Joining forces: the rise of shared services

10th February 2012 at 00:00
As four authorities move to form partnerships, Henry Hepburn asks if we are seeing the new shape of education in Scotland

A problem shared is a problem halved, or so the saying goes.

So is that why four of Scotland's authorities - Stirling and Clackmannanshire in one partnership and East Lothian and Midlothian in another - have decided to share the running of their education services? Do they believe that together they will find better protection from the icy blasts of the recession than acting alone?

It's not as simple as that, they say. This is no desperate attempt to save money, they insist: such ideas have long been gestating, albeit that the spectre of economic calamity may have hastened their realisation. And what's more, this is not merely about protecting the status quo. Bold claims are being made for the power of shared services; that they will improve attainment, curricular development and a lot more besides, regardless of budget pressures.

Shared services are an idea that has been kicked around for a long time in Stirling and Clackmannanshire. At one point, the plan was for a "big bang" that would reverberate throughout both councils. "The starting point was not what can we share, but what can't we share," says Clackmannanshire chief executive Elaine McPherson.

"I think the vision was a bit too radical for the political mood of the day," recalls Stirling chief executive Bob Jack, especially once councillors realised that it entailed a new layer of bureaucratic machinery - a joint board - that would have put them at a further remove from the decision-making process.

The idea was finally rejected in 2008, but soon revived in a new form; less radical but - certainly in Scottish terms - pioneering nonetheless. Stirling, with its seven secondary schools, and Clackmannanshire, one of Scotland's smallest authorities with three secondaries, would combine efforts and share expertise in both education and social work. Stirling has become the lead authority for education, with former HM inspector Belinda Greer as head of the joint service, while Clackmannanshire takes the lead on social services, with Deirdre Cilliers in the equivalent role.

Everyone employed by a Scottish local authority should be paying attention, according to Iain Docherty, a professor of public policy and governance at the University of Glasgow.

"There will be a lot more of this," says Professor Docherty, who views moves towards shared services as a belated attempt to fix a mess left by reorganisation of Scottish local government in 1996. It led to a disparate group of 32 authorities that ranged in size from an old regional entity (Highland, 11,838 square miles) to the traditional county of Clackmannanshire (61 square miles).

He blames a Conservative government, limping towards electoral disaster in 1997 and driven by political expediency as it hacked out a haphazard mosaic of authorities. So it is that well-heeled Glasgow suburbs - East Renfrewshire and East Dunbartonshire - are neighbouring authorities whose "educational inheritance leaves them with more work to do".

It had only been in 1974 that a previous Tory government paved the way for the abolition of the old county councils and the formation of nine regions. Professor Docherty senses no appetite, nearly two decades on from the 1996 reorganisation, for another big bang, but sees logic in the moves by Stirling, Clackmannanshire, East Lothian and Midlothian: "The optimum number of education authorities is probably closer to the nine former regions than the current 32 authorities."

The StirlingClackmannanshire shared services plan arose from serendipitous circumstances. Clackmannanshire had lost its head of education, while Stirling had recently made an appointment to that role; at around the same time, Stirling had a vacancy at the head of its social work department.

But the right incumbents for the new top roles were also crucial.

Mr Jack would "never have countenanced" such bold change if he had not had Mrs Greer as head of education. He highlights her HMIE experience and track record as a primary head at a "couple of quite difficult schools" in Fife.

"Just do it!" is the instruction on a handout put together by the two councils to explain shared services. That neatly encapsulates Mrs Greer's qualities: on one level, the breezy, can-do optimism of a type that helped Nike conquer the sportswear industry with that slogan; on another, an order from someone with a steely, no-nonsense core.

Since sharing of services got going in earnest at the start of the school year, one of the earliest moves has been to get all 10 secondary headteachers together in a room every two months; the 70 primary and pre- school heads are to convene once a term. Another idea is to have a representative headteacher attend meetings of council senior leaders.

At the same time, the new joint services have five fewer senior officials. More "streamlining", as yet undetermined, is likely to take place in council headquarters, although compulsory redundancies are off the agenda.

There is a philosophical reason - as well as the obvious financial ones - behind pooling headteachers' expertise while their employers cut their own numbers: the onus is on heads to drive what Mrs Greer describes as the "clear agenda of raising attainment".

"We need to get the teachers and headteachers to do all the hard thinking about what we need to be changing to bring about improvement," she underlines.

Council officers will take a step back and let headteachers run with an idea, no matter how radical. Improved outcomes are the bottom line, no matter how they are achieved.

Perhaps, muses Mrs Greer, a head might decide he wants to operate outside Curriculum for Excellence. Fine, she says - but let him or her show that exam results, inclusion, parental complaints and achievement will all subsequently be at acceptable levels; she predicts they would not.

She is confident that a wisdom of crowds will emerge. There is to be no edict in Stirling or Clackmannanshire as to how many exams in different subjects will be taken at the end of S4 after National qualifications begin in 2013-14, for example. Yet she predicts that, of their own volition, all schools will decide six or seven is an appropriate amount.

In other words, the joint education service will set clear targets, quality-assure schools' work, and intervene where things go wrong. But how to achieve those targets will, more than ever, be determined by schools.

There will be support for those uncomfortable with this brave new world, but no masterplan.

"As soon as you tell people what to do," says Mrs Greer, "it takes away the need for them to do some of the hard thinking."

Her hopes for education in Stirling and Clackmannanshire are in tune with the Christie Commission, which last June underlined the urgent need for a "radical, new, collaborative culture" in public services. One Christie priority in particular chimes with Mrs Greer: the need to "maximise talents and resources, support self-reliance and build resilience".

A bureaucratic fence that divides the back yards of neighbours East Lothian and Midlothian may be removed this month. On 31 January, Midlothian Council agreed that Don Ledingham should become acting director of education and children' services across both councils, from 1 March; it would be a surprise if that decision were not rubber-stamped by East Lothian Council when it convenes on 28 February.

"That would be the first joint directorship in any authority in Scotland," says Mr Ledingham, currently East Lothian's executive director of education and children's services.

Midlothian education and communities director Donald MacKay, who would retire as Mr Ledingham took on the new role, says: "I think there comes a point in any partnership working where somebody needs to take the leadership bit in it and give it that firm direction."

There is an important difference from the StirlingClackmannanshire approach, Mr Ledingham explains: "It's not a lead- authority model - neither authority's giving up responsibility to one of the other authorities to deliver the service on its behalf. It's a different model - it's much more around that sharing of responsibility across the two."

He adds: "It's about building upon the best of the cultures in both authorities, but developing a single culture and way of doing things, and ethos."

Mr Ledingham has garnered a reputation well beyond his own authority as an education boss willing to explore radical ideas.

In the pages of TESS in April 2009, he argued the case for devolving a council's education budget to a community trust. While that idea did not take off, the council has been working toward "community partnership schools" which would allow greater involvement of parents and business people; that idea now appears more likely to come to Midlothian, too.

With shared services - an approach which will start in education before spreading across wider children's services - another initially daring proposal has been shaped into something not quite as radical.

The idea of a new, arms-length organisation for education services was initially explored, but, says Mr Ledingham: "It was just too radical a shift to move staff out from local authority employment."

Still, something had to happen. As Mr Ledingham and Mr MacKay explain, not only are the two councils facing the same financial pressures as everywhere else, but their overall population is expected to rise by 25 to 35 per cent over the next 25 to 30 years; staffing in education and children's services must change.

"The imperative is to ensure that funding is maintained at the front line," says Mr Ledingham. Mr MacKay adds that, in five years, the aim is to have made "significant improvements in everything we do".

Colin Sutherland, headteacher at North Berwick High and a former School Leaders Scotland president, is looking forward to working with 11 other heads, rather than five, and the "opportunities that will bring for sharing ideas, and developing Curriculum for Excellence and aspects of leadership". He stresses that a balance has to be struck between "economies of scale" and still meeting local needs, but that a group of 12 secondaries feels about right.

Greg Dempster, general secretary of primary school leaders' union AHDS, believes that, while it is too early to deliver a full judgement, the shared services approach "tallies with the sentiments expressed by members at our AGM in 2010, when they were clear that they valued the support and expertise of local authorities but felt there were too many units seeking to do things in their own way".

But he adds: "An unknown for me is how the directorates will manage to work towards one service when they are reporting to two sets of political masters."

The EIS view is that the current structure of 32 education authorities is unsustainable in these trying economic times, but questions remain to be answered before assistant secretary Drew Morrice lavishes praise on StirlingClackmannanshire and East LothianMidlothian: what expectation will there be for staff to move back and forth across councils?; and how will councils' local negotiating committees for teachers be affected?

There was a less guarded response from Eleanor Conor, information officer at the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, who lives in East Lothian. She views the plans as "sensible, particularly in the current climate". But an advantage of living in a small authority is that parents often have a direct council contact to phone if they have a concern to discuss - they would not want to lose that.

In a local newspaper interview earlier this month, East Lothian MSP and former Labour leader Iain Gray, a former maths and physics teacher, expressed "real concerns" that children in his constituency would not get the same attention under a shared services structure.

There are several reasons why his is one of the few dissenting voices.

Firstly, council bosses are keen that staff do not feel rushed into anything. John Stodter, general secretary of education directors' body ADES, says that the "Lothians are going for a very measured and planned approach, integrating at operational levels and building up as they go along; Stirling and Clackmannanshire is more of a leap of faith, but they have made good progress".

Secondly, since the scale of savings and impact on jobs remain unclear, so do any unpalatable side-effects. The recent independent budget review predicted a reduction in the Scottish budget of 12.5 per cent in real terms by 2014-15. So far the councils have only set out modest savings under the shared services model - a maximum of pound;783,000 in East LothianMidlothian and around pound;350,000 in StirlingClackmannanshire, to be made by reducing senior officers' jobs.

Thirdly, it has been repeatedly stated that the frontline will be protected.

Fourthly, the councils involved have had strong relationships for many years: Mr MacKay points to joint work on early years, drugs and alcohol, and child protection.

A note of caution is struck by Richard Kerley, professor of management at Queen Margaret University in East Lothian: shared services are not a good thing per se. Look, he says, at the Clyde Valley Review that aimed to combine a host of services across eight authorities, but faltered when Glasgow and others pulled out; "shared" can become a euphemism for "unwieldy".

Even with smaller-scale arrangements, he sees issues to be teased out: are lines of accountability blurred, for example, when an employee of council X answers to a boss of council Y?

But overall he has been encouraged by smaller authorities joining forces not because government told them to, but because it seemed right.

"It will give us a model to reflect the local," he says. "Let's see what people want to do, rather than imposing things on them centrally."

Key figure: Belinda Greer

- Began teaching career in the Middle East before returning to Scotland

- Worked as a primary teacher, depute headteacher, headteacher and education officer

- HMIE national lead inspector for the independent sector, and district inspector for two local authorities

- President of the Catholic Headteachers' Association of Scotland for three years

- Head of education, Stirling, 2010; head of education joint services, Stirling and Clackmannanshire since March 2011

Key figure: Don Ledingham

- Originally a PE teacher, including 10 years as principal teacher

- Headteacher at Dunbar Grammar in East Lothian for five years

- Head of education, East Lothian, 2005; director of education and children's services, 2009-

- Regular blogger, who writes that "the only person who can really impact upon the quality of education a child receives is the teacher in the classroom . it's my job to allow that to happen effectively".

The case for greater school autonomy

Calls for radical change to council structures were given extra clout in 2010 by the backing of a former education minister, Labour's Peter Peacock.

He envisioned 10-12 regional education boards, responsible for all spending on schools, adding that this would have to be accompanied by much more devolution of authority to headteachers.

A Labour policy paper questioned the efficiency of 32 education authorities, pointing out that colleges and universities were funded directly by central government and run by governing bodies.

But when school management was discussed by a panel of 12 experts at the Scottish Parliament's education committee last year, regional boards were viewed largely as a red herring.

They made a strong case for giving more power to headteachers and their staff instead.

Keir Bloomer, the former Clackmannanshire chief executive who was a driving force behind that authority's original plans to share almost all services with Stirling, summed up the mood: "We must largely dismiss as an irrelevance the issue of the number of local authorities."

But Mr Bloomer was no defender of the status quo, questioning the need for local authorities to manage schools and criticising their track record.

"If there's one thing that 140 years of state education has not delivered in Scotland, it is equity," he said.

Gordon Ford, then West Lothian deputy chief executive, said the debate should not be about structures, but authorities' "value systems".

"What works is high-quality teaching with high-quality management, very clear outcomes, and the freedom to decide how they will achieve those outcomes," said Denis Mongon, of the London Centre for Leadership in Learning at the University of London.

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