Frontier spirit breaks mould

2nd October 1998 at 01:00
Teams of workmen hammer and saw on half-erected buildings on the town's main drag. Beyond these buildings, clear horizons. For the stranger in the new boom town, Livingston has the feel of the Wild West.

Radical, pioneering practices on this West Lothian frontier - not least in education, linking the child in the classroom to the leader of the council - make interesting viewing for anyone cynical about whether schools can meet Government targets.

Mega-bucks are being spent on upgrading buildings and equipment, on greater resources for extra-curricular music, drama and sport. Teachers at the chalkface have greater influence over how the service is run, but also experience much closer monitoring of what they do in their classrooms.

There has been a dramatic cut in the number of exclusions by the launch of learning support bases in every secondary school. More children with special needs are getting the attention they need in-house and teachers, relieved of major disruption, are able to get on with teaching.

Like many authorities, West Lothian plans to monitor its schools more closely. Education officials are being trained to carry out HMI-type annual reviews of school performance, taking in everyone from the headteacher to the janitor. Action plans are then drawn up.

The first sign that West Lothian was forging a new way forward, was its appointment of Ross Martin as education convener. Not a surprise appointment for this Labour-run area associated with coalmining and other heavy industries in decline - Mr Martin had been a teacher, worked as a researcher for Livingston MP Robin Cook and served as a councillor on Lothian Region. What made him different was that he came from a council grouping on Lothian that was New Labour before New Labour existed. He was only 31.

With Mr Martin in post, a second wave of appointments rippled through the service. The director of education, Roger Stewart, came not from the ranks of old Lothian education bureaucrats, but from a local school where he was headteacher. His number two, Kate Reid - head of educational development and quality assurance - came from a headteacher's post at Armadale Academy where she was widely credited with turning the school around. Teachers stared to see two of their own, with recent hands-on experience, move straight into positions of real power and influence over schools.

Eyes widened further when teachers were offered the chance to take an active role in curriculum development. According to Mr Martin, staff are "queuing up" to be seconded out for brief spells to research new and better ways of helping children learn, to have some measurable input and clout without deserting the direct contact with children they enjoy.

The experience is designed to help their own professional development and refresh them in their jobs. For the council there is the added bonus of seeing research carried out more by practitioners than by remote academics or officials.

"We're trying to shift away from the idea of a fountain of knowledge at the centre, sending out edicts without any resources to back them up," explains Martin. "We're recognising talent. Staff out there in the field are now developing the curriculum for themselves and their colleagues. It makes a huge difference."

Because of national conditions of employment the council does not have total flexibility to recognise initiative before staff reach assistant principal teacher level, but it is trying to create clear line management and accountability - issues it considers crucial to an upturn in achievement within schools.

Locally, the council has won union support for some changes. Mr Martin attributes this in part to Mr Stewart's experience as an official for the Educational Institute of Scotland. He successfully negotiated a buy-out, for example, of the famous alternative contract which gave staff in community schools time off and extra pay for evening work they were not obliged to do. Abolition of this contract has freed up Pounds 250,000 a year.

One of the major savings is staffing. Where once there were more than 200 education officials, now there are fewer than 100 to manage 11 secondary schools and 65 primary schools. The seconded staff from schools are doing some of the work previously done by officials.

Money saved, money from a new Government and money generated from a local economy with the third fastest growing gross domestic product in the country, thanks mainly to the rapid growth of the electronics industry, is being channelled into schools. An authority which in the early Eighties saw unemployment at 28 per cent, 50 per cent in some villages, now has to bus workers in from Fife and Lanarkshire to meet labour demand. Silicon Glen is producing serious money for council coffers.

A massive #163;8 million a year is now going into capital projects to renovate school buildings. Science blocks are being gutted and wallpaper, carpets and curtains are appearing in designated parts of schools.

Information and communications technology is being installed, giving primaries up to six computers, and secondaries up to 200, providing entire classes with access to the Internet. Video conferencing is planned for Higher Still classes. "Improving the school environment is important,'' says Mr Martin. "Teachers, parents and pupils are noticing what we're doing. It makes them feel valued and motivates them."

He maintains far more than cash is pouring into schools. The council leader came to address headteachers and convey the importance the authority places on education. With the luxury of being a small compact authority, the director and convener can have frequent gatherings with all the school executives. It is not difficult to imagine teachers, soured by years of abuse in the media, raising an eyebrow at "high heid yins" on the council paying them this much attention.

But it's not all sweetness and light. Controversial decisions are also being made. Amid acrimonious public debate, one low-roll primary has shut and two more are likely to. Support systems are in place for struggling teachers and no one faces compulsory redundancy but some staff are still being asked to vacate their jobs. As the education department has merged with arts and leisure, there is little difficulty finding new work for teachers away from schools.

Mr Martin is unapologetic: "Children only get one shot at school. We can't afford to blight their life chances by failing to take action. It is undoubtedly a difficult duty for education officers but there is no question that asking someone to move on from the classroom is not done in a compassionate manner. They wouldn't be in those jobs if they didn't have something to offer."

Vice-convener David McGrouther would eventually like to see even the most competent of headteachers moved out of their posts to rotate round other schools. He says: "It is not healthy for a head - or the school - to be in the same job for more than eight years."

Kate Reid encourages promoted school staff to deal in a more direct way with teachers and problems: "They should set out their stall, saying what they expect from staff and then monitor to make sure there is hard evidence that policies don't just exist on paper."

This means going into classrooms unannounced, spot checking homework diaries, looking in jotters and not just having a casual word in the corridor about issues. At an arranged time they are to get together, shut the classroom door and ask questions that challenge. How much homework are they setting? Can they identify children on borderlines who could benefit from a little extra attention?

For senior management and principal teachers, this is a major cultural shift away from managing policies and resources to managing staff and being responsible for standards. For some departments and teachers it means less autonomy.

Some principal teachers recoil at the idea of asking such searching questions of the colleagues with whom they socialise. Mrs Reid urges them to overcome any initial discomfort for the sake of the kids passing through the school. "It is stepping into their professional role, and they will feel relieved afterwards, having tackled a problem."

The authority says its single biggest problem is raising expectations among children who, in a traditional working class area, impose their own glass ceiling on achievement. Exam results - the lowest in the Lothians - are in part depressed by the legions leaving in Secondary 4 for the many available jobs. All strategies are drafted, in the ambitious hope that school will be a vibrant, challenging, attractive place which converts children to education, education, education.

Mr Martin says of their strategies: "Ten years ago I would have been strung up at a Labour Party conference for outlining them. Things were either right wing or left wing. Now the only question we ask is, 'Is it good for education?'"

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