Holding off the doomsday scenario

18th April 1997 at 01:00
If education is increasingly having to shop in the marketplace, the traditional support which schools have received from advisers for in-service training is more likely to be at the mercy of the supermarket.

The advent of the new education authorities has reinforced changes which were already under way, according to Glenda White, head of school development in South Lanarkshire. One of the new buzz words is "brokerage" in which advisers shop around for expertise if it cannot be provided by the authority's own staff.

As Ms White points out, this is a role that is likely to increase as the number of advisers is reduced and therefore the range of expertise diminishes. Authorities continue to use advisers for their specialist skills but even the larger ones such as North Lanarkshire are forced to have one adviser for technical education and home economics. "The skills do not necessarily transfer," John Mitchell, head of the council's Kilsyth Academy, observes.

Most authorities, however, are now typically deploying advisers across a more generic front, covering areas such as quality assurance, support for learning and assessment. They are also expected to act as an authority's eyes and ears in linking with clusters of schools. This is partly a consequence of circumstance: Aberdeen's four advisers or the nine in Perth and Kinross cannot afford to specialise.

But there are good educational reasons behind these moves. Bob McKay, director of education in Perth and Kinross, says that he has been able to ignore the primarysecondary divide and subject specialisms.

That in turn has led to two further developmen ts. Education authorities are beginning to trawl through the ranks of teachers to plug training gaps while also allowing schools to buy in from outside. Either way, the schools are increasingly in the driving seat as devolved budgets give them control over in-service spending.

George Gardner, Glasgow's deputy director of education, says his department's policy is to tap into the expertise and experience of all their staff, not just advisers. "If a group of schools is doing primary-secondary liaison, for example, it is less appropriate to have advisers telling them how it should be done when other staff who perhaps have successfully gone about it can share their experience.

"It then becomes a case of saying to schools 'Here's how it worked for us', not 'Here is what you must do'. That is likely to be much more effective, and establishes the credibility of in-service provision, something which must underpin any successful staff development programme. "

Aberdeen has established a secondary curriculum network for principal teachers with much the same aim in mind. If, however, it identifies an outside expert whose time the heads of department want to buy, the council says it will not stand in their way. "Our general principle is that where we have the expertise, we use it," says Elisabeth Sharp, Aberdeen's adviser in secondary and continuing education. "Otherwise, we look elsewhere."

But Ms Sharp sounds a cautionary note: "Principal teachers have been appointed to run departments in their schools and, if we're now asking them to take on a lead role for the authority, that's a different matter and one which, with all the attendant pressures of workload and so on, has to be handled with great care and sensitivity."

It all means that the colleges - traditional suppliers - now have to compete with the private sector, the resourceful Quality in Education Centre of Strathclyde University and consultancies from the swollen ranks of former education officials.

Alternatives have also been devised, such as the consortium formed by North Lanarkshire, Clackmannan, Falkirk, Stirling and Perth and Kinross to promote professional development.

The doomsday scenario does not appear to have hit in-service yet. The #163;9 million which the Scottish Office previously earmarked in the form of a specific grant has been transferred to the general local government finance pool with effect from this month, raising fears that hard choices between job losses and staff development would inevitably work to the disadvanta ge of the latter.

South Lanarkshire and Scottish Borders have reduced their in-service expenditure by 40 per cent and 35 per cent respectively, the biggest reductions. But Mr Gardner says Glasgow councillors accepted that improving educational attainment in the city - a key council priority - could not be achieved without maintaining the #163;1 million expenditure on staff training.

"It would be very short-sighted to reduce staff development budgets at a time of major change, when all political parties are committed to improving educational standards.

"If staff development can survive a tough spending round like this year's,the omens must be reasonably good. "

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