IT’S a good thing I’m not a betting woman. Caught on the hop by a BBC producer asking for my predictions for a Scottish Government Cabinet reshuffle that I hadn’t heard a peep about, I paused for a moment before saying: “Well, surely John Swinney has to go – these education reforms have been a disaster.”

To be fair, the Holyrood insiders weren’t that much closer to the mark – those tipped to go were Ewing, Cunningham and Hyslop, not Robison, Constance and Brown – but they were unanimous in asserting that the Deputy First Minister and Education Secretary would remain in both of those posts.

They were right, of course, but Swinney still managed to dominate the first half of the week’s news despite being one of few Cabinet secretaries staying put. The climbdown over his centrepiece education bill might suggest he is being kept in post not to keep up the good work, but to try and sort out a mess of his own creation.

Of course, the First Minister and her deputy reject this characterisation, insisting the reforms will go ahead and indeed are being “fast-tracked” by the decision to shelve the legislation, at least for the time being. They insist that handing more powers to headteachers will help speed up progress in narrowing the attainment gap, widening university access and increasing the number of Highers achieved by pupils.

But will it? Those in the profession do not seem convinced. Respondents to the government’s consultation about its Empowering Schools plans suggest that not only would additional responsibilities take the attention of headteachers away from their key role of leading learning and teaching, but that they might simply not have the skills and experience to use them effectively.

Nicola Sturgeon, of all people, should be aware of the dangers of bestowing additional powers on people who don’t actually want them, and who lack the necessary resources to achieve desired outcomes. Teachers are consistent in their message about what is needed to boost attainment – more staff, more resources and more training (along with more protected time for staff undertaking this training). One person’s “empowering schools” is another’s passing the buck. A one-size-fits-all approach may not be the answer, but does every school in Scotland really require its own bespoke curriculum, its own recruitment process, its own procurement policies? Are there no merits to maintaining consistency, local authority oversight, and economy of scale?

One area where MSPs are being urged to introduce consistency is in the provision of LGBT-inclusive education for every child in Scotland, including mandatory sex and relationships education. The LGBTI Inclusive Education Working Group, which is due to report in the autumn, was established to advise the government on how the concerns raised by the Time for Inclusive Education (Tie) campaign can be addressed, and it’s hard to imagine its recommendations being ignored. The Tie team have run a model campaign that’s attracted cross-party support, and yesterday even managed to fill the Holyrood chamber with rainbow ties.

It might seem like a no-brainer for Scotland to follow England’s lead and ensure that every child – regardless of their parent’s choice of school – benefits from learning at least the basics about respect, consent and contraception. But headteachers of faith schools are likely to demand exemptions so that they can keep their pupils ignorant about their own bodies and avoid any discussion of topics such as homophobia. Will the Scottish Government still be able to tell them they are being “empowered” while also insisting they fall into line?

If the attainment gap has shown no signs of narrowing by the next reshuffle, there will surely be another well-qualified MSP waiting in the wings to take over. It certainly won’t be Gillian Martin, who has managed to get herself dropped as minister for further and higher education before she was even appointed. Perhaps Aileen Campbell, the well-regarded former children’s minister who was elevated to the Cabinet this week, is the one to watch.

Whoever picks up this poisoned chalice will need to address a fundamental question: how exactly can an “empowering schools” agenda significantly narrow the attainment gap, given that this gap is well established before pupils even enter P1? Putting a major dent in it seems like a tall order for headteachers, who have no control over what happens to pupils in their early years a very limited influence over what goes on in their homes once they are in formal education.

No Education Secretary can wave a wand and wipe out the inequalities that mean some children start school able to read and write while others are limited to single-word commands. From where will headteachers be able to conjure up special-needs support staff, given severe cuts to such budgets in recent years? How can they work effectively with parents who are illiterate or innumerate, or have addiction or mental health problems?

This isn’t to say that nothing can be done, or the attainment gap is inevitable, but there’s a need for realism about what individual headteachers can achieve. Sweeping reforms are no substitute for evidence-based policy that’s focused on outcomes rather than structures, processes and a dubious notion of “empowerment” that has left those at the chalkface feeling totally ignored.