New directions in school governance
East Lothian's highly-publicised suggestion that, at some time in the future, its schools might be run, not by the council but by cluster-based trusts, has one major achievement to its credit: a debate on the governance of Scotland's schools is under way.
Local councils took over control of schools from the old school boards - their names may still be seen on the walls of many Victorian schools - in 1929. Since then, arrangements have been essentially unchanged. It is surely legitimate to reflect on whether a mechanism thought appropriate in the early 20th century remains so 80 years later. There are now many questions being asked that call the existing structure into doubt.
These questions fall into two broad categories. The first concerns the implications of the devolution settlement. Does a relatively small country need its schools to be politically accountable at two levels? Can the Scottish Government ensure that its strategic education policies will be carried into effect when the concordat has removed many of the financial levers available to it? Are 32 education authorities capable of giving effective support to schools? Is the diversity they bring a strength or a weakness? Has the concept of shared services - especially at a time of severe financial stringency - anything to offer?
The second set of questions is about raising standards. There is widespread concern about Scotland's declining position in international comparative studies. Problems with basic literacy and numeracy have attracted attention in recent months. Crucially, Curriculum for Excellence has emerged, not as a curriculum in any traditional sense, but as a multi- faceted improvement initiative in which the school is seen as the locus for innovation. Does this imply changes in governance? What structure is most likely to see schools become creative places, full of considered risk-taking?
East Lothian's answer brings together three well-established lines of thought and uses them to develop a blend that is potentially far-reaching in its implications. There is nothing revolutionary about delegating more financial and other powers to school level, nor about encouraging schools to act jointly in clusters, nor in seeking to involve parents and the community more closely in the way schools are run. The novel feature is the potential creation of charitable trusts to take over many of the functions of the council.
East Lothian is keen to stress it has no blueprint. It can continue empowering schools and communities within the existing framework. A decision on trusts can wait until these developments are further advanced and it may be more apparent whether going to a further stage would be advantageous.
The introduction of trusts would be a major departure. They would be charitable organisations with worthwhile financial and tax advantages. At the same time, their strong base in the community and among users of the service owes much to the model of the co-operative movement. Almost certainly they would also have to be the employers of school-based staff. The council would, in effect, commission them to carry out important statutory responsibilities on its behalf. It would draw up an education specification for the trusts to follow. This relationship, with a strong focus on outputs, could reduce the risk of provider capture to which traditionally-run public services are exposed. Furthermore, supporters of the scheme can point to the incorporation of FE colleges as an indication that trusts might be more enterprising and innovative.
The East Lothian proposal is not the only one on offer. For example, former education minister Peter Peacock has suggested that the 32 local authorities be replaced by a smaller number of boards, perhaps 10 or 12. The intention is to ensure that every school has access to effective support services. The mechanism is the creation of joint services.
This raises an important issue. Is it necessary that support functions are provided by the body - whether it be a council, trust or board - to which the school is accountable? The answer is "no". Public-private partnership schools in Scotland receive a range of facilities management services from commercial companies while the schools remain in the council fold. However, this has never been taken to its logical conclusion. In principle, there is no more reason why a school should receive curricular support, psychological services or catering from the council than cleaning or grounds maintenance.
It is possible to separate what may be seen as the "control" functions that councils provide from the "support" functions. Schools need to be held accountable for the equity of their admission arrangements or the probity of their finances. This can be done by a local authority, a board of governors or central government, but it cannot be optional. And there is no reason schools should not exercise choice when seeking support.
So, there are two possible approaches to improving the quality of the support that schools require. The approach Mr Peacock advocates would bring together significant management capacity and a wide range of expertise. It could achieve economies of scale while enhancing the quality of service. On the other hand, letting schools shop around for support services would use market mechanisms to improve quality. Economies of scale would probably be lost in the short-term, returning only as the most effective suppliers increased their market share. The choice has implications for governance.
These are all important questions for the future of Scotland's schools. They need governance arrangements that are likely to promote innovation and improvement. It is not self-evident that the arrangements of 1929 are the best available. Certainly, it is good that a debate takes place.
Keir Bloomer is a former director of education and council chief executive.