Scotland's headteachers have backed a radical proposal to take education out of council control and place it in the hands of a smaller number of "area boards".
According to School Leaders Scotland, having 32 local authorities is expensive and the quality of leadership variable. And the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland (AHDS) says such a move would "simplify the educational landscape".
SLS is calling for the authorities to be scrapped in favour of around a dozen area boards. This proposal has the influential support of former education minister Peter Peacock, and would virtually return the management of education to pre-1996, when it was in the hands of 12 regional and island authorities.
In its evidence to the parliamentary education committee's inquiry into the running of Scottish schools, SLS proposed that each area board might run between 35 and 50 secondary schools, resulting in anything from eight to 11 boards across the country.
The boards would be funded directly by central government, contain representation from key stakeholders and have their own staff, which would be dedicated to education and school management.
The heads argue that this would set education free from "political fashion" and "competing funding interests with other services".
Headteachers would be accountable to the area boards for the quality of school provision, and each school would have its own governing body comprising parents, staff, pupils, local councillors and other community representatives, the organisation said.
In its submission, SLS conceded that local authorities had many strengths. They provided schools with a strong safety net, had significant knowledge of local communities and could plan beyond the limits of the individual school.
But area boards, SLS argued, would retain these benefits while shedding the disadvantages.
The new model would provide:
- greater consistency of provision across the country;
- better professional management of secondary schooling;
- clearer lines of responsibility and accountability;
- a more stable environment for long-term improvement;
- a balance between strategic capacity (size, scope, economies of scale) and local community;
- enhanced strategic capacity in the delivery and planning of educational opportunities within and beyond the secondary school.
Primary heads also support "regional boards" in order to reduce duplication of staff and "simplify the education landscape". But the AHDS did not single out one model as a preferred option and questioned how much the introduction of boards might cost. SLS acknowledged that restructuring "often imposes new costs".
The Association of Directors of Education in Scotland said it was "not opposed to change", but there would have to be "thorough and convincing costbenefit analysis". It also warned any future structure would have to "fully embed multi-agency working".
Local authorities were also less inclined to back radical change. Dumfries and Galloway said regional boards "might be an option" and could be formed by shared service arrangements among a number of local authorities.
But it seemed to prefer giving schools "more control" over decision making and resources. This was something the council was moving towards already, it said.
South Lanarkshire Council stopped short of supporting regional boards, but advocated councils working better together, as envisaged in Sir John Arbuthnott's Clyde Valley Review, which examined restructuring services for eight councils in the west of Scotland.
The parliamentary inquiry was sparked by East Lothian Council's extensive consultation on its plans to give schools greater autonomy. It has been at pains to stress that it has no "master plan" to establish charitable trusts to run schools.
In a report it has just issued, the council clarified this position: "The outcome of this exercise might be that very little change needs to take place and that community-based management of schools is not in the best interests of young people or the communities of East Lothian."
FOCUS ON QUALIFICATIONS AUTHORITY AND HMIE
The Scottish Qualifications Authority, HMIE and Learning and Teaching Scotland should face a "radical overhaul," according to Keir Bloomer, Clackmannanshire Council's former director of education.
In his submission to the Parliament's school management inquiry, he asked why certification and qualification were in the hands of the "compulsory national monopoly" of the SQA and called for "a radical refocusing of HMIE, preferably with a change in title". He also questioned whether Scotland needed LTS, which he suggested should be replaced with "an education think tank" along the lines of the Institute of Education at the University of London.
Think tank Reform Scotland wants to see state-funded independent schools and an end to national pay bargaining for teachers.
In its submission to the inquiry, it argues for a "voucher" system, under which parents receive an entitlement equal to the value of educating a child, allowing them to send their children to private schools. New independent schools would then spring up, setting their own pay and conditions for teachers.