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A matter of trusts

On 9 November 2009 I woke up to hear a radio bulletin announcing that East Lothian Council was going to transfer ownership of local schools to charitable trusts. I was the executive director of education and children's services and had been publicly exploring these ideas for three years before that revelation.

A public consultation was transformed into a "madcap" scheme that was definitely going to be implemented. The headlines from that time give an indication of the frenzy that was created: "Trust proposals spark criticism in Scotland"; "Plans to increase independence of schools attacked"; "Privatisation through the back door".

Yet here we are, almost six years on, and the issue of charitable status for private schools is reigniting the debate about whether state schools should be similarly eligible.

In 2009, parents, teaching unions and headteachers in East Lothian had no appetite for moving to trust status. There were fears about too much responsibility for governance falling on parents; about transferring the employment of teachers and other staff from the council to a trust; and about parental interference in the management of schools.

But all groups wanted greater local control of budgets and the curriculum. There was also a clear preference for more diversity among our schools, and a call to share more performance information with parents and other stakeholders so that they could be involved in school improvement.

Crucially, however, with the exception of one headteacher, there was no desire to take the governance model a stage further by setting up a charitable trust that would employ the teachers and deliver education on behalf of the local authority.

With hindsight I can see a number of errors I made in that exploratory phase, primarily connected to my desire to approach the issue so publicly and openly, without first taking the key group in these deliberations - the headteachers - forward with me in confidence. I appreciate that many colleagues felt sidelined, whereas they should have been central to the exploration of new governance models.

I also think the project was undermined by a desire to implement the plan in all schools at once. Given the radical nature of the proposals, it would have been better to seek out a school, or schools, to volunteer for a pilot programme.

I know that more than a few schools in Scotland - and not just those in the "leafy suburbs" - would welcome the chance to explore the outer reaches of school governance. And more than a few councils would happily escape from having to pay non-domestic rates on school buildings, as they have done with their sports centres and swimming pools.

Don Ledingham is director of innovation leadership at Drummond International and honorary professor of leadership at Queen Margaret University

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