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'It's too early to have a view'

Conference left confused over East Lothian's plans for community management of schools

Conference left confused over East Lothian's plans for community management of schools

"The general view is that it's too early to have a view."

That was the judgment of Will Collin, former headteacher of Dunbar Grammar, talking to The TESS about East Lothian Council's proposals for the community management of schools. It is a view endorsed by Alan Blackie, the council's chief executive.

A conference on the plans, held at Queen Margaret University last Thursday, heard from Don Ledingham, the director of education and children's services, seen as the driving force behind the "parish school" move, who felt he had to assert that there was no "master plan". And Peter MacKenzie, the convener of the council's education committee, said it was not a "fake" consultation.

There was confusion over the council's real motivation. Financial pressures were not "the essential driver," Mr Ledingham said. It was about ensuring that "schools have a collective responsibility to their communities, not just to themselves".

But Mr Blackie, who heads off with Mr Ledingham shortly to investigate how they manage schools in Bedfordshire, later admitted: "Cost is a factor."

David Berry, leader of the council, added to the confusion when he said that the plans were not influenced by cost but that "there must be a lot of savings to be made by having local responsibility".

The council estimates it would save pound;2.2 million a year in non- domestic rates if schools were run by a charitable trust (a status enjoyed by Queen Margaret University and the neighbouring Loretto private school, Mr Ledingham said pointedly).

The conference heard a powerful endorsement of trust-run community schools from an English expert who has studied the myriad forms of school management south of the border.

Denis Mongon, of the Centre for Leadership and Learning at London University, said such an arrangement recognised that "schools have a role in relation to the communities around them that transcends the learning of children".

But Professor Mongon warned that "one size doesn't fit all," reinforcing the message from Education Secretary Michael Russell who, while praising East Lothian's initiative, said it was not a solution he could back for all parts of Scotland.

The conference heard claims from some at the event that many parents were in the dark and the views of staff were "polarised". Councillor Berry pledged that "if our communities are not behind this, we won't shove it down their throats". Mr Ledingham concurred.

But the council has a timescale: it plans to start the experiment from August 2011 in a pilot "cluster" with one of its six secondary communities. Mr Ledingham said the council would gradually "migrate" more spending decisions to schools once it had satisfied itself that "the cluster has the capacity to meet the standards required".

The council's role would then be to set those standards, leave schools to decide how to meet them and focus on "building capacity" to ensure community involvement and leadership in managing schools was as effective as possible.

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