'More powers for heads is the key - not mergers'

11th February 2011 at 00:00
Experts tell Parliament that banding local authorities together will do little to improve attainment

Some of Scottish education's leading figures have dismissed the idea that a reduced number of local authorities would benefit teaching and learning.

The dozen-strong panel, assembled before the Scottish Parliament's education committee last week to debate school management, made a powerful case for giving more power to headteachers and their staff instead.

There are growing calls for Scotland's 32 local authorities to band together and form larger bodies, but the shape of these remains unclear.

Educational Institute of Scotland president Kay Barnett indicated that her union was not advocating any move towards the creation of 10-12 education boards - but had not ruled it out.

Keir Bloomer, director of the Tapestry Partnership, summed up the dominant mood in the room: "We must largely dismiss as an irrelevance the issue of number of local authorities."

West Lothian Council deputy chief executive Gordon Ford said the debate should not be about any changes to local authorities' structures, but about their "value systems".

Would Curriculum for Excellence have been more successfully delivered with different structures, he asked. His view was "certainly not".

There was no evidence that changing structures in itself would improve attainment, said Christina McAnea, Unison's UK national officer for education.

Robert Nicol, children and young people team leader at the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, underlined that "looking at structure before looking at anything else" was "certainly not" the best way ahead.

The view from England, provided by Denis Mongon of the London Centre for Leadership in Learning at London University, was also that structure represented a red herring.

"What works is high-quality teaching with high-quality management, very clear outcomes and the freedom to decide how they will achieve those outcomes," he said.

Judith McClure, former headteacher at St George's School for Girls in Edinburgh, argued that significant improvement would only occur if heads were given a stronger leadership role. "We're not empowering people on the ground who can do it," she commented.

Some cautionary notes were sounded about the prospect of devolving more power to schools.

Greg Dempster, general secretary of the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland, insisted that primary heads "don't want power devolved on all issues; they want power devolved to them on issues where they can have an impact on learning and teaching". They preferred to let others handle ICT, human resources and buildings, he said.

"There is merit in having a back-up institution in the local authority, said Richard Kerley, of Edinburgh's Queen Margaret University, since it could deal with issues such as poorly performing teachers.

The major concern of School Leaders Scotland was lack of equity, with past president Colin Sutherland pointing to a difference on spend per pupil of up to pound;2,000 between similar schools. But Mr Ford, representing the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, said such comparisons were "too simplistic".

Mr Bloomer also took issue with SLS, questioning why the body still supported local authority management of schools.

"If there's one thing that 140 years of state education has not delivered in Scotland, it is equity," he said, adding later that defending the status quo on the basis of equity was "ludicrous".

There were other targets in the sights of Mr Bloomer, who is a former education director in Clackmannanshire Council. He singled out national education bodies in general, and HMIE in particular, as responsible for a "culture of compliance and risk aversity".

The view from outside Scotland was no more sympathetic: Professor Mongon saw an "incestuous" culture in which "too many small clubs" were both providers and assessors of services.

henry.hepburn@tes.co.uk.

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