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Heads get budget boost - at a price

The Executive is set to give headteachers more power by extending devolved school management, but first they will have to - as the First Minister has demanded of MSPs - "raise their game".

Philip Rycroft, the head of the schools group in the Scottish Executive Education Department, told the recent school leadership conference (TESS last week) that DSM must be "revisited" to give schools more autonomy.

The scheme, he added, was often seen simply as a mechanism for giving heads control of budgets - "a restricted way of looking at it," he observed. The influential Mr Rycroft said that if leadership is to be encouraged, "it seems axiomatic to me that headteachers must be given responsibility to exercise that leadership".

The Executive's target, set out in the partnership agreement between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, is that the proportion of local authority education budgets under the control of headteachers should be at least 80 per cent, going on 90 per cent.

Mr Rycroft's comments, how-ever, suggest the Executive wants to go beyond mere budget-holding and put heads more firmly in the driving seat - although this would be at the price of "a tough accountability framework" of improving performance against all five national educational priorities.

Speaking at the same conference, Peter Peacock, the Education Minister, confirmed that school and education authority leadership would be moved up the agenda, with more intensive training for headteachers. He said this would be necessary so that "new forms of learning" could flourish, which is expected to be an extension of the curricular flexibility already being introduced, plus more "personalised learning".

Strong leadership will be a particular expectation in the 20 secondary schools selected for the 'schools for ambition' programme. And Mr Peacock made clear that "they are just the first 20".

The emphasis on the link between improved leadership and better learning will be reflected in the subtle mantra that "it is not that the schools are failing but that the pupils are not succeeding".

Mr Peacock underlined the significance the Executive attaches to this when he said: "Inspirational heads inspire teachers who inspire kids and inspirational kids will go on to create an ambitious and confident nation."

This is also a theme of the private backers whose investment in school innovation is an increasingly vital new ingredient, through Tom Hunter's leadership academy for heads and in the ongoing talks with the Monaco-based tycoon, Lord Laidlaw.

The renewed emphasis on school autonomy has been given a warmer welcome than when it was introduced under the shadow of opting out and school boards.

The Rev Ewan Aitken, education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, said that "everyone is signed up to further DSM in principle. But the issue is translating it into reality by getting the money out of the grant-aided expenditure to local authorities and into what is in effect a ring-fenced budget."

He did not believe the Executive wanted more powers for heads to hire and fire staff. "Headteachers already have a lot of power over the staff they employ, while the local authority remains the employer," Mr Aitken said. "I don't think headteachers want to be the employer: think what a personnel nightmare that would be."

He added that real autonomy for heads will follow if more of the resources are in their hands. "The point we want to get to is to say to our headteachers, 'we don't really care how you spend the money to manage class behaviour, for example, so long as you deliver.' " Alex Easton, president of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, welcomed any move "which would allow heads to take courageous decisions in the interests of their schools without having to look over their shoulder all the time, although we accept that we have to be accountable."

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