Devolution is the first step in a cultural revolution

22nd November 1996 at 00:00
David Cockburn continues his series on the implications of devolved management. Not so long ago, school management was a simple matter of local authorities managing schools. But now, with devolved school management (DSM), it is rather more difficult to establish precisely who is in charge.

In theory, if management is devolved, it follows that schools are responsible for their own management: the school management team assumes at least some of the managerial roles - and responsibilities - of the traditional education department. The local authority still has a management role, as well as many other functions, but it is much-reduced.

In fact, DSM has so far failed to bring about much change. A few budgets have been devolved, but there has been very little shift in real power. The school is still the horse and the local authority very much the rider.

Schools haven't cottoned on to the fact that they are much more in charge of their own destiny than before - and also have more resources than ever before to plan for that destiny. Not that there are more resources available (quite the opposite), but that resources previously held centrally are now devolved to schools.

Senior management, in consultation with staff, can now decide what kind of school they want, what its aims are, how to staff it to meet those aims (within current contracts), what is the most effective in-service training to ensure staff and school development, and how best to meet parental aspirations and pupils' needs.

DSM isn't only about managing telephone budgets, it is about the transfer of power from local authorities to schools. Education departments are fully aware of this and may be reluctant to divest any more power than is strictly necessary - according to the Government's guidelines.

Of course, it is true that only 80 per cent of schools' running costs have been devolved, and not 80 per cent of the much larger education department budget; that means that the remaining non-schools budget plus the 20 per cent of schools' running costs are held centrally.

This is in stark contrast to England, where, some five years into local management of schools (their equivalent of DSM), between 90 and 95 per cent of the education budget has already been devolved.

Therein lies the rub. Of course the English education system is different, historically and culturally, but the principles of devolved management are not. It is the Government's plan, and will probably be the plan of any future government, to introduce more and more aspects of the market place to the public sector, and that includes education. It is impossible to replace public education with private, but the next best thing - as in other similar public service reforms - is to create the market place by setting up a customer and a supplier.

In education, you give the money to the schools and they become the customers, who then have the power to purchase services - or not - from the local authority. The local authority becomes the supplier to, but no longer the manager of, the schools.

As other suppliers recognise that there is a lucrative market, there will be more and more competition to the authority. That, according to the theory, will make local authorities sharpen up their acts to provide quality services and value for money.

That is the real point of devolved management. It is not about theories of management, though advantage of those can be taken by the schools. It is about creating a market place and reducing the power of the local authority.

Local authority education departments can no longer continue in their old dispensation; they have to recognise the threat and tackle it, if they want to survive. And that means a real examination of their relationship with the schools.

David Cockburn, former assistant director in charge of Grampian's DSM scheme, is now director of Cockburn Consultancy, a company specialising in educational management

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