A yelp for freedom at the end of the leash

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
More autonomy for schools raises the question of what form local accountability should take, says Ian McDonald

WAS attracted to recent attributed comments from Alistair McLachlan, headteacher of Lornshill Academy in Alloa, at a recent head-teachers' meeting. Apparently, he is so constrained by that strangling bureaucracy known as Clackmannanshire Council that contrived outbursts of farting in an S1 class cannot be dealt with timeously.

He called for headteachers to be freed from unnecessary bureaucracy. We would all subscribe to that, wouldn't we? Who are these people who feel obliged to issue guidelines advising that weightlifting should not be done in bare feet?

Similarly, I recall a crusade by Bill McGregor, a Kilmarnock headteacher, against the prices charged by direct labour organisations (DLOs).

Apparently a council charge for installing an electrical socket of pound;250 can be slashed to pound;37 by local electricians in Kilmarnock.

Financial autonomy for headteachers is what he demands. A lot of headteachers would echo such calls for more freedom.

The Scottish Executive's recent publication, CPD for Educational Leadership, would support this. Some heads might not. I remember being asked at a heads' meeting if I could supply another yellow folder as the two folders issued could no longer accommodate the full set of health and safety files. The cost of an extra folder was 59p.

On any scale, devolved school management in Scotland has been a success.

Invariably HMI reports that financial management in schools is "good" or "very good". Why not build on success? One of the action points from the national debate on education is more financial freedom for schools. This was included in Labour's manifesto for Holyrood with a pledge that a school's share of the budget should rise from 80 per cent to 90 per cent.

There was no further specification as to what this means. It could be a bumper year for electricians in Kilmarnock.

Let us concede that good management adds value to the performance of any school. But is further devolution of responsibility or accountability what they need? Does local authority management, strong on administration and leadership, complicate the management of a school? Do we need 32 policy-producing councils when New South Wales in Australia, with a larger population than Scotland, appears to be successful with just a solitary education authority?

In the longer term, pupil populations are projected to fall dramatically.

For example, primary rolls are down 2 per cent a year for the foreseeable future. That translates to a loss of 8,000 pupils a year or 44 average-sized primary schools. This might help to mitigate the challenge posed by an ageing teaching force. You could lament the loss of experience or welcome the potential for new blood. You can have it both ways but it is still a problem. With reductions in class sizes on most political parties' agendas, teacher recruitment could be an issue.

Can the present management of education in Scotland deliver or is its fragmented structure a handicap? Is the dominance of East Renfrewshire in exam tables down to pushy middle-class mothers creating high-performing enclaves or is it down to the focused approach taken by the council and its staff?

Chicago is a city with a school population close to that of Scotland and with every social problem imaginable. Its school system was in a mess and massively underperforming in US terms. Its directly elected mayor, Richard M Daley, took personal responsibility and is credited with turning the authority around. He has tax-raising powers, executive authority and appears to deliver. Could it work here?

If schools want more freedom, headteachers will have to consider a school's relations with other schools and with its community. Glasgow's "learning communities" approach appears to be working but has yet to consider local accountability. More freedom for schools working in harmony with their local communities is a recipe for success.

British Columbia offers a model worth considering. The Canadian province is an education authority with education administered by area school boards where each trustee on the board is directly linked to a number of schools.

More freedom for schools and more accountability resting with the Scottish Parliament mean an unclear role for local authorities. To encourage partnerships between them could be a first step.

Ian McDonald is a former depute director of education in Glasgow.

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