Leader freedom is not the full story
Two reports published before Christmas contained important messages for Scottish education. The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) figures showed Scotland to be performing about average among the 65 nations in the survey. Education Secretary Mike Russell saw this as confirmation that "the tide had turned" on the previous slide in Scotland's international standing. Others put a less rosy gloss on the statistics, noting how far ahead Finland and several Asian countries are.
Published in the same week, the McKinsey report, How the world's most improved school systems keep getting better, outlined the lessons to be learned from the most successful countries.
The most improved countries - the ones that have gone from "good" to "great", as management guru Jim Collins put it in the title of his seminal work - are all small jurisdictions. Finland, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Ontario are of comparable population size to Scotland. If they can do it, so can Scotland, provided that the right action is taken throughout the system.
Improvement of this sort cannot be achieved with a wave of the politician's wand. It requires a consistently high level of performance from top to bottom. The knowledge of how to do it is available; the opportunity is there - perhaps even more in Scotland than in England.
One major advantage that Scotland has over England is that there are no arguments north of the border about school structures. While England keeps apologising for its comprehensive secondary school system and is inventing new types of academies and so-called "free schools", Scotland remains steadfastly proud of its community schools.
In 1997, David Blunkett, then a new Education Secretary in England, was praised for concentrating on "standards not structures", but his successors have failed to resist the temptation to fiddle about with structures. With its Curriculum for Excellence, Scotland has clearly placed its emphasis on standards, which is one of the McKinsey criteria for a successful system.
A second advantage is size. Change in Scottish education is much easier to manage than in England, with its 20,000 schools and 6 million children. Or it should be.
In fact, the 2,700 schools in Scotland are administered by 32 local authorities and, in international terms, there is too much local authority power and too little autonomy given to individual schools to manage the education of their students. The reforms that took Singapore to greatness, for example, gave schools and teachers much more management and pedagogical freedom.
The issue is not whether local authorities should have a role in education - all countries have a "middle tier" - but how that role is carried out. In Scotland, there is inequity of funding across the 32 authorities and the extent of devolved management of resources and finance is very limited.
With current local authority powers, the question has to be asked: what is their added value to the school system? What are the barriers to a local authority relationship with its schools that gives schools more real autonomy and enables local authorities to offer the right kind of support?
In this context, autonomy is not the same as complete independence. Having given its school leaders more managerial freedom, Singapore established clusters of schools so that headteachers can share good practice and allocate some resources across the area where they considered that they could be most effective. Similar clusters in Boston, USA, are led by the most effective heads, who mentor other less experienced or less successful heads. The Boston heads' clusters spawned parallel networks of inter- school collaboration at middle-manager and teacher level.
In England, there is strong evidence that school-to-school support raises standards. The London Challenge showed the way and London examination results are now above the national average. The National Support School programme, organised by the National College for Leadership of Schools, identifies the most successful leaders, ensures that their schools have depth and capacity in school leadership, and brokers them to support less successful schools. Results improve in both the supported school and in the school giving the support. The learning is by no means all one way. Local authorities commission this system, but they do not run it.
The new agency in Scotland, which will combine HMIE and Learning and Teaching Scotland, has a great opportunity as a new body to create a system of school-to-school support that embeds focused collaboration into a new school improvement system. This must be more than the non- competition that has characterised relationships between schools within each local authority family. It must be strong partnership working, based on clear principles of school success.
As Mike Russell said in November to the annual conference of School Leaders Scotland, school leaders need to be given more freedom and the authority to do the job. But more than this is needed if Scotland is to move into the top international league.
With the increased autonomy must come a clear structure of collaboration, so that the best schools and teachers can lead their peers in pedagogy and management.
Within this school-led structure, there is a role for local authorities. But it is very different from the current paternalistic role that puts too much decision-making in council offices.
Dr John Dunford is chair of Whole Education and a former general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.