Teachers unions raise alarm over secret Scotgov meetings with ‘autonomous school’ lobby


Hometown Foundation pursuing English free school style model met with John Swinney

TEACHERS’ UNIONS have reacted with alarm to news that the Scottish Government held secret meetings with a group pursuing a model similar to free schools in England.

The Scottish Secondary Teachers Association (SSTA) and the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), have called for the Scottish Government to forget the idea of so-called ‘autonomous’ schools which would receive funding directly from central government, by-passing local authority control.

The intervention comes after an investigation by the Daily Record, which used Freedom of Information requests to uncover a meeting between education secretary and Deputy First Minister John Swinney in October 2016 and the Hometown Foundation, a charity promoting the school model. The meeting with Swinney was followed by a meeting with his head of policy Colin McAllister in November.

No minutes were recorded at either meeting.

“I hope the deputy first minister listened but saw through the motives and moved on to next business. However, I worry when the minister sees the answer by wanting more control for head teachers and by-passing local authorities.” Seamus Searson

Speaking to CommonSpace, SSTA general secretary Seamus Searson said: “‘Autonomous schools’ always sounds a good idea that schools can run themselves and do what that need to do for their young people. The local community would be closely involved in the running/managing the school. These would also be known as ‘free schools’. If groups want to set up schools then they should be ‘free’ to do so (they are called ‘independent’ schools and are self-financing) but not with state funding.

“Free schools are breaking away and establishing their own version of education. They will attempt to select those who attend with the aim of the school to meet the demands of those who manage it. The curriculum can be skewed and the can push a particular political/religious view.

“I hope the deputy first minister listened but saw through the motives and moved on to next business. However, I worry when the minister sees the answer by wanting more control for head teachers and by-passing local authorities.”

The Hometown foundation has held meetings with parents from several schools who are seeking, or have sought, autonomous school status with the Scottish Government, including St Joseph’s Primary School in Milngavie.

Last year CommonSpace revealed the group had also held a meeting with the Scottish Conservatives, meaning that the policy of establishing a type of free school is being promoted both within the Scottish Government and the opposition.

In 2015, CommonSpace revealed that one of the Hometown Foundation’s leading figures was Robert Durward, a wealthy patron of numerous rightwing causes.

Various forms of ‘free schools’ and ‘Academy schools’ have been established in England, some of which except donations from wealthy donors. The UK Government has been forced to close some of these schools due to poor educational attainment levels. One free school in Durham was closed after it was revealed that pupils experienced unusually high levels of bullying and religious bigotry.

Investigation: Who is really behind the push for ‘autonomous state schools’ in Scotland?

Responding to the revelations of the meetings with the Scottish Government, an EIS spokesperson said: “The EIS remains firmly opposed to any suggestion that ‘free school’ or ‘academy’ models could potentially be imposed in Scotland.

“Scotland has a proud history of offering a highly inclusive comprehensive education to young people in all parts of the country, and it is essential that we continue to uphold this principle. Experience in other countries, including some parts of the UK, demonstrates that so-called autonomous school models do nothing to enhance or maintain standards, may lead to greater educational inequality and can open the door to non-qualified staff acting in teaching roles in the classroom.”

“Meetings held by the Scottish Government are, of course, primarily a matter for the Scottish Government. However, we have heard repeated assurances from the Scottish Government, through successive Education Secretaries and from the Deputy First Minister and First Minister, that they have absolutely no desire to follow England down the de-regulated route of allowing schools to ‘opt-out’ or adopt free school or academy models.”

The Hometown Foundation has argued that a “one size fits all” approach to school provision, embodied in the Scottish Comprehensive school system established more than half a century ago, is failing Scottish school pupils.

The Scottish Government is currently undertaking a review into school governance. Swinney, who was moved from a finance to an education brief last year by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, is tasked with improving the Scottish school system. Speaking to a fringe meeting at the SNP’s 2016 conference, Swinney said he wanted to move schools away from a “uniform” model.

Sturgeon has asked the electorate to judge her government on education.

CommonSpace contacted the Scottish Government for comment, but they had not responded by time of publication.

UPDATE: A Scottish Government Spokesperson said: “As Ministers have made clear, we will never go down the divisive academy model. Questions on the principles of school governance in Scotland will be considered as part of the wider review of education governance currently underway.”

Picture courtesy of Scottish Government

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