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Management schemes that do away with central planning

Devolving financial powers allows schools to cater for local needs.

Planning can be the cruellest thing. At least, it is an activity that should be regarded with healthy suspicion since there can be quite a gap between reality and aspiration. Look at Stalin's USSR, with its series of five-year plans. Or at the attempts by any student to plan study time for finals.

Planning can consume more energy, time and talent than the delivery. The difficulties are compounded when the exercise is referred to as "development planning", suggesting that we cater only for developments and not for maintenance. Events invariably overtake plans, especially those which are inflexible, poorly costed and badly timed.

Unlike the rest of us, schools have to work within three time zones: the calendar year, the time zone for everybody; the financial year (March 31-April 1 the following year), local and national government; and the academic year, which in itself can vary from August to August or June to June. These lead to problems of all kinds, not least for the planning cycle.

Prior to the era of devolved school management, a school's development plan, according to most local authorities, had to be submitted by the end of March; a dialogue then ensued between a specific education department official and the headteacher during the summer term. This was always a fairly vacuous exercise, since the school's funding was probably not decided until well into the term. Auditing, planning, resourcing, costing and replanning time was often wasted, especially when the allocation was less than anticipated.

When everything was sorted out, the term was finished, the new academic session loomed large, a third of the financial year was over and the best-laid plans had gone completely a-gley.

Devolved management, however, removes the strictures of the financial year because it allows schools to carry forward from one year to the next a percentage of their overall budget.

In the case of a large secondary, that can be quite a considerable sum of money. The possibilities of improved planning are considerable, since a headteacher can decide to save or to carry forward the overspend.

The other advantage that devolved management brings is the independence it gives to a school. Previously, it had to conform to the authority's overall scheme, and its resourcing depended on the authority's priorities. It has never really made much managerial sense for the outposts of large corporate organisations to have to satisfy planning criteria that are centrally designed.

An education department, however sensitive, can never appreciate, understand or be responsive to the needs of a given school. Only those at the point of the delivery can know fully what the needs are and how best they can be met.

One of the first stages in the planning cycle has to be the decision about the school's aims. This may seem glib but, in fact, it is the most important exercise. Without clear objectives and targets, any organisation will fail.

The single main purpose of any institution's plan must be to ensure the realisation of its aims. As part of the process, there needs to be an analysis of how these targets are to be met. Again, this is where devolved management confers a distinct advantage: the school knows exactly what its funding is and so can resource the means of achieving the targets.

What is needed, then, is less of a development plan and more of a business plan, anathema as that might be to most teachers. We have to be realistic. A good book on the subject is Business Planning for Schools by Ray Puffitt, Bryan Stoten, and David Winkley, published by Longman. This concentrates on the importance of aims and objectives and the need for effective systems and procedures. It is, above all, a practical guide that will prove its worth well beyond April.

Devolved management brings responsibility and accountability, both of which can be best managed by having a clearly articulated plan that sets the aims of the school and satisfies the needs of the local community. That, ultimately, is all that matters.

David Cockburn, former assistant director in charge of Grampian's DSM scheme, is now director of Cockburn Consultancy, a company specialising in educational management.

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