How good are councils for your school?

16th December 2005 at 00:00
here are various proposals both north and south of the border to give schools more autonomy and reduce the power of local authorities. In England, the idea being encouraged is the creation of more schools run by self-governing trusts along the lines of the controversial city academies.

What is proposed for Scotland is much more modest. It involves giving headteachers more control over budgets and a greater say in staffing. Local authorities will continue to manage the provision of transport, school meals and cleaning services on the grounds that it would not be cost-effective or efficient for each school to make its own arrangements.

The authorities will also still have an important role in quality assurance, particularly in relation to raising standards of achievement.

A source close to Peter Peacock, the Education Minister, is quoted as saying: "This is about education authorities moving away from command and control towards support and empowerment."

However, the tradition of public service paternalism in Scotland is strong - witness the way in which "consultations" are managed - and is powerfully conveyed through the bureaucratic structures of local government. Those who possess power, whether politicians or officials, are usually reluctant to give it up and it will take a major cultural shift for the aspirations behind the proposed reforms to be achieved.

It is worth asking why Scotland is moving more cautiously than England in relation to the changes being considered. Part of the answer is that the principle of diversity is already well established in the English system, with a larger independent sector, a greater range of faith-based schools and stronger involvement of the private sector.

In Scotland, we have always been inclined to favour uniformity of provision on the grounds that it seems to embody commitment to equality of opportunity.

The fact remains, however, that underachievement in areas of social disadvantage has proved an intractable problem, which even the best efforts of local authorities have been unable to counter. Whether freeing up the system to enable individual schools to shape their own destiny to a greater extent would lead to improvements, or merely widen the gap between "successful" and "unsuccessful" schools, is uncertain.

There are other factors to be considered. Scottish headteachers have not exactly been clamouring for greater independence. It is true that they often complain about bureaucracy. But they also claim that they are overburdened and would be unlikely to welcome additional managerial responsibilities which might detract from their central professional concerns about teaching, learning, pupil welfare, staff development, and so on.

A more cynical interpretation of their stance might be that their advancement to the position of headteacher has depended, in part, on local authority patronage, so they would be disinclined to undermine a system from which they have benefited.

Important issues of democratic accountability lie at the heart of these questions. It can be argued that schools owe their primary responsibility to parents, pupils and the local community. That may sometimes conflict with the demands made by central and local government to implement policies which are driven by economic constraints or political imperatives.

At the same time, if schools fail to fulfil their primary responsibility, there has to be some mechanism for holding them to account - thus the argument for having a national inspectorate backed up by local authority monitoring. For this system to work effectively, however, a high degree of mutual trust and respect among all the partners is required. Above all, it has to have the confidence of teachers.

Can we honestly say that these conditions are satisfied at present?

Walter Humes is professor of education at Aberdeen University.

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