The common sense route to excellence;Platform;Opinion

25th June 1999 at 01:00
If standards in our schools are to improve local education authorities have got to go, argues David Cockburn

I NEVER fail to be amazed: after 32 years in education, from principal teacher to assistant director, you would think that I ought to know better, but I can still be astounded by the evangelical desire of those who want to reorganise the system rather than be guided by common sense.

There is, undeniably, a palpable need to review secondary education, to raise standards, to create more choice, but it is also important to build on success and not to reorganise for the sake of it.

Aberdeen's education department, for example, recognises that something has to be done, but its solution is as preposterous as it is expensive: all-age schools to be launched to cater from nursery to 16-plus; the removal of half of the city's special schools; the possibility of sixth form colleges. Why all the costly reshuffling in an age of "best value"?

Of course new ideas have to be floated, but the guiding principle needs to be common sense and past success. Over the past couple of decades there have been put in place a couple of important changes the impact of which could - and should - have raised standards enormously.

One is that parents have the right to put their children in a school of their choice. The zoning of pupils, devised when comprehensives were set up, has developed into selection by income. Those parents, affluent enough to be able to move house, can choose to uproot themselves to catchment areas of "good" schools. Income, then, has become a determinant and a device whereby middle-class parents can select the school for their offspring. That is patently unfair while less well-off working-class parents have no such choice.

The system of parental choice helps in a small way to redress that balance: parents do not have to move but can choose a school according to the quality of its education. But the other major change which took place was the introduction of devolved school management, a change which could yet do more for improving standards in education than any massive restructuring.

DSM, if fully implemented, gives real power and responsibility to the school. It is about the ways in which schools can manages themselves. It allows each school to decide the kind of institution it wants to be, what its aims are, and how they are to be met. DSM insists that parents are listened to, that all pupils' needs are catered for, and that staff have a real say in the running of the school. Combined with parental choice, DSM means that schools have to strive for excellence.

The point is that these planks are already in place: no further rebuilding and restructuring at the local level are necessary. But combine these two developments with the fact that we now have a Scottish Parliament and there can be real progress and improvement. If management power, along with 90 per cent of education budgets, is fully devolved to the schools, and we have a democratically elected government in place, there is no longer any need for local authority education departments.

The next logical move, then, in striving for improving educational standards must be to remove the layer of local authority control and have the Scottish Government's department of education take over the role of ensuring quality.

Although the school, whether primary or secondary, is embedded in and serves its local community, the standards that it has to attain are national. From the 5-14 programme to Standard grade and Higher Still, there is an all-through national standard informing and measuring these vital aspects of the school curriculum.

Better that the schools, then, deal directly with the new department of education (if that is what it is to be called) than with the local authorities, all 32 of which have to deal in turn with the central department, with all the potential for communication disaster that entails. Indeed, of late it is obvious that the Scottish Office Education and Industry department has been disseminating material directly to schools rather than to local authorities for onward distribution.

In any case, with the Parliament in place, the very raison d'etre of the local authority education department is undermined: too many layers of government.

I am arguing for a sensible decentralisation of the whole system by removing the anachronism of local authority education departments. At best they impede progress because they are so removed from the reality of school education and at worst they interfere through notions of restructuring founded in dogma. And think of the money that would be saved.

At a stroke, schools could be released from the chicanery of pseudo-socialistliberal thinking that has pervaded education since the sixties. If they want to have setting or selection in first and second years of secondary education, then that becomes their choice. If they want to become a school that specialises in music excellence, then that, too, is their choice. Parents will let them know if they disagree.

But the point is that schools will be free to take such decisions and not have them imposed. Without local authority control, and by that I mean the education committee as well as its officers, schools can take decisions that best suit their own and their local community needs.

Yet they would not be outwith democratic control since they would be accountable to the Scottish Government whose department of education and inspectorate have responsibility for ensuring and measuring the quality of the education that schools provide.

Scottish education was once the envy of the civilised world, and we have to reclaim that reputation. But it will only be achieved by removing the reins of the local authority. That way excellence lies.

David Cockburn is an educational and management consultant.

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