failings in Scottish Education’ the Government needs someone to blame. Step forward Scotland’s battered and bruised Councils.

This further attack on the role of Councils should not surprise anyone. We have a Scottish Government that does not believe in local government or local democracy. Centralisation of Fire and Police Services, the imposition of health and social care partnerships, the Council Tax freeze, and now the Council Tax cap, and savage cuts to our funding have all served to diminish local democracy.

Under the Government’s plans Councillors will lose our legal responsibility for attainment and improvement to newly created quangos led by regional directors reporting to Education Scotland and ultimately to the Cabinet Secretary. We will have to provide our own improvement support staff to these quangos to deliver services under the control of the regional director without any guarantee we will actually receive as good a service as we currently provide ourselves.

Councils will be largely left with providing a range of support services to schools, including maintaining school buildings, HR and payroll and administering placing requests. We will be able to appoint head teachers but will have little or no say in how they run our schools.   

These reforms are a distraction from the real challenges facing Scottish Education: a chronic shortage of quality teachers and potential head teachers; constant changes to the national curriculum placing excessive demands on the profession; and severely reduced Council budgets.

The Cabinet Secretary highlighted in his article how excited head teachers are about the new pupil equity funding. Well I suppose any local government professional would be pretty excited about ‘extra’ money after so many years of austerity even if that ‘extra’ money was at the expense of other Council services.

Money can make a difference. In my own Council there is already clear evidence that focusing the attainment challenge funding on children, and crucially their families, in greatest need is starting to pay dividends. Continuing cuts to other local authority services, which these families rely on, can only undermine this progress.

Children spend approximately 14% of their year at school. If we truly are to get it right for every child and close the attainment gap we need to address the challenges many of them and their families face the remaining 86% of the time out with the school gates.

I would appeal to all Councillors to recognise the far reaching consequences of Mr Swinney’s reforms and the impact they will have on our role in education. It is not too late for us to exert influence on our parties at Holyrood to secure significant changes.

The Scottish Government does not command a majority in Parliament. They require the support of at least one other party to get their reforms through.

If, like me, you believe Councils are part of the solution, now is the time to stand up to be counted." 

Councillor McCabe is the Leader of Inverclyde Council. He is Scotland’s second longest serving Council Leader.

Article published: 
Mon, 07/08/2017 - 08:00