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Apocalypse, then?

The New Community Schools initiative looks good on paper, but David Halliday questions whether its vision of the future for Scotland's schoolchildren is capable of being fulfilled

THE EXECUTIVE'S bold initiative - New Community Schools - is starting to accelerate. As the former minister Lord Sewel stated in the report The Exciting Challenge, it is designed to avoid "a threat to the liberal democracy we enjoy".

Apocalyptic language! Even the most ardent enthusiasts of the initiative may well think this is expecting too much, but it does serve to illustrate the vital role assigned to New Community Schools.

The Executive is investing a considerable amount of new money to focus the combined expertise of health, social and education to combat the ramifications of the erosion of our social fabric, particularly family life, on the education system.

It obviously appreciates that unless the comprehensive system evolves successfully to meet the challenge, the real prospect in several years will be an even more fragmented system (the antithesis of the New Community School objective), with the affluent increasingly fleeing the chaos of failing comprehensives to the safety of the private sector, or alternatively buying an appropriate school ethos for their children by moving home.

The stakes are high. But more money does not ineluctably result in higher attainment and social inclusion. So, what is the probability of a vibrant state system meeting the needs of all our communities' children five or 10 years from now?

In this context it is interesting to read the recent commendable publication Improving Leadership in Scottish Schools. In usual HMI- speak, we are assured that most of "the leadership of headteachers was very good or showed more strengths than weaknesses", based on the earlier report, Standards and Quality in Scottish Schools 1995-1998.

The central message, however, is that "in many schools there is clearly scope for improving the quality of leadership". That small word "many" is not quantified, but since it was written by Douglas Osler, senior chief inspector of schools, it would be prudent to assume he ha good grounds for his assertion.

He goes to the kernel of the issue by opining that "we need to give more attention to the role of leadership (particularly that of headteachers) throughout the organisation" and "that school management has to be much more than efficient day-to-day administration" if "we hope to make a real difference to pupils' experience".

Ironically, in recent years it has been the class teacher who has often been castigated for alleged failings and inflexibility. In contrast, senior management teams have escaped lightly. As the HMI reports highlight, senior managers are generally very good administrators - producing impressive staff manuals and policies - at least on paper.

But they have far too often failed to develop and share a vision, based on shared values, for their staff and pupils. As Joe Hallgarten stated in a recent report, Parents Exist OK!?, by the Institute for Public Policy Research, "for all the rhetoric about encouraging home-school links, the reality is that many schools have relegated parents down their list of priorities".

Consulting parents, staff, pupils and the wider community, when it has been attempted, has often failed miserably, primarily because people very quickly perceive when they are being patronised and manipulated by myopic senior managers intent on providing some spurious legitimacy to their own, rather than a shared, agenda.

Thankfully there are those in senior school management, hopefully an increasing number, who are communicating a vision, and they are genuinely tapping into the enormous creative potential of teachers and the entire community.

As our New Community Schools gear up to confront truly gargantuan challenges, can those devoid of the leadership skills acquire them? Assuming such skills can be acquired, can supposed leaders do it quickly enough to allow the New Community Schools to make a significant difference for all our children? Let us hope so, for as we are informed in Proverbs, "where there is no vision the people perish".

David Halliday is a history teacher and principal teacher of business education, Eyemouth High School.

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