Stakeholders need a listening council

From its inception, West Lothian education department recognised that a powerful way to promote a high-quality education service would be to encourage observations, views and ideas for improvement. The relatively small size of the new authority provided an ideal opportunity and I agreed to organise a series of open seminars on key issues. The three held so far have been so successful that they look set to continue indefinitely.

The format of each seminar is for a noted authority to give a short presentation on the key issue followed by small group discussions and the open, plenary discussion. The presentation and plenary discussion are incorporated into a report that highlights the main issues raised and suggests implications for policy development. Copies of each report are sent to all West Lothian education establishments, councillors, officers and school boards.

So far we have looked at school effectiveness with Sally Brown; discipline and exclusions with Pamela Munn; and raising achievement with Brian Boyd. The programme for next term includes teaching for effective learning and discipline (Ian Smith); educating people and changing values (Bart McGettrick); integration of children with special needs (Sheila Riddell) and raising standards for all (John MacBeath).

It is important to stress that the seminars are not merely "talking shops" but represent a serious attempt to create a truly collaborative approach to policy development. This contrasts with the usual "consultative" approach which starts with the circulation of draft documents. Unfortunately, these rarely represent the full range of relevant thinking and yet their very existence can inhibit the wider expression of critical ideals. In addition, there is often a certain defensiveness on the part of the original drafters so that "consultation" can degenerate into a process of justification against criticism.

The policy statements that emerge often fail to take account of all the relevant perspectives, overlook some useful ideas and, above all, are imperfectly understood by those who have to put them into practice. We hope that the initial "collaborative" phase represented by the seminars will help avoid such problems. As David Hopkins has noted in Improving the Quality of Education for All: "The benefits of the planning activity . . . will often outlast the currency of the plan."

In parallel with the seminars, which were open to all the "stakeholders" in the education service, we intend to set up a small representative group of staff to review the reports regularly and prepare recommendations for action. The rationale that underpins the programme is that education should be a learning service in every sense and at all levels, promoting continuous improvements to practice. A learning service focuses particular attention on communication because it recognises that this has three crucial functions: to provide relevant information as clearly and unambiguously as possible; to motivate people by demonstrating that they and their ideas are valued; and to promote continuous learning through collaboration at all levels of policy development and implementation.

So far the seminars have been mainly about informing and valuing but we expect the collaborative, learning aspect to develop strongly as we revisit issues. For example, "discipline" was first addressed in May with Pamela Munn and will be revisited in September with Ian Smith. We then intend to invite practising teachers to describe their experiences with commercial behaviour management programmes at a future seminar.

The government's proposals for improving standards in schools place considerable emphasis on the need for "pressure and support", echoing the phrase used by Michael Fullan, the doyen of school improvement, in Change Forces (1993): "The centre and local units need each other . . . What is required is a . . . two-way relationship of pressure, support and continuous negotiation. It amounts to simultaneous top-down, bottom-up influence. Individuals and groups who cannot manage this paradox become whipsawed by the cross-cutting forces of change."

The West Lothian policy development programme represents a serious attempt to "manage this paradox". We believe that it will enable us to promote continuous improvements to the quality of the education service, to the benefit of the people of West Lothian as a whole.

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