RICs: improving Scottish Education through collaboration?

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Regional Improvement Collaboratives, what are they?

Regional Improvement Collaboratives “RICs” are a relatively new addition to the education policy landscape.  RICs are forums where local authorities come together along with Education Scotland to improve education in their region.  The aim of RICs is to facilitate existing and new ways for local authorities to collaborate.

The RICs are part of a wider suite of Scottish Government reforms to the governance of school education.

There are six RICs.  They vary in size in terms of numbers of local authorities involved, the geographic size of the region and the population.  The Northern Alliance and the West Partnership both comprise of 8 local authorities.  The area covered by the Northern Alliance is vast, around 60% of the area of Scotland.  In terms of population, the West Partnership covers a third of the population of Scotland, where as the Tayside Collaborative covers around a thirteenth (just under 8%).

Number of LAs Pop. Area (sq km)
Forth Valley and West Lothian Collaborative 4 488,210 3,070
Northern Alliance 8 978,360 46,832
South East Collaborative 5 1,202,810 7,354
South West Collaborative 4 518,460 9,795
Tayside Collaborative 3 416,080 7,528
West Partnership 8 1,834,180 3,346
Sources: Pop, Nomis (Mid year est.); Area, NRS.

The table above omits Education Scotland, an executive agency of the Scottish Government, is an important member of every RIC.  Education Scotland is the national improvement agency whose functions include the education inspectorate, curricular support, and the Scottish College of Education Leadership.

Education Scotland has adapted its structure to complement the RICS.  In a letter to the Education and Skills Committee in 2018, Education Scotland stated:

“We are currently making the transition to a regional delivery model, with a collective and collaborative approach at national, regional and local levels. In time, we will deploy most of our education staff to work alongside leaders and other frontline practitioners through the RICs, motivating change and providing specialist support.”

This change in focus and structure is also being funded by the Scottish Government, which has committed an additional £10m in total to enhance regional capacity to support schools.  Additionally, the Budget for 2019-20 provided for an uplift of £2.5m in Education Scotland’s budget; the Budget document stated—

“[The Scottish Government will] increase the portfolio budget in real terms to support the reforms to strengthen our regional capacity for educational improvement through the new Regional Improvement Collaboratives and Education Scotland. This will deliver additional resources, collaborative support and focussed expertise across Scotland, to further support schools and early learning establishments in delivering excellence and equity for our children and young people,” (p15)

Education Scotland has restructured to align itself with the RICs but RICs themselves do not have a substantial structure or bureaucracy.  Rather the RICs provide the processes and forums which facilitate local authorities and Education Scotland working together to plan and deliver improvements in education.  An interim review of RICs, published in February 2019, said that the extent to which RICs are entities was still being debated.  In terms of the structure of RICs, the Interim Review said—

“The structures established by RICs were varied. Generally, structures involved a mix of political oversight (involving elected members); high level forums or boards (often involving Directors of Education and RIC leads); groups including wider stakeholders (including headteachers and external partners such as Education Scotland, the Care Inspectorate or other public sector agencies); and workstream groups (involving workstream leads and key deliverers).” (para 2.17)

Where did they come from?

RICS in their current form were constituted at the beginning of 2018 when they submitted their first Regional Improvement Plans (more on these later).  Prior to this, three collaboratives had already been formed: the Northern Alliance, the West Partnership and the Tayside Children’s Services Collaborative (which also included the local NHS health board).  Stirling and Clackmannanshire councils also had experience of working closely together to deliver school education.

In 2017, the Northern Alliance was the most well-developed of the three.  The genesis of the Northern Alliance was in 2015 to address issues such as teacher retention and recruitment.  This partnership grew and by January 2018, Lawrence Findlay, the then Director of Education of Moray Council, told the Education and Skills Committee

“The alliance has sought to develop the culture of collaboration further. That has resulted in the sharing of expertise in many areas, including curriculum development, school estates management, early years and integrated children’s services, and community learning and development.” (Cols 3 & 4)

The development of the RICs is a key part of the Scottish Government’s reforms to educational governance.  The OECD’s 2015 report on Broad General Education stated that the Curriculum for Excellence was at a ‘“watershed” moment’ and—

“The review calls for a strengthened “middle” operating through networks and collaboratives among schools, and in and across local authorities. As the local authorities are integral to such a development, there needs to be complementary action to address the gaps between the high- and low-performing authorities.” (p10-11)

Furthermore, the OECD called for less focus on system-wide leadership and more on “professional leadership focused directly on the nature of teaching, learning and the curriculum in schools, networks and communities”. (p21)

During the first half of this parliamentary session, the Scottish Government embarked on a programme of reform to school education governance which was informed by the findings of the OECD.  Its governance review, which ran from September 2016 to January 2017, sought views on, among other things, establishing “educational regions” and the functions and services that might be delivered at that level. The Scottish Government’s analysis of responses to the consultation noted “strong opposition to the uniform establishment of educational regions” (emphasis in the original), albeit respondents suggested that the concept at that stage was unclear. There were also concerns that the proposal was focusing on structures rather than improving processes.

The Government’s response to the consultation, Next Steps published in June 2017, noted that the suggestion had not been popular but argued that strong research suggested that “regions can play an important role in strengthening the capacity to manage change and promote school improvement across local authorities”.  The Government stated that the RICS would be quickly established and that national agencies would be realigned to support the RICs.  Next Steps also gave more detail on the Government’s intention for RICs, stating they would:

  • provide educational improvement support for practitioners;
  • develop regional improvement plans
  • facilitate collaborative working across the region; and
  • be led by a Regional Director, to be appointed by the Scottish Government and to report to HM Chief Inspector/Chief Executive of Education Scotland. (This last proposal did not happen in the end, as is discussed below.)

To take forward plans for RICs, a joint steering group comprising Scottish Government and local government officials was established in the summer of 2017.  The group reported in September 2017.  One major change was that the role of the regional director (final bullet point above) was dropped in favour of a Regional Improvement Lead who would be an employee of a local authority.  The steering group proposed the geography and make up of the six RICs.  It also suggested that the new arrangements be subject to an independent review.

On 3 October 2017, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills announced to Parliament that he had come to an agreement with COSLA and that the RICs would produce their first Regional Improvement Plans by January 2018.  Some RICs had just a few months to establish themselves and agree their first plans.  The Cabinet Secretary also said that he would “commission an external review, first in April 2018 and then 12 to 18 months thereafter, to assess our progress on establishing the bodies and on fulfilling their potential.” (Col 27)

Over the course of a year, the initial proposal for “education regions” became, or was clarified to be, a “collaborative” and within these, local government ensured that it would have a leading role.  At the same time, local government’s position moved from opposition to partnership.  It is worth noting that, during this time, it was expected that the Scottish Government would underpin its proposals for reform with new law.  Part 2 of the now mothballed Education (Scotland) Bill would have placed a duty on local authorities to collaborate with each other and with Scottish Ministers (in practice Education Scotland).

What do RICS do?

The joint steering group’s report built upon the functions of RICs outlined in the Next Steps (first three bullets in the previous section).  The report identified core functions for all RICs as to:

  • Identify priorities for improvement within the region.
  • Produce a regional improvement plan.
  • Enhance and improve professional learning for teachers, other professionals and key partners.
  • Ensure that an appropriate range of support, interventions and programmes are in place to raise attainment and close the poverty-related attainment gap.
  • Identify, promote and share good practice in learning, teaching and assessment.
  • Support schools to interpret and implement key educational developments and insights gained from research.
  • Ensure and enhance subject-specific support and advice across all eight curriculum areas, with a clear focus on literacy and numeracy.
  • Facilitate access to sector-specific support and advice (e.g. Gaelic Medium Education, Additional Support for Learning).
  • Build capacity in improvement methodology, through review, collaboration and shared approaches.
  • Take a regional approach to supporting staffing challenges, including recruitment and retention.
  • Work with local authorities and other partners to support wider collaborative working across the ‘system’, including education, social work, health, Community Planning Partnerships and others to ensure that together, ‘we get it right for every child’.

While this list covers the common functions of all RICs, the joint steering group’s report was explicit that how they carry out these functions is a matter for the individual RICs.

Regional Improvement Plans

The first Regional Improvement Plans were very variable.  Following work in this area, the Education and Skills Committee noted that the Northern Alliance, which was mature by January 2018, had a detailed plan, whereas the West Partnership took “a more minimalist approach”.  The Education and Skills Committee warned of “a risk that there is a mismatch between what local authorities (and ADES) consider the role of RICS to be and what Education Scotland and the Scottish Government expect”.

Regional Improvement Plans must be agreed by the Chief Executive of Education Scotland.  These plans are only one of several improvement plans made at different levels. The Scottish Government produces the National Improvement Framework and Improvement Plan; local authorities produce Local Improvement Plans and Schools produce their own School Improvement Plans.  All of these plans should reflect the national priorities.  The interaction between other plans and the regional plans is less clear.  For example, whether local plans reflect regional plans or vice versa or if they are independently related to the national plan.

The plans tell us about the kinds of activities RICs are undertaking.  Workstreams of the RICs are on a number of topics including supporting children and young people from more deprived families, supporting leadership and professional collaboration, and curricular design.  Taken as a whole, the Regional Improvement Plans reflect the functions identified by the joint steering group although different RICs prioritise different areas of work.

How well are they doing?

The impact of RICs on improving leadership, collaborative practice and teaching and learning is, at this stage, unclear.  A further review of the operation of RICs is expected in 2020.  However, the fact that RICs have been established and are operating could be considered a success.  The interim evaluation reported that there was broad buy-in for the RICs at national and regional levels with few regional stakeholders “unsure about the rationale of the RIC concept” or questioning what RICs would add.

The interim evaluation looked at the initial stages of the operation of RICs – i.e. the period covering set up and first improvement plans.  The interim evaluation found that, especially given the short timescales, the RICs had been successfully established.  It was recognised that more work was needed to engage stakeholders and schools more widely – this is perhaps reflected subsequent Regional Improvement Plans.  In terms of impact, and remember that this is from the early stages, the interim evaluation stated—

“All stakeholders indicated that it would take time to see an impact. However, some school staff gave very positive early examples of sharing best practice, skills development and influencing practice around areas of leadership, self-evaluation, moderation of assessment, improvement methodologies, parental engagement, maths, early literacy and equality.

“Overall, school staff were very positive about the idea of learning from one another across the region, and welcomed opportunities for networking, building skills and developing their practice.” (paras 7.14 & 7.15)

Ned Sharratt
Senior Researcher
Education, Children and Young People, Culture