Dependency culture must go

17th April 2009 at 01:00

Perhaps the time is right to explore alternative delivery models for education, where we shift our thinking from people being users or consumers to being participants?

The shift from school boards to parent councils - which must be one of the best things to happen in Scottish education in the last 20 years - begins to provide an insight into the potential of true community involvement in the local delivery of education.

Our current system has been dominated by centralised control - both from the government and, in their turn, local authorities. The dependency culture, which this has created, is not the fault of those who work in schools. Yet, in an ironic twist, it has become one of the key barriers to enabling teachers and school leaders to grasp the opportunity provided by A Curriculum for Excellence.

Maybe the answer to releasing the potential in our schools and communities lies in our past. For when Scotland led the world in education, it was through schools that were "owned" by their communities. The Scottish parish schools, which originally were purely elementary, were encouraged to provide at least the elements of secondary education. These schools played this role so well that the Argyle Commission reported in 1868 that over 50 per cent of the students attending the four Scottish universities came direct from parish schools.

Parish schools were later joined by burgh schools, essentially secondary schools, and in this way both types of schools became universal education providers, and gave to Scotland an education system that was the envy of Europe.

What I have in mind is community-based management. To a certain extent, this concept has been trialled in some areas of Scotland. This is where primary and secondary schools work to promote links, smoothing the journey for children and benefiting from sharing good practice. These developments can have dedicated management time in the form of a learning community manager or leader. However, their governance still lies with each respective headteacher.

But what if we could establish a "community educational trust" to which was devolved the entire budget for running education within that community, so that schools were "owned" by their community. The shift in the perceived ownership would match what people feel about their school, rather than feeling removed from the real running of it because power is centralised elsewhere.

The reason I opt for the community-based approach is drawn from lessons south of the border where schools have sought to limit their intake to particular types of student. This has resulted in huge variations in terms of the quality of education provision, with "magnet" schools and "sink" schools existing in close proximity. My model is more inclusive and universal. This is where the concept of "these are our bairns" underpins and permeates policy and practice.

Of course, the practicality of community-based management of schools throws up as many questions as answers. How would such schools relate to their local authority? How would they manage budgets and systems that currently benefit from large-scale procurement? How would such communities relate to other council services and other agencies? How would the authority ensure that the needs of all children were being met?

Despite these, and many other such questions, I'd like to think that the potential of such a scheme is worthy of serious consideration and exploration. Even if such an idea comes to nought, it may allow us to create different forms of educational delivery which might emulate the genetic traits that so characterised the success of the Scottish parish school system.

Don Ledingham is acting head of education and children's services in East Lothian.

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