What’s at stake in the row over autonomous state funded schools?


Scotland has had a comprehensive education system for half a century
Education is set to be one of the most contentious issues in the 2016 election, with evidence of widening educational inequalities ranging the parties against one another.
CommonSpace has uncovered the moves made by a controversial think tank, the Hometown Foundation, to promote the ‘autonomous state funded schools’ model, which would represent a radical change to Scotland’s existing model of comprehensive education.
Parent’s at several schools want them, teacher’s union’s are utterly against them, and in the 2016 Scottish elections Scottish Conservatives are advocating them; But what are autonomous state schools and why are they so controversial?
CommonSpace takes a look.
Who are Hometown and what do they want?
The Hometown Foundation is a Scottish registered charity and a registered company with Companies House since 2009. Until 2014 it’s main purpose was to establish a new type of community-run town; Owenstown.
The ambitious plan to create a new conurbation of 3200 homes and 6000 residents in South Lanarkshire, including two primary schools and a secondary school, was cut short in May 2014 when it was rejected by councillors.
Following this frustration, Hometown intervened in the four year struggle of parents at St Joseph’s primary school in Milngavie to save their schools from closure by the local council. Plan’s they had for the Owenstown schools were introduced to parents, and then through a business plan Hometown helped to draft, to the Scottish Government.
The plan is for schools which receive funds which are currently apportioned to local authorities directly to the schools themselves, cutting local authorities out of the loop. The state funded autonomous school would then be in charge of a wide range of organisational decisions including employment of staff and elements of the curriculum.
CommonSpace has revealed that besides the St Joseph’s and a small Muslim school Al-Qalam in Glasgow, the Hometown Foundation has been in talks with non-religious schools interested in the autonomous state funded model.
Hometown are a controversial organisation, owing to it’s director being Robert Durward, a wealthy patron of right wing causes who has sponsored several organisations with political agendas over the years.
He was once considered unpalatable by the Scottish Conservatives who labled a political party he established in 2003 “fascist and undemocratic”, but Hometown are now advising the Scottish Conservatives on education policy.
What are the Conservatives plans for education?
The Scottish Conservatives, who told CommonSpace that they were working with Hometown and academic’s to develop the autonomous state school model, have picked-up the idea and run with it.
In their new education policy, meant to spearhead their 2016 election campaign, the party say they will support teachers who are making bids to the Scottish Government to establish autonomous state schools in order to improve diversity in Scottish education.
They also advocate giving schools which remain within local authority control greater autonomy over their budgets and curricula.
The main innovation in Conservative policy for the 2016 election is the policy of creating “clusters” of more autonomous schools, so that pupils within more autonomous private schools would graduate to more autonomous secondary schools. This policy holds out the possibility of a two tier state education sector.
Both Hometown and the Scottish Conservatives claim that Scotland’s education system is failing, particularly in terms of the ‘attainment gap’, the difference between the educational level of poorer and better of students, and that greater autonomy at a school level would improve educational standards.
Why are some opposed to this idea?
EIS, the largest teacher’s union in Scotland is opposed to what they see as a challenge to Scotland’s model of comprehensive education.
For over 50 years Scottish education has been administered through local authorities, bringing education explicitly within the political sphere. The education system was established in an effort to reduce educational inequalities and provide universal access to primary and secondary education.
Speaking to CommonSpace, EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan has said: “You’ll find that where private individuals want to get involved in state education it’s to undermine state education and pursue their own political agenda. There’s a general anti-public sector ethos”
EIS claims that Scotland’s model of schooling, whilst far from perfect, is high performing by international standards, and that this is down to its comprehensive model.
Proffessor David Miller, who’s research involves tracing the activities of wealthy individuals in public life including Durward, believes there is also a democratic problem with the way groups like Hometown operate.
He told CommonSpace: “People who are rich and poweful don’t have time for democracy.
When they want to influence things they have to bring about mechanisms bring changes about. They establish organisations which claim to work for the common good, they get people behind them and then they gain access to power – often through political parties – in this case the Conservative Party.”