Education Secretary John Swinney has insisted he will retain the option of bringing forward legislation to reform Scotland’s schools – despite a warning from international experts that better results could be achieved without changing the law.
The Deputy First Minister said he had received “cautionary advice” from the Scottish Government’s International Council of Education Advisers on the matter.
Teachers’ leaders and local government body Cosla both made clear they did not want SNP ministers to introduce legislation.
However, Mr Swinney resisted calls to completely ditch the Education (Scotland) Bill – which was dramatically shelved at the end of June – saying legislating to introduce the reforms was still “an option I can bring forward if necessary”.
Just before Holyrood finished for its summer recess, the Education Secretary announced the Bill was being put on hold, claiming changes he wanted to make could be achieved quicker without pushing through new laws.
He insisted at the time that he would bring back the legislation if “sufficient progress is not made” by June 2019.
However, Liberal Democrat education spokesman Tavish Scott claimed teachers saw that as “the threat of another law being imposed on top of them”.
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, said it would be “useful” if the “big stick” of legislation could be withdrawn.
The union leader said he had “a concern” about how much progress could be made in a year, saying: “Frankly, if we’re talking about changing the culture, the idea that we’re going to do that in a year is fanciful.
“Changing the culture of Scottish education is a decades-long agenda, significant progress for me is we’re all still sitting round the same table in a year’s time because we are at least then collaborating on the agreed agenda.
“We need to get rid of the idea that there are threats sitting behind the offer of friendship around collaboration.”
The union leader continued: “I think it would be good if we had an early signal that the collaborative approach is working and that the legislation isn’t going to be required, because I think the idea that there is a big stick waiting there is not conducive to the idea of collaborative practice.
“The big stick removal would be useful.”
Stephen McCabe, Cosla spokesman for children and young people, said councils would prefer the Bill to ditched completely.
He said: “We’re happy that it hasn’t been introduced, we’re not so happy that it is sitting there on the shelf.”
When asked by Mr Scott if dropping the Bill would be a “good idea”, Mr Swinney said: “No, I think it is there as an option I can bring forward if necessary.
“It remains for me an option I can bring forward if sufficient progress is not made.”
He told MSPs on Holyrood’s Education Committee why the Bill had been put on hold, saying while there was “very broad support” for giving schools across Scotland more power, there was “substantial disagreement about the detail of all of that”.
With a deal struck between ministers and councils on the issue, Mr Swinney stated: “I wanted to make sure I built on the agreement that was emerging about school empowerment and essentially captured that opportunity to take forward the reform agenda.
“I was also influenced by the commentary of the International Council of Education Advisers who essentially believe the Scottish Government’s education agenda is soundly focused and anchored, but they gave me some cautionary advice that pursuing a legislative approach to the reforms I was trying to take forward might not create as good an outcome as if I took forward a collaborative approach.
“The concept of empowering schools is not just created by legislation, it needs to be a change of culture within our education system, and legislation doesn’t always routinely deliver a change in culture.”