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The Scottish local elections on 3rd May have aroused little interest.  The parties insist that the issues are local but only two aspects of the electoral tussle have grabbed the pundits. Will Labour, after bitter in-fighting, finally lose control of Glasgow and will the overall results boost the pro-independence lobby in the forthcoming referendum.
At least that was the case until the Tories dropped their recent educational bombshell.  Ruth Davidson, only an MSP for a year but already leading the squeezed third party of Scottish politics, wants a Scottish version of Gove’s free schools and academies.
Miss Davidson said: “Rather than sticking rigidly to the one size fits all model, other parts of the UK have innovated in the delivery of education by tailoring schooling to the needs of the parents and local community.  We want to bring forward proposals to free more schools from the direct control of councils.  We want to see more choice and innovation in Scotland by looking at what is going on elsewhere in Britain in terms of technical and free schools.”
That put the cat among the Scottish pigeons.  Even if the Tories won every council in Scotland, a statistical not to mention political impossibility, they would have no powers to create such free schools.  That would require parliamentary legislation. The main teachers’ union however, the Educational Institute of Scotland, went on the offensive, accusing Ruth Davidson of not understanding what Scottish education is really about and the bloggers picked up her presentational weakness: “Typical Tory, so quick to ape England with not a clue regarding her own country.”
Ironically, free schools and academies are being introduced in England by Gove, an exiled Scot, but as J M Barrie had it: “There are few more impressive sights in the world than a Scotsman on the make.”  Ruth Davidson should know that to seek to impose ‘English solutions’, especially when articulated by an exile on the make, on Scotland is certain to arouse heated opposition.
And quite right too.  The purpose of this little move is to undermine comprehensive education around which there remains a remarkable consensus in Scotland.  Unlike England there are no selective schools in the local authority system and only 4% (compared to 7% in England) of Scottish children attend schools in the private sector.  The Tories hate that.
None the less, those of us committed to that comprehensive system should beware.  One phrase in Ruth Davidson’s statement will receive an echo, especially among teachers. When she advocates freeing schools from local council control, teachers and even parents in several local authorities will not be unsympathetic.
That is especially the case in the largest councils where a crude managerialism characterises the professional leaders in education and a petty parochialism and total lack of strategic vision characterises the political leaders.  Education is now led professionally by the accountants, the HR gurus and others who have never led a school or even a school department.  The creation of mega-departments, uniting several distinct disciplines and services, has also undermined the principle that schools should be led collectively by professionals with both a knowledge and a feel for the purposes of education.
There is a far more radical option than Davidson’s.  Take schools out of the control of local councils and put them in the hands of the Scottish Parliament.  There would be greater parity in provision across the different areas of Scotland.  There would be only one layer of so-called quality assurance.  Perhaps most importantly, there might be clearer strategic direction but less petty-minded day-to-day interference.  I’d settle for that.

This article was first published in SecEd on 3 May 2012:

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