Caricatures do not help debate on school autonomy;The Sweeney;School Management

29th October 1999 at 01:00
The cartoon in TES Scotland depicted a malevolent headteacher with dishevelled garb and crooked features severing the ties that bind schools to local authorities with gigantic scissors. The rejected council buildings scurry off timidly into oblivion.

This caricature of current relationships between schools and elected councils was flanked by two articles advocating the demise of the local authorities' role in education. One was by Astrid Ritchie, who presided over education during a short-lived Tory administration in Lothian, but who writes good sense nonetheless. In the other David Cockburn called for a downgraded local authority system.

The alternatives need not be so polarised. Parents and teachers responded to the subtle bribe of opting out with resounding silence. But both councils and schools welcomed devolved school management, another Tory initiative. Some authorities did change the name, like a prodigal child anxious to escape the disgrace of a discredited parent.

Education authorities can only survive and flourish if they are the best source of services available. Otherwise, schools should be entitled to look elsewhere for almost every service. Alternative providers may include individuals, the private sector and other local authorities.

Councils have perpetuated monopolies and restrictions which impede the pursuit of excellence. However, they may be surprised to learn that they are the very best available in many fields, and would have nothing to fear from freer competition.

If the shackles were thrown off tomorrow and schools were funded to operate as real customers in an open market, I would still look to Isobel Mackay and her colleagues in Edinburgh's employment section for help and advice on personnel matters. I would continue to seek out Denholm Isbister's expertise on property issues. After all, the experience and skill of these council officers is unparalleled elsewhere.

But other local authority services may be less likely to prosper on a level playing field. There are a few functions which need to be centralised and these could be top-sliced before funds are allocated to schools. A general vision is required for overall education planning and to ensure there are enough schools and that particular needs can be met.

As responsibilities and budgets increasingly devolve, quality assurance will be another area of growth for education authorities. It needs to be robust, consistent and productive, surgically removing the layers of scrutiny which currently debilitate us. It cannot depend on the patronage of schools for its survival, but may extend the involvement of consultancies and contractors, headteachers, parents and serving teachers in assessment of education services.

Schools will seek out the best product available to them, and this will often be at the door of existing local authorities. But the days of telling schools who will do their cleaning and fix their broken windows need to be consigned to oblivion. Schools will need clear guidance on quality, but should be left to take their own decisions on goods and services - and face the consequences. Lists of approved contractors are welcome.

But given the experience to date, they should not be binding.

If schools can assure themselves that their decisions are safe, economical and effective, they must be allowed the autonomy to proceed.

They should equally be open to detailed scrutiny and prepared to live with the results of emancipation.

The scope to generate their own income should also be broader. Every school has buildings and facilities which could be commercially developed to create enhanced funding. There is currently little motivation for schools to be enterprising, as letting charges are uneconomical and do not directly benefit schools. For instance, we have an under-used conference facility in Holy Rood. It could be made available to groups, including council departments and the new parliament across Holyrood Park, to the benefit of the school.

The whole world has espoused decentralisation. Modern management demands the courage to empower individuals and groups in front line services. Paradoxically, the survival and success of education authorities in Scotland may depend on a willingness to loosen their grip and allow schools the autonomy to succeed. Even the FBI has abandoned the iron-fisted centralism of J Edgar Hoover and passed more authority to local agents.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher of Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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