Councils have too often failed schools and consideration should be given to stripping them of their administrative powers, a union boss will say today.
Seamus Searson will tell the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA) Congress that the time has come for an examination of the longstanding relationship between local authorities and education providers, including options for transferring their role to independent, non-political entities such as regional boards.
He said councils had put teachers at risk throughout the Covid pandemic and claimed his union had to fight “tooth and nail” for delivery of in-school safety measures.
Mr Searson, who is the SSTA’s general secretary, added that controversies over supply work and permanent teacher contracts exemplified failures that have cast doubt on the fitness of authorities to run schools. He is now insisting they be included in a major national review that will shape plans to replace the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and reform standards body Education Scotland.
His criticisms have been strongly rejected by leaders at COSLA, which represents councils. They said the remarks amounted to a “mischaracterisation” that would not be recognised by children, young people and families.
But Mr Searson told The Herald: “The education review is taking place – they’re reviewing the curriculum, Education Scotland and its functions. They’re reviewing the SQA and national qualifications. So that’s a major review that’s taking place. But the one thing we’re missing from all of this is the role of local authorities in running education – so far, they’ve stifled teachers, increased their workload, put teachers at risk throughout the pandemic, because we’ve had to fight tooth and nail to get any sort of improvements [and] mitigations into schools.
“Some authorities have been very good and some have been far from good. We’ve had to fight them at every turn to make sure that teachers are safe. The introduction of CO2 monitors in schools is being delayed longer than it should have [been]. Getting face coverings for everybody in school, ensuring that we’ve got hand sanitisers and everything that we need in schools – they have all been stifled or delayed.
“I would argue that local authorities need to be brought into the review and a big question is – are they actually fit to manage education in schools?”
Mr Searson said one possible alternative would be a network of regional education boards on which councils could sit as members. He added that this might help to depoliticise education. “They have it in other jurisdictions – they have it in Northern Ireland, for example,” he said.
“Some people might say we’re harking back to the old days of what we had before, [when we had] a number of education areas. But I think we need to seriously ask the question – is what we’ve got at the moment doing the job?
“The situation we’ve had over the years is that, when it comes to things like pay, COSLA and the councils find it very hard to agree and make an offer because of political allegiance.
“Sometimes it’s used to embarrass the government. And we’ve got the council elections coming up next year and so therefore the same thing applies. Some councils will want to embarrass the government and others will not. When I say councils, I mean [that] political parties [on councils] will.”
Mr Searson’s remarks come as a new teacher pay row emerges, with unions declaring a formal dispute over a proposed 1.22 per cent rise. Larry Flanagan, general secretary at the EIS, said it was “completely unacceptable that… Scotland’s local authorities and the Scottish Government have failed to respond with a reasonable pay settlement”. Mr Searson said the dispute highlighted “the contempt that local authorities have got for some of their teachers”. He added: “Some [councils] are excellent but there are others that are penny pinching at every corner.”
A COSLA spokesman said: “The idea that councils and schools failed during COVID is a mischaracterisation that won’t be recognised by children, young people and their families. Against the continually changing nature of the pandemic, councils, schools and all education staff have gone above and beyond.
“Almost overnight new ways to deliver teaching online were developed, we made sure that free school meals continued to be delivered for those who were eligible and implemented a range of mitigations in classrooms to protect staff and pupils, following the Scottish Government and Public Health guidance at all times.”
The spokesman added: “Scotland’s councils have utilised the money provided by Government to increase the numbers of both teaching and support staff by over 1600 new permanent and temporary jobs based on the local needs of our children and young people. Throughout the pandemic they have prioritised the health, wellbeing and employment of staff in an extremely challenging financial climate, ensuring essential services have remained in place.
“Throughout this time those on supply lists have continued to be offered work and it is the case that many councils are struggling to get staff to provide essential temporary cover. This is because for some anxieties remain high, which during a global pandemic is perfectly understandable.
“Without doubt Scotland’s councils will continue to prioritise the recovery for children and young people and make sure they get the most out of their education.”
On the issue of teacher pay, COSLA said it remained in “constructive negotiations” and that talks would continue. A Government spokesman said: “We will continue to play our part, positively and constructively, on pay negotiations.”