It's all about control

20th July 2007 at 01:00
Which system is better for education, hands on like England or hands off like Scotland? Illustration by James Fryer.

Although I am in my third year as a guest worker in the Southern Peninsula, I am in no position to draw direct comparisons. We need to learn from each other, and customise what works to local circumstance.

England and Scotland, in common with most "westernised democracies", pursue a shared agenda driven by global issues seeking competitiveness in a knowledge economy. But what may be right for Scotland may not work in England. Further progress requires different strategies.

I shall restrict my comments to issues of governance. Perhaps Scotland is too conservative and needs greater diversity, while England is too state centralist and needs less national prescription and more effective accountability.

The area of greatest difference is, of course, the governance arrangements for schools. In England there are stronger arrangements for local management. Local authorities have little direct involvement in the day-to-day running of schools and quite right too.

However, it has been a controlled devolution. There is no detailed involvement by local authorities, but this has enabled rule from Westminster through initiatives, many statutory and thus inflexible. For example, it was statutory for each governing body to conduct an annual general meeting, which was rarely a success. This required legislation to change it, but it has been replaced by another obligatory process.

My criticisms about too much micro-management from West-minster should not be interpreted as critical of the excellent work by governing bodies. Indeed, given the very significant demands on governors and their legal obligations, I am in awe of their public engagement and civic contribution. But I am troubled by some aspects of accountability when, for example, school performance is very poor yet the headteacher remains unchallenged by the governing body. Cambridgeshire had a school requiring emergency intervention, which, because it was a Foundation School, required the approval of the Secretary of State.

While I was seeking this, Ofsted arrived and their report was, accurately, truly awful. After the report was published and, with the permission of the Secretary of State, the authority intervened, the headteacher left and the governing body was disbanded. That was last July.

The range of difficulties the school faced was not exaggerated. Ofsted now reports that satisfactory progress has been made, but the authority should have been able to intervene earlier. When the executive (the headteacher) and the governing body are of one mind, this is exceedingly hard.

Schools should have increased autonomy, but not without proper accountability. If charitable trusts with com- munity involvement are established, such bodies can own the buildings, employ the staff and be the guardian of the ethos of the school. This is a sensible way forward in England, but unnecessary in Scotland although experimenting with trusts could aid deprived communities.

The most fashionable word in the public sector is "commissioning". Grudgingly, I can live with that as local authorities can be the schools' commissioners. They should ensure a sufficient supply of quality school places. Thus the local authority sets the specification, grants freedom for local circumstances and professional judgment to the school and holds it to account through quality assurance. The specification can be broader than attainment, covering sports, arts, culture and children with additional needs.

Finally, local authority inspections I was inspected in Stirling in 2004 and in Cambridgeshire by 10 inspectorates in a joint area review in 2007, an unwieldy process which has been simplified. Self-evaluation in Scotland is more mature, while inspection processes are more rigorous and transparent. However, as with much in Scotland, the final reports are often too well mannered and cosy. Scotland still needs to be more challenging and less complacent.

Gordon Jeyes is deputy chief executive of children and young people's services in Cambridgeshire

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