Fenced in or running free?

14th November 1997 at 00:00
CHOICES FOR SELF-MANAGING SCHOOLS. Edited by Brian Fidler, Sheila Russell and Tim Simkins. Paul Chapman Pounds 16.95.

A study of the tensions between control and freedom in management is well timed, says Bob Salisbury

Researchers wishing to observe wild foxes once wired in a tract of open scrubland and released the animals into it. The enclosure was large enough to encourage the foxes to act naturally but small enough to enable observers to monitor their every movement. Day and night the foxes were watched, and though they appeared to adapt easily to their new surroundings, a path was soon worn along the perimeter wire as they tried to expand their territory.

The arrival of local management of schools, and more recently grant-maintained schools, seems to have given headteachers and governors greater operational freedom in the way they run their schools. Terms such as "devotion", "decentralisation", "professional autonomy" and "self-managing schools" attest to this apparent redistribution of power. The assumption is made that schools increasingly have the means to act independently in response to their particular circumstances, and to operate in a way free of interference from regional or national groupings. This seems to be the case, but is the new-found freedom largely illusory? Are the people running schools simply behaving like the foxes and enjoying a notional freedom but with the boundaries ever more clearly determined by the outsiders?

The tension between the freedom to develop in an autonomous way and the need to be accountable is increasingly being commented upon, and Choices for Self Managing Schools makes a useful new contribution to this debate. It explores the changes imposed on schools by the reforms, and comments on the implications of fresh relationships and emerging strategies. The book presents a series of inter-related articles written largely by education researchers and seeks to define who has been empowered or disempowered by the reforms, where stakeholders' power has been increased or decreased, and asks what are the implications for managers of schools in trying to cope with this new world.

It makes the point that the operational power of heads and governors has certainly been increased and this "self-management" offers many opportunities for independence or innovation. There is evidence of enterprising approaches towards things such as fund-raising, competition, marketing, and customer care, and to the establishment of more relevant links with industry and other outside agencies. On the other hand, what this new-found autonomy cannot do is free teachers and governors from the constraints associated with working in an economic and political climate which demands accountability and efficiency.

Central government increasingly controls the operational framework and seeks to direct the ways schools should develop. The introduction of the national curriculum, testing requirements, reporting, inspections by the Office for Standards in Education and expectations in terms of strategic planning, teacher appraisal, attendance criteria and ever-declining budgetary settlements place ever more constraints on schools.

Local education authorities have perhaps been the main losers and have become squeezed between central government and the autonomy of schools. Parents have seen their operational power increased, though, in practice, this is restricted by geographical location, the number of schools to choose from and historical educational patterns, such as grammar schools, which still prevail in some counties. Pupils still remain largely disempowered stakeholders in their own education and have to rely on other parties such as parents, heads or governors in determining a school policy that takes account of their interests.

The book is published at a very opportune moment, because the interactions between control and freedom are surfacing almost daily. The forthcoming White Paper aims to return more power to local authorities - the National Association of Headteachers objects and says this will be a retrograde step and constitutes a pointless restriction on the experience which has built up "self-management". Tensions abound and it remains to be seen whether the foxes will remain in the compound or whether they will seek to create escape holes in the wire.

* Bob Salisbury is headteacher of the Garibaldi school in Mansfield, Notts

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