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No longer a uniform response

In a new series David Cockburn ponders devolved school management. Most people, including many headteachers and the local authority directorate, think that devolved school management is about the devolvement of budgets.

But DSM is about something altogether more important than book-keeping: it's about the ways in which a school manages itself. It allows each school to decide what kind of institution it wants to be, what its aims are, and how they are to be met. DSM will insist that parents are listened to, that all pupils' needs are catered for, and that staff have a real say in the running of the school.

Take school uniform. Parents regard it as a way of avoiding trendy, expensively impracticable designer gear; pupils see it as bland and boring; school managers as a source of conflict; teachers as a source of discipline; school board members as a sign of a well-run school.

Of course, these are caricature views. Those of us who entered teaching 30 years ago for all kinds of altruistic, philanthropic reasons tend to have excellent philosophical and sociological reasons for being against it. In fact, we tend to denigrate those who advocate uniform as our intellectual inferiors.

In the 1990s, when a headteacher of an inner-city comprehensive does manage to convert most of the pupils to its adoption, derision is hurled at his betrayal of all that education is about.

But all that is to miss the point. Schools are no longer ivory towers, pillars of intellectual purity, guardians of liberal democracy.

What has changed them is the emergence of the ideas that lie behind DSM. One day, soon, when each pupil will be worth Pounds x-thousand it will be enough to expose the old-fashioned liberal ideas for the chicanery that they always were.

Parents will begin to notice all kinds of changes to schools. If there are some ten-to-a-dozen pupils whose parents have elected that they attend a school out-of-zone, then, since these pupils will attract a certain amount of funding, it will matter a great deal that the neighbourhood school is losing out. Their worth could also meet the cost of a teacher.

Schools, from now on, will have to find out what it is that rival schools are doing to attract pupils. That doesn't mean they will pander to whims; but schools will have to listen to parents and pupils.

The point is that changes are brought about not because schools suddenly believe that parents are important, but because DSM forces the issue; and all involved in running the school have to rethink and reassess their notions of the philosophy of education. Even about matters as trivial as school uniform.

DSM provides a new kind of context for educating the young and, in the sense, it is forging the direction and shape of education well into the next millennium. That is its challenge and its excitement.

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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