HEADTEACHERS have become the most powerful figures in Scottish education after the biggest structural shake-up in generations weakened the influence of councils.

In the most wide-reaching overhaul of school education in 50 years, Education Secretary John Swinney has given heads a statutory responsibility to improve standards for the first time.

Headteachers will also be handed powers to hire staff and shape the curriculum, as well directly controlling a bigger portion of budgets.

Mr Swinney insisted councils would still have a “vital” role to play in education, but he has also created new regional bodies to supplant local authorities in their traditional role of supporting schools and driving improvement.

These will be staffed by professional experts rather than councillors. and led by a regional director, who will report to the chief inspector of education.

In a statement to the Scottish Parliament Mr Swinney said: “We will reform the system so that the key decisions in a child’s education are taken by schools.

“Schools will have the freedom to make their own decisions to improve learning and teaching.

“Everyone else within the education system will have a collective and shared responsibility to support schools.”

But the announcement provoked an immediate backlash from council umbrella body Cosla, which said the role of local authorities in running schools was effectively over – apart from the power to appoint headteachers.

It said: “There can be no getting away from the fact that the Scottish Government is trying to give the impression councils still have a role to play in the delivery of education when the reality is that they do not.

“The simple truth is that there will be no meaningful local democratic accountability for education in Scotland.”

The reforms were broadly welcomed by Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith.

As part of his review of school governance Mr Swinney had received proposals from groups who wanted to take schools completely out of council control but these were rejected.

Ms Smith said: “We do not believe these reforms go far enough, particularly when it comes to extending choice and allowing schools to opt out of local authority rule if that’s what parents and teachers want.”

Iain Gray, education spokesman for the Scottish Labour Party, said Mr Swinney had ignored a nationwide consultation on the proposals. And he questioned whether the regional structures would add another layer of bureaucracy.

He said: “Consultation responses from teachers, from parents, from educationalists and from councils all said the same thing.

“The first reform we need is more teachers, properly paid, properly supported and properly resourced.”

Ross Greer, education spokesman for the Scottish Greens, also said the review would not resolve the key issue of the loss of teachers.

However, Mr Swinney said the Government had taken steps to increase teacher numbers and that the six or seven regional bodies would provide specialist support for schools through education professionals.

Teaching unions welcomed aspects of the reforms that had a focus on improving support for schools and improving the career path of teachers.

However, they raised concerns about the creation of “superheads” with the power to dictate the future without consulting teachers.