Let school leaders get on with the job

3rd December 2010 at 00:00

As a headteacher for the best part of 20 years, in three different schools, it never ceased to surprise me that so many people involved in education felt they knew better than me how my complex job should be done, even though it was one they had never done themselves.

It was therefore very interesting to read, through the wonders of the internet, of public debate in Scotland about the best way to run our schools. Jim Thewliss, the incoming president of School Leaders Scotland, argued that if Scotland had fewer councils, this would be "fairer for schoolchildren". Former education director and council chief executive Keir Bloomer believes heads should have "massively more power" to run schools.

These are not lone voices. The Scottish Parliament's education committee recently gave attention to this in a full consultation. It is an issue that keeps coming up, in various forms, because there are very real problems in our system of school management. Study after study identifies unrealistic political and corporatising pressures as a major demotivating factor for school leaders, distracting them from their real job with pupils and parents.

Colleagues who have crossed the divide into the independent sector speak eloquently of how much more direct and straightforward management arrangements are there; of how they can "get on with the job", freed from the often petty restrictions of working within a local authority corporate structure.

It would be even more interesting if more school heads, those who actually do the job, were to give their stories. Some would be very positive, as we do have some excellent local authorities. But most would be critical. Such stories from headteachers themselves seldom appear in the media. This is because most are gagged by their employment contracts. They are not allowed, under pain of disciplinary sanction, to say anything in public which might be deemed to be critical of their employer - the local authority. The very people who know best what does not work about the present system are therefore not allowed to share their knowledge with the public, and are often not encouraged to share the problems with their bosses, who may themselves be "part of the problem".

However, although individual heads cannot speak out in public, representative bodies can. Mr Thewliss, in his presidential role, is afforded a temporary immunity. Moreover, SLS had already made a tight, well-argued response to the parliamentary committee. Its paper argues that, before deciding how we want Scotland's schools to be run, we should first agree criteria for judging if a system works well.

The paper identified the following criteria, among others. A good system would be clear about the purpose of school education, defining a clear entitlement for all children in Scotland. It would ensure equity of provision in funding, facilities and quality; provide a stable policy environment, outwith party politics, over a long period of time (as the Finnish have done so successfully); and make clear who is responsible and who should be accountable.

The paper then evaluated the current Scottish system against these criteria and found it wanting. Although there are examples of excellent practice in some aspects of education in several of Scotland's 32 local authorities, they vary so markedly in size, capacity and knowledge and understanding of educational issues that their practice is inconsistent, unequal and fails to deliver a core entitlement for all Scotland's young people.

Moreover, accountability and responsibility are confused and heads are held accountable for issues in which they may only have a small share of responsibility. SLS considered, but rejected, the idea that individual schools should run their own affairs entirely. Great schools have a strong sense of their individual identity, and this can be greatly inhibited by a leaden local authority corporate stance - so "yes", headteachers and school communities should have more individual freedom.

However, too much freedom could create different problems. Research into English schools, where there is more freedom and consequent diversity than in Scotland, suggests that, with notable exceptions, schools in areas with high socio-economic problems, if left to their own devices, may struggle to develop a rich learning culture. Such schools may require a "safety net" of higher levels of support beyond the immediate community, evening out the disadvantages their students may otherwise suffer. The provision of a "safety net" against risk (social, financial or through natural disaster or accident) is a strength of current local authority provision.

SLS therefore proposed that, in addition to a local body at school level to which a headteacher would report, there was a need for another public body, covering around 40-50 secondary schools and their associated primary schools. This would be large enough to provide stability in planning and financing and to provide a strategic capacity in recruiting and developing staff, supporting best practice and evening out some capacity differences across schools.

Unlike many others who will have a view on this debate, school leaders know what they are talking about. Their first concern is not political, but to ensure that the Scottish system provides the best education possible for all our children.

- The full SLS paper can be read at http:tinyurl.com2u5zl3u

Daniel Murphy has been a headteacher and headteacher trainer at Edinburgh University. He is currently on placement as a VSO volunteer advising the Ministry of Education of the Royal Government of Cambodia.

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