Quality is about people and there are too few outstanding officials and politicians, says Douglas Osler
In Chance Witness, the journalist and former politician Matthew Parris reflects on the difficulty of writing about events involving people he knows. I am in that position on the debate about the role of local authorities in managing education. It would be easier to stick to the curriculum but this is important and I can always follow the example of President Truman who wrote what he wanted in the first draft then edited it.
In a lecture at Glasgow University, Charles Kennedy predicted that tensions post-devolution would be between the Scottish Executive and local authorities, not between Holyrood and Westminster. The friction over who runs education could prove him right. Our system gives responsibility for managing education to local authorities with an advisory role for central government. That in itself is a fudge. When ministers want change, they either have to take legislative powers, as with national testing, or compromise with all the authorities before publishing their "advice".
That gives central government an uncertain, cajoling role which erodes leadership. Ministers also have powers to intervene when things go wrong in an authority and can apply the indirect pressure of the inspectorate which, by assuming that central advice will be followed, makes local variations unlikely. When 5-14 was being "recommended" by ministers, few schools would have thought they could secede. It was as good as mandatory because of inspection.
Those who criticise the current system have few sustainable proposals but they have evidence to doubt the effectiveness of local control. Before education authorities were inspected, they were virtually unaccountable.
When Sam Galbraith was education minister, he saw the introduction of inspection as a way of publicising the strengths and weaknesses of different authorities and it has done that - but to what effect? Standards are not rising and those who are criticised are still there, although "improvements are planned". That opens up the system to fair criticism.
The problem lies in the quality of political and personal leadership rather than in the structure of local government. There are some, but few, outstanding officials in education directorates. It has become unfashionable for directors to direct education. Unless an education authority can show that it improves life at the desks, it can't justify its existence. Many have difficulty meeting that criterion.
The policy in 1995-96 of allowing only existing members of directorates to apply for posts in the new authorities circulated mediocrity. Some authorities have not been helped since by continual internal reorganisations. Others are too small to be credible units of management. I met the director of education for a Russian province larger than France and Germany combined. It put Clackmannanshire into perspective. There should be a much higher requirement for entry into directorates in terms of qualifications and experience and a continuing commitment to staff development.
It is a particular eccentricity in Scottish education that professionals choose tramlines for their careers very early on and then stay there. So a choice is made to be a headteacher or an inspector or a member of a directorate and few move from one to the other as their careers progress.
That inhibits selection and limits experience.
Leaving aside the competence of authorities, do alternative solutions have any attractions? Education should be a local democratic provision monitored by central government. The uncomplicated way to do that is to include it as a function of local government. Providing education is local government's largest task and its removal would undermine the scope and seriousness of local democracy. A valid argument, though, is that electing politicians to cover several functions means that they are not held directly accountable for their record on education as they would be in a single-purpose authority.
Local democratic control could be asserted by electing school boards to replace education authorities. Jimmy Carter's first elected office was to a school board in Georgia, so such a move might attract quality candidates! However, the elected boards would need a department to manage the new responsibility.
Yes, back to ring-fenced appointments recycling the personnel of the previous regime. Perhaps it wouldn't change much after all. And how would they be resourced? They could be financed from central government but existing local authorities know what a lottery that is. A school tax could be levied locally but that does not work well in the United States where school districts in prosperous areas with more tax income can make better provision. Top-up fees, maybe?
Another proposal has been to devolve control to individual schools under the overall administration of the Scottish Executive. While the notion of an extended civil service department administering schools cannot be taken seriously, the devolution of responsibility to schools and their elected boards is worth considering if accountability can be assured.
Some headteachers, with the necessary administrative staff, personnel departments and clerks of works, would do a good job. But inspectorate reports tell us that around a fifth of headteachers in primary and secondary schools are unsatisfactory. What happens to the thousands of children in these schools? Some school boards might have excellent conveners working well with the headteacher and ensuring accountability but some would be inept and easily misled. What happens to the children in these schools?
Parent interest in a school is transitory, lasting only as long as the child is a pupil. Who will be the gatekeepers for children's education in this new world of school autonomy? This concept is usually put forward for secondary schools but what of the third of Scotland's primary schools which are very small? How will it work there? Educational management needs continuity and long-term attention to improvement.
The 5-14 curriculum in Scotland and the English national curriculum developed from deep concern in the 1980s about poor schools and, particularly in England, about maverick education authorities. The intention was to ensure that all children received at least a minimum entitlement. I once had a letter from a school board asking for the removal of physical education because "children run around all the time". Who will monitor the eccentrics? Not the inspectorate because it is not there often enough and, just as a poor school can be turned round quickly, so a good school can fall apart quickly. Who will be accountable when that happens?
Changing structures usually just delays facing the real issue which in this case is the quality of local leadership in education. Structural change provides an excuse for inaction while the new order settles down and will not guarantee improvement. Quality is much more about people than structures. We need to stop compromising on quality in Scottish public life.
Douglas Osler is former senior chief inspector of education.