Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Education & Children's Services - A Response

Education & Children’s Services – A Response

Yesterday I was in attendance, along with two of my colleagues from the Conservative group, at the Education & Children’s Services Committee Meeting in Fife House. A number of different agenda items were presented, leading to a meeting full of much debate, discussion and thought for moving forward. Here I would like to present a response to two key items on yesterday’s agenda. Two that are most significant to the key stakeholders in education – the young people themselves.

At this point I wish to state that in regards to matters pertaining to education, educational policy, educational governance, curriculum development and provision & inclusion for pupils with additional support needs, the one key stakeholder who I am interested in is the young people themselves. Whilst all other stakeholders – parents, senior management teams in schools, teachers and council officers, are absolutely central to decision making, ultimately it is about the young people themselves. GIRFEC – Getting It Right For Every Child, that has been the buzzword in Scottish education for a number of years now and that is at the heart of all of this debate. If we, those who are involved in the teaching, the decision making, the policy and agenda setting, do not get it right, then we fail the youngsters and they are Scotland’s future. There is one opportunity, it has to done correctly.

The two items I am going to discuss here are 1. shortage & recruitment of teachers and 2. proposed changes to educational governance in Scotland. Both of which I am vehemently critical of the current Scottish Government’s policy setting and agenda. Ongoing unanswered questions over the Curriculum for Excellence combined with their abject failures to properly address teaching shortages and their now Regional Collaborative programme which is going to lead to another key service being centralised, despite their claims to the contrary, all make for grim reading.

Over the past decade (during the period of SNP misrule) there has been a decrease in the number of teaching staff. The total of all teacher numbers is reduced by 4,130 – a worrying trend in that this is across all stages and levels. Take for instance the nationwide shortage of STEM subject teachers. Over this past week alone, a high school in Fife (http://www.centralfifetimes.com/news/15488033.Lochgelly_High_School_can_t_find_a_computer_teacher/) has lost its last remaining Computing teacher (I am quoted in the article). Despite the position being advertised twice already the outlook is not good. This is a particularly devastating loss in that Computing is such a key subject in this digital era. Pupils studying for Nationals and Highers were advised of this at the beginning of the new Autumn term with a very unsatisfactory add-on that pupils should “re-course” from their Computing class to another subject. Was nobody taking on board that if you are studying for a National or Higher in a subject it is due to that being a very real possibility it will be due to your considered future potential workplace, college or university choice?

The update in this rapidly moving story is that a teacher from another school is being paid to teach after school lessons to Higher and Advanced Higher pupils at Lochgelly High School. Quite what permanency that arrangement has is yet to be seen and it is not a long-term solution – it should not be a solution. We should simply not be in this position.
At yesterday’s ECSC meeting I asked the question of how many teacher vacancies are in existence across Fife and was advised there are 4 vacancies at the primary level and 26 at the secondary level. However, I would note these are positions that are being advertised. I am utterly unconvinced that this is the actual number. Given I spoke a week ago with one head-teacher who reported a shortage of Computing and Maths teachers and was relying on a couple of retired members of staff to come in on supply to bridge the gap, there is a very real crisis. We also need to keep in mind that Fife has taken on 256 probationer teachers this year – these are not permanent positions and not all end up as permanent positions.

Whilst Fife, like other local authorities, is attempting to address recruitment shortages it is also being handed another edict from on high by Holyrood. The provision of Early Learning and Childcare is to see a dramatic increase in the number of hours being provided. In a move to by the Scottish Government, a new model of 1,140 hours provision of childcare will be rolled out by August 2020 for 2,3, & 4 year olds. This will require an additional 400-500 Early Years Officers (EYO) to cover the hours, these staff will be expected to be qualified to HNC or SVQIII, in Fife Council’s own ECSC papers the ominous words read: “There is currently a major shortage of suitably qualified staff to fulfil our additional requirements” (5.1).

To navigate this policy the Council has begun the process of developing a workforce strategy – albeit a particularly ambitious one for the timescale afforded. Fife Council “anticipates” funding for 28 additional graduate staff (2.23) with projected training places at Fife College to be 164, keeping in mind though that Officers stated that the dropout rate can be up to 20% (this was overall in courses – but it is somewhat indicative of what could potentially happen in this current round of training). Not all of this provision will be based within Fife Council as there will be partnerships with private nurseries, playgroups and childminders.

This though is unlikely to provide an absolute solution – firstly in a round of parental consultation in November 2016 the overwhelming response was the preferred option for provision was within a Fife Council setting (Appendix 5) and secondly options for childminders will need to be explored as they are not currently required to complete the qualifications.

In amongst all of this here are some thoughts I have as per this ambitious policy and its impact at the local level.

·      The move towards Early Learning and Childcare from 2 years opens up the question of – is this childcare or learning?
·      There is no obligation for parents to place their youngsters in this provision – therefore, as per the above point, are they “missing out” on education?
·      What real provisions are in place to ensure that within the most deprived areas (Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation [SIMD] 1 & 2) are aware of and able to access the provision? Social isolation, single parent families and less social mobility are all potentially factors in meaning that some simply “drop out” the system
·      This is a blanket scheme – meaning that the provision is now free to all. Is this right?
·      What about the family sphere? With this in place are parents more likely to place their youngsters in childcare when at work rather than leave them with grandparents? I feel this raises questions about family bonds and nurture.
·      Being in childcare from the age of 2 almost creates a feeling of being institutionalised from an early age.

I am in no doubt that there has to be provision available for parents who work and for those trying to get back to work but this policy seems to be another half thought out measure by the SNP government with no real long-term analysis of staffing, child attachment and the family. On the flip side within the report the current staffing levels for EYOs is that out of a total of 1,050 a total of 315 of them are supply EYOs. As someone who spent nearly two years as a supply teacher in Fife, with absolutely no contract, this is not a tenable position for anyone to be in. In effect, it is a zero hours contract and within the new Early Years provision, the service runs 52 weeks in part. This will mean that those who find themselves unable to secure a permanent role are going to be at the end of a telephone all year awaiting the call. Additionally, there is no guarantee for the local authority either, supply staff can also pick and choose their hours. Therefore, if the scheme has a large take up there could be a reliance on supply staff if the recruitment numbers once again do not add up.

In responding to the specific teaching shortage at Lochgelly High School, Education Secretary, John Swinney stated that “I would encourage local authorities to work in collaboration between schools to ensure that young people can secure the educational provision that they require” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-41083438). My response – empty words. Utterly meaningless and not in any way addressing the national shortage and the endemic failure of this Scottish Government to make education its number one priority despite claims to the contrary by Scotland’s current First Minister.

The second area for discussion here is the proposed changes to Educational Governance in Scotland. Fife Council like other local authorities across the country has to respond to the paper produced by the Scottish Government entitled “Education Governance: Next Steps”. In September 2016 the Scottish Government began a review that sought views on “how education in Scotland is run, including who should take decisions in relation to the education of children and young people, and how funding can be fairer”. This was sent out to interested stakeholders including teachers, parents and groups such as community councils – there were a considerable number of chase up emails requesting that this be completed as a matter of great importance. The review closed in January this year. By June the Scottish Government Next Steps paper arrived, claiming to develop a “revolutionised approach to support and improvement in schools” – keeping in mind they have had a decade to do this already.

A key proposal (well lets be more accurate – a key directive issued by the SNP) is that Regional Collaboratives will be established. These collaboratives will report back directly to Education Scotland – Education Scotland being a quango of the Scottish Government, established by Cabinet Secretary, Mike Russell. These regional partnerships will cross over local authority boundaries and will have legislative duties at a later date. The key points to note are:

  • It will have a duty to collaborate to support improvement on a regional basis
  • It will be responsible for improvement through their provision of education support services
  • Collaborate with other local authorities and national agencies to provide staff (including head-teachers and teachers) to work within the regional improvement collaborative
(as listed 2.8.5)

In short what we will see is a further removal of local accountability. Liz Smith MSP, Shadow Secretary for Education states that: Regional ‘collaboratives’ (which will become boards) are another layer of bureaucracy, they are centralisation and they muddy the waters over where council responsibility lies. I have no problem with improving professional support for teachers on a regional "cluster" basis (in line with what they have called for) but this can surely be done via Education Scotland if it was doing its job properly.”

Indeed, I agree. This is going to only manage to remove local accountability even further and the Regional Directors for each collaborative will report back to Education Scotland (read, the SNP Government). Fife was placed with a choice of which Regional Improvement Collaborative to join – 1. The Pan-Tayside group. 2. The South East Scotland group. 3. The Central Scotland group.

Without listing here the pros and cons of each it has been decided that Fife will go in with the South East Scotland group. To set the scene this will mean Fife will be linked in with Edinburgh, Midlothian, East Lothian and the Borders. Given that Fife is the 3rd largest local authority in Scotland and Edinburgh the second, and given the geographical coverage, this is an immense size of an area. The ECSC paper proposed that elected members agree to this recommendation on the basis that: “Fife Council will be required to provide staff to support the work of the Improvement Collaboratives. To enable the transfer of staff to Regional Collaboratives, specific funding and governance arrangements are required. Fife Council officers have identified the South East Scotland Grouping (South East Scotland Alliance) as the most relevant grouping for its particular needs”. (2.8.9)

Did you quite follow that? Fife is being grouped in with a collaborative agreed by Council officers – not elected members and with no reference at this point to opinions of staff and the key stakeholders – the parents and children. I asked this question of Education Services and was given a rather occluded answer of an ongoing consultation and discussion and that it was felt it was the best choice. Did anyone consult with parents though? Are they aware that this is to happen?

The SNP government claims this is empowering head-teachers by devolving more responsibility and power. The exact opposite is happening. Whilst making them legally responsible for addressing the attainment gap it will be a regional director who will feed priorities and updates back to Education Scotland (Scottish Government) – where are the stakeholders? Why are these to be formal collaboratives set up? To the cynic, one would think this was a further attempt by this SNP administration to create further centralisation as they have done in their disastrous implementation of Scotland’s now one police force and the problems that has brought. Problems I witness daily when speaking to residents in the ward I represent who constantly note the lengthy follow up times to calls and the lack of a visible presence on the streets.

Due to this being like the previous meeting’s concern that officers were not fully engaging with stakeholders over catchment areas (see earlier post), I proposed an amendment to send this decision back out and have a full consultation with senior management teams, teachers, parents and carers.
The amendment I proposed read: 

“This Committee defers a decision on the best regional collaborative to join pending a report with further evidence and clarification that this is the way to move forward”.

It was seconded by my colleague Cllr Nolan, although I noted it was also supported by the Lib Dem councillor on the committee, with one Labour member being heard to state he would abstain from any vote. Now here is where it becomes interesting. I was asked when I would like it to be deferred to and I stated until the next meeting – which is at the beginning of October. At that moment an administrator informed me this was too late as the decision had to be made by September 8th! You couldn’t make it up – we were to support a recommendation that we had no choice but to support as the deadline was before the next committee meeting so there was no opportunity to ask for some space to allow further engagement and consultation.

For a proposal by the SNP Government that is going to have such wide ranging implications I find it absolutely beyond comprehension that a local authority should be in a position not to allow a member to have an amendment put to a vote to give the people – the stakeholders in this, a further say – or should I say a proper say. I have to wonder how many parents out there are even aware of this proposal? Are they aware that under this new policy that local accountability is going to be removed? That Fife is about to be subsumed into a wide regional alliance to extend as far south as the Borders?

The realisation dawning and the worried faces from the top table led to me having to withdraw the amendment.

In addition to the aforementioned understanding that this move will further distance local people from the services that affect them there is also a major issues in that the theory of local government is that councillors decide policy and officers execute policy. Instead we have just witnessed the opposite – something I and many of my colleagues have witnessed all too often since May.

At this stage I plan to continue to push the following issues:
  • Recruitment and staffing
  • Educational Governance and centralisation by this failing SNP Government
  • The relationship between elected representatives and officers through decision making and execution of policy

Kathleen



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