Let academies break the secondary mould

Quality and standards in Scottish education continue to occupy many column inches.

Most recently, the focus has been on poorly performing local authorities and whether we should continue to operate our secondary schools on the basis of 32 scattered and separate entities.

If we are to have a change in the way schools are managed and controlled by local authorities, it might start with a pilot programme of reform which targets the improvement of poorly performing secondaries in our large cities and the central belt.

It is in many of these schools that there is a real need to improve behaviour and attendance levels, increase the expectations and aspirations of parents and pupils, improve examination performance and achieve higher levels of participation in further and higher education.

But any reform programme would need to go beyond mere tinkering. It would mean substantial changes to the existing model in the way education is organised and delivered.

Like other public services, education depends largely on input from clients - parents and employers, in particular - and we should consider alternatives to existing arrangements, and give clients the opportunity to make a real difference.

Last month, an investigation by the Scottish Consumer Council revealed that parents are put off criticising schools. Only half the schools monitored complaints from parents, while one in six had a member of staff trained to handle concerns. Yet parents are key stakeholders, critical to a school's success.

In England, the academies programme is designed to replace poorly performing local authority secondary schools, and one might argue that it deserves the chance to prove itself in some of Scotland's large cities.

If we adopted a broadly similar model, it would require the support of an independent sponsor contributing up to, say, pound;2 million, with the Scottish Executive providing the remaining funding. Advocates of academies contend that sponsors generate new ideas on school organisation, while staff are encouraged to be innovative in the design and delivery of the curriculum.

Throw in the advantages of academies delivering freedom from local authorities, new buildings and schools benefiting from funding normally held back by the authority for centrally-provided services, and it becomes a package which should produce plenty of volunteers only too willing to participate in a pilot programme of reform.

Arguments will be heard against English-style academies. For example, sponsors have considerable powers when making decisions about how the school is run, and they have a dominant role in deciding on the curriculum, pupil admissions and, crucially, the terms and conditions of staff.

But it is useful to remember that not all academies operate forms of selection, preferring instead to see themselves as schools serving their communities. In practice, decisions on key aspects of organisation and management are taken in consultation with the head, usually the first to be appointed, thereby gaining broad acceptance by parents and the wider community.

To date, the Scottish Executive has fully involved employers in addressing key educational issues. Initiatives such as enterprise education and tackling the number of young people not in education, employment or training spring to mind.

Similarly, the executive should not shy away from involving corporate bodies, voluntary organisations or wealthy individuals in a pilot programme designed to break the mould in Scottish education and ensure that another generation of young people does not lose out on lifetime opportunities.

Jim Donaldson was chief inspector for the Further Education Funding Council for England, and is now a consultant

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