Cynical heads say looser rein is a sham

20th April 2001 at 01:00
Secondary headteachers welcome devolved management but in practice it leads to "cynicism and frustration". That is the main finding in Talking Heads, a survey of all 13 secondary heads in Aberdeen by a former research officer in the city's education department.

Michael Cowie, now a senior lecturer at Northern College, interviewed the heads a year before reorganisation of local government and again a year after the regions gave way to single-tier authorities.

Heads condemned devolved management as "a mechanism for devolving administrative responsibility without genuine management responsibility". One said it was "a sham because everything is tied up". Another described the partnership model on which the new City of Aberdeen education department set store as "You tell us what to do . . .and we do all the work."

One problem was that devolution had heightened expectations, but tension emerged between what heads saw as a dirigiste approach by the authority and the kind of committed relationship they thought would be more productive.

The "driving mechanism" linking heads and the authority was the calendar of visits by officers. Mr Cowie lists their comments on the usefulness of these: "Less than helpful, time consuming, superficial, disappointing, not challenging, futile, shallow, rpetitive, irksome and difficult, just a simple aspect of bureaucracy, a diversion of precious time, an absolute killer, saturating the system with paper work".

The Aberdeen officer in charge of visits told Mr Cowie that quality assurance was paramount but admitted: "On paper there is a purpose for them, but in practice I do wonder that maybe we're kind of deceiving ourselves a wee bit."

The directors before and after reorganisation believed that heads were being given more say in how policies had been implemented but not in strategic policy. Mr Cowie states that heads desired more power and strategic involvement but it was not clear how much they wanted, "suggesting a need to take account of how goals are set and who sets them".

He concludes that because of differences between the directorate and heads on how quality should be developed, the way schools are run may be "dysfunctional. Creativity may be stifled, improvement inhibited and the ability of the individual school to respond to its community in a flexible way may be reduced."

"Talking Heads: A critical analysis of the quality assurance relationship between secondary schools and an education authority" is available from Aberdeen University's Centre for Educational Research, price pound;5. Email:

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