Balance of power needs to shift

15th February 2008 at 00:00
One of my early tasks in government was to pilot the first education bill through the Scottish Parliament. The option to remove control of education from local government was offered to me. It was not a route I pursued.

It was clear to me that devolved government would bring change in the balance of powers between central and local government and schools. The Standards in Scotland's Schools Act which emerged gave a legitimate role to government and parliament, without compromising local decision-making. Ministers with duties to bring about improvement and set out national priorities, parliament with powers to approve those priorities and to hold ministers to account, local authorities free to deliver within a new framework of duties and inspected for the first time.

The act was largely silent on the role and powers of schools. Devolved school management (DSM) was seen as the vehicle for greater school autonomy. With greater experience of the limitations of devolved school management and with radical changes in curriculum thinking and more focus and support for school leadership, it is time to make further change. The recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report also argues the case.

There should be a local, democratic voice in the delivery of school education, but that should not be confused with believing in the need for 32 education authorities. The current system is not strategic enough to sustain, facilitate and develop what we need. Around half the number would provide more capacity to do that, allowing our best education leaders to be more strategic and have a wider span of influence - while remaining local.

I do not believe central government or its agencies need further major influence, save for one essential change. Local authority quality assurance needs to align with our school inspection system. Too often, local authority satisfaction with a school's performance has been confounded by a critical inspection.

Had I not left ministerial office in the autumn of 2006, I planned to use my speech to the secondary heads' conference that year to announce my intention to legislate to bring about a significant shift in the necessary balance between council and school responsibilities. DSM was not delivering real change fast enough : too many councils had not made the cultural shift from "command and control" of schools to a role enabling and facilitating headteachers. The balance needs to shift, but there is a balance to be found.

The reason I concluded further change was required had less to do with budget devolution to headteachers, which itself has to go further, and more to do with staffing and curriculum. A Curriculum for Excellence has clarity about outcomes from our schools but, having defined the outcomes so clearly, schools need freedom on the means to deliver - another OECD conclusion with which I concur.

New curriculum approaches, managing greater learning choices and experiences, and more personalisation, requires more flexibility in staffing to meet the needs of pupils. Schools need to be free and encouraged to fashion their teaching according to local needs.

Local authorities can help provide support systems for school managers, they have a vital role in nurturing the next generation of school leaders and they have a very real need to challenge and intervene when school leadership and the quality of pupils' experience is falling short. I would always leave to local choice how many and where schools are located. The management of large capital programmes, contracts and some specialist services will always be needed. Local authorities are best placed to deal with these matters.

The limitations of DSM moved my mind to consider how statute needs to define a new relationship between councils and school managers. This is not an easy task, but it is time to set about it.

Any such move will place a new focus on the competence of our school leaders - but more on that next week.

Peter Peacock, the former education minister, in the fourth of his series on the state of Scottish education.

Next week: teacher competence.

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