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Communities to fore as cluster model gains ground

With a re-examination of local authority structures expected under the next Scottish Parliament, Emma Seith reports on some of the options.

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With a re-examination of local authority structures expected under the next Scottish Parliament, Emma Seith reports on some of the options.

This August, school clusters in East Lothian will be given hundreds of thousands of pounds to spend jointly on anything from the early years to employing staff to work across primary and secondary.

The funds will not be new. Instead, up to 5 per cent of the devolved budgets that the schools currently receive will be shaved off and placed in a communal pot.

East Lothian is also encouraging its parent councils to open their doors to non-parents with valuable skills, such as business people with financial expertise.

As budget cuts bite and the management and operational support councils are able to give schools dwindles, the authority sees this as a way of ensuring schools remain accountable to local people.

These are the first tentative steps being taken in East Lothian towards the creation of "community partnership schools" after a "stakeholder group" consisting of more than 30 parents, councillors, business people and headteachers concluded there was "no immediate appetite" for placing schools in community-based trusts.

The group opted instead for the less radical step of "deeper" cluster working and more freedom for schools to make local decisions about the curriculum, staffing and resource-spending.

Under the new model, parents and communities will play a bigger part in the way schools are run and eventually have more say when it comes to evaluating their performance.

Stakeholders - parents, community organisations and young people - played a key role in judging East Lothian education authority as part of its most recent HMIE inspection. The council believes there is no reason why this model cannot be emulated at school level.

Trust status was first mooted in TESS by East Lothian's director of education and children's services, Don Ledingham (17 April, 2009).

He argued then that devolving the entire budget for running education in a specific area to a community trust would give ownership back to communities, thus emulating the days of parish schools when Scotland was said to have led the world in education.

If run by trusts, schools would also gain financially by being able to access other sources of funding and benefit from non-domestic rates, argued the council.

But the model was rejected by the stakeholder group because of "suspicion" on the part of parents and heads, says education convener and group member Peter MacKenzie.

Parents could not shake off the idea that they were going to have to run the school, which was not the case, and heads were resistant to change, he says.

Heads were also concerned about losing operational responsibility for their schools because of the scheme's working title "community-based management of schools", a report to the council's education committee suggested. The idea of teachers being employed by a trust, not the council, proved to be another turn-off.

The rejection of the model meant East Lothian had missed out on a potential saving of pound;2.2 million in non-domestic rates - as well as an opportunity for schools to diversify and innovate, one of the key recommendations in the landmark Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Review of the Quality and Equity of Education Outcomes in Scotland in 2007, says Councillor MacKenzie.

That said, a step has been taken in the right direction, he believes; trust status may yet be attained, but it will be through a process of evolution not revolution.

Among other members of the stakeholder group, the old adage "if it ain't broke don't fix it" looms large.

Will Collin, chair of Dunbar community council, was leaning towards trust status but needed to know it was acceptable to others. He did not get that reassurance, he says.

The model the group has opted for will turn the clock back to the days of Lothian Region, he believes, when schools could adjust staffing levels, change the balance of the curriculum, choose where to invest and introduce "local solutions for local problems".

Like Councillor MacKenzie, he suggests this might be a step on the road to trust status.

It was hard to contemplate delivering education in a radically different way when there were no significant complaints about the current operation, says Helen Gillanders, headteacher of Dunbar Primary.

The way clusters were already working was seen as a positive model that could be used to draw in the wider community, she says.

Parent Gaynor Allen's concern was the impact of trust status on schools in poorer areas, since they tended not to get a lot of parental or community support.

Ms Allen, who has four children attending East Lothian schools, also expresses doubt that parents want more involvement with schools.

She sits on the parent council at Musselburgh Grammar and is chair of the parent council at Campie Primary. For many parents, such involvement is "not appealing in the slightest", she says, but it is a luxury she can afford because she does not work full-time.

While communities are willing to help and to have some involvement with schools, there is no "wholesale desire" among parents and other groups to have more say in their running, says Mr Collin. The group's deliberations have also revealed that parents do not want responsibilities such as scrutinising school finances, says Ms Gillanders.

Underpinning the East Lothian bid to change the way in which its schools are run is the well-known proverb: "it takes a community to raise a child". But it would seem this community is not ready for that kind of responsibility - at least, not yet.

Original headline: Communities come to the fore as cluster model gains ground

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