Delegation myths and the market

19th May 2000 at 01:00
Two experts on local management of schools don't believe the practice ever really existed, reports Bob Doe

IS local management of schools dead? Indeed, did it ever really exist? Two authorities on school management and leadership in the UK think not.

Professor Brent Davies at the University of Hull International Leadership Centre and Linda Ellison from Nottingham University, where the new national centre for school leadership is based, say the autonomy and delegation of decision-making that local or site-based management was supposed to bring is a myth. So, it seems, are market forces.

Looking at developments here and in Australia and the United States, they say:

"Patterns of control exercised by central government have increased significantly and what has been decentralised is responsibility and accountability for implementing central decisions."

Without waiting to find out if local management would work, governments were abandoning the school improvement benefits that were supposed to come from greater decision-making at the school level in favour of more radical solutions such as privatisation.

"It is not our contention that site-based management has failed," say Davies and Ellison. "It has never been tried."

Education had become more centrally controlled and politicised, though "it is not true to say the centralised empire strikes back ... it never went away".

Professor Davies and Dr Ellison give schools just three out of 10 for achieving management autonomy. They suggest this can be judged according to how far their managers are able to decide: what business they should be in; how they operate; who to employ and how to pay them; which clients they serve; and what revenues they pursue.

"In terms of 'the business to be in', while commercial organisations can decide which product or service to operate in and can decide on the market to serve, schools are controlled by national legislation to provide education for specific age ranges and cannot change without permission of that central authority."

There had been a "a remarkable increase in central control" over decisions about how they should operate. Schools no longer had discretion over what or how they taught or assessed pupils.

Limiting class sizes to 30 for five to seven-year-olds was central interference in the head's management. "If the Govenment seriously believed in autonomy and the headteacher's ability to determine the most appropriate resource mix of staffing, it would have funded schools on a class size of 30 and let the school decide whether to have one teacher per class of 30 or a class of 35 with more teacher-

assistant time."

In the Australian state of

Victoria, schools had had the "holy grail" of controlling

staffing snatched away from their grasp.

In the UK, schools could still choose their own staff. "There are, however, some trends towards decrease of a school's control over teachers' pay as heads will have to provide the performance bonuses where they are merited and will soon have to take those who are on the 'fast-track' route through their career."

Increased central control of the curriculum made it harder for schools to differentiate themselselves by focusing on, say, the arts or technology, in order to appeal to particular parents.

The Government's Schools Standards Fund removed schools' freedom to meet needs as they saw fit.

And, though much was said about market forces in education, they find them hard to spot. To them, a market has five features: a price-fixing mechanism; effective choice for consumers; easy entry for new providers; information freely available about different providers and their products; and minimal government regulation. "We see none of these features operating in the state sector."

They attack a claim by the newly-appointed director of the London Institute of Education, Professor Geoff Whitty, who with others maintained: "The best available evidence does seem to suggest that going

further in the direction of

marketisation would be unlikely to yield overall improvements in the quality of education and might well have damaging equity effects."

Davies and Ellison reply: "How can evidence exist when no market forces operate? Using words like 'marketisation' does not create market forces.

"In reality, the term probably only describes minimal accountability through increased information about the school and the education system."

This article draws on "Site-based management - myths and realities", a paper given at the recent American Educational Research Association annual meeting. Professor Davies can be contacted at the University of Hull, e-mail:

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