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Schools must be cut loose from councils;Platform;Opinion

MSPs now have the chance to show their commitment to radical change in the way education is run, says David Cockburn.

IF IT was once the settled will of the Scottish people to have a devolved Parliament, there is now an unsettled will to have a downgraded local authority system. The evidence may be piecemeal and sporadic, but it does exist: witness an increasing dissatisfaction with the relationship between local authorities and the schools.

I argued in The TES Scotland in June that it would be possible to remove the layer of local authority education departments by devolving budgets and management responsibility directly from the Scotland Office to individual establishments.

After all, the now defunct regions had schemes in place to devolve at least 70 per cent of schools' running costs along with considerably increased management responsibility. Those schemes, I fear, became submerged in the melee of local government reorganisation, which became the excuse either to do nothing or even retrench some of what had been achieved.

But with the advent of the Parliament, which, it has to be said, has so far shown a pusillanimous attitude to education, the time and the opportunity have come to revive the idea of a devolved system. I am not advocating an opt-out system; I am advocating a fully devolved system of budgetary and education management responsibility, where schools are accountable to the Scottish Executive.

At the moment, what is devolved to schools is a percentage of their running costs. Imagine the sums involved if MSPs saw fit to devolve a percentage of the much larger education budget, itself the largest budget held by local councils (and by the Parliament). If local authority education departments were abolished that much larger budget would become available, and with it schools could buy the services that they need - from the local council if the services were of quality or from other agencies.

It is claimed that because there is so much a local authority manages it would be impossible for schools to go it alone. Of course they could: with hugely increased financial resources, schools could buy from the private sector and would have the money to enhance classroom provision.

Human resource services can be supplied by a whole host of agencies, not just the local authority. The same applies to legal services and accountancy services.

It is too easy to say it can't be done. It isn't, after all, in the local authority's interests to say that it can. But it is in the schools'. The most effective and efficient management of any institution happens on-site. If schools are given the budgets, they can be in charge of their own destinies, releasing talent and ingenuity to devise local solutions to local problems.

Schools, primary and secondary, are already used to operating in area groupings, which means that they could pull their resources, appoint a bursar, create their own office and run their own administration. Some of the services thus devised could, by an entrepreneurial group, be sold on to other establishments. Janitorial services, school meals, supply teachers, human resource needs, payroll, equipment maintenance, stationery, public relations - all can be internally provided and even externally sold.

Schools need to begin to think of themselves in a new, independent and invigorating light. I know that budgets may seem anathema to many headteachers, but to have them at their disposal is the most effective way forward.

When I was first in charge of Grampian Region's devolved school management scheme, an unsurprising number of heads said to me that they did not enter the profession to become book-keepers. That worry was allayed when they realised other people would do the accounting for them and they would have a quality and quantity of financial information that would let them take decisions which were not possible before.

Schools have to be much more independent and much more in charge of themselves, and the only way to achieve these aims is for them to be in control of their own budgets and their own spending. That way they are free from the ideological impositions that are politically motivated by members and officers alike, who are too remote from and too hidebound by their own views to satisfy needs at the local level.

It cannot be beyond the ingenuity of a Parliament that really does have to demonstrate its strength, its leadership qualities and its desire to harness education to be radical. It has to remove the glaring impediment to excellence by local authorities shackled by dogma. The perspicuity, imagination, talent and resourcefulness in education lies abundant but dormant in the schools.

If the Parliament wills it, all those qualities can be released at a stroke to benefit generations of young people. For too long they have been the victims of fashions in education, inspired not by teachers and good practice but by political creed. Social engineering has been considered more important than academic and vocational excellence, and it is time to reverse the trend.

Tony Blair has called for more time to modernise public services. Where better to start than in education, which, all parties agree, is not serving Scotland well? And the fault does not lie with teachers or with school management.

Because the record of authorities is not impressive, the Executive has built into the Education Bill provision for the inspection of education departments. But that is only to tinker with the problem in a manner that will consume money and resources. Much better to remove the authorities altogether and devolve the enormous savings to schools. They will rise to the occasion and, if not, the enhanced Inspectorate can impose more radical solutions.

David Cockburn is an education and management consultant..

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