Our structures are not fit for purpose

30th July 2010 at 01:00
Scottish education is going through a period of far-reaching change. Curriculum for Excellence represents Scotland's attempt to meet the educational challenges of the early 21st century. However, it also embodies a new approach to promoting change in the system. It marks the abandonment of the traditional top-down command-and-control model and a shift towards a more pluralistic concept.

Success will depend on liberating and empowering schools and individual teachers to take well-calculated risks, to innovate and to generate new practice and structures. It is increasingly understood that it is only through this process of creating a rich diversity of approaches that the system will develop a capacity for learning from its own successes and failures. In short, progress is best made by fostering a free market in ideas.

Although the new model of change has gained support quickly, the institutional landscape within which it has to operate remains unchanged. As a result, the pace of change remains slow and the system does not yet demonstrate the agility and flexibility that success in contemporary circumstances demands. In other words, the institutional structures of Scottish education are no longer fit for purpose.

It is hard to see why a small country requires two levels of politically- accountable management for its schools. The case for change has to be seen in the more general context of the future role of local government. If part of that future has to do with helping to rebuild grassroots democracy at a time when disillusion with politics and public agencies is widespread, it is at least arguable that councils' focus should be on the very local services, such as housing, waste disposal, roads and planning, that attract greatest community interest.

There is no good reason to suppose that schools are best supported through local authorities. It may be, however, that councils offer a suitable vehicle for ensuring schools' accountability to local communities. This would certainly be preferable to accountability direct to central government, thus creating an undesirable concentration of monopoly power at the centre.

If schools are to be given increased discretion, it will be important to ensure that they are capable of discharging their increased responsibilities effectively. Few schools have the internal capacity to be entirely self-supporting. No primary schools would fall into this category. There may be merit in seeing the cluster rather than the individual school as the unit of organisation. Alternatively, schools could be encouraged to join together in federations on the basis of common interest and shared philosophy.

There is a good case for separating accountability from support. Schools clearly need to be publicly accountable, although not necessarily through local authorities. However, there is no strong reason why they should be obliged to obtain support services from any particular source. The market potentially offers greater responsiveness and better value for money. In the field of curriculum and professional development, the market is also likely to be friendlier towards innovation and experiment.

If it is no longer considered appropriate for schools to be accountable through local authorities, other local options will be required. Accountability to local community trusts or boards of governors could offer a way forward.

If local authorities cease to play their present role, a mechanism will require to be put in place for ensuring that schools are funded on an equitable basis. Factors such as rurality and support for pupils with additional needs will have to be taken into account. Schools will have to receive capital funding when the occasion demands. The best way forward would seem to be the establishment of a schools funding council operating in a similar way to the Scottish Funding Council which supports further and higher education.

There must also be a radical overhaul of the major national agencies. Central government will continue to require an educational think tank, but it is questionable to what extent it will need a traditional curriculum development agency performing the role of Learning and Teaching Scotland. There could be a case for associating the think tank with a university in an attempt to develop a Scottish centre of excellence. A small version of the Institute of Education in London could be a useful model.

The power to inspect is a useful precaution against serious failure. However, the current focus on routine inspection does not offer the most productive use of valuable expertise and runs a serious risk of perpetuating a climate of compliance and risk aversion. A radical refocusing of HMIE, preferably with a change in title, is required.

There is a case for seeing the provision of examination and certification functions as a support service, rather than as part of the mechanism for control of the curriculum. This could be another area in which the market could provide greater agility and responsiveness.

Parliament's interest in this issue is timely and very welcome. The case for a thorough-going reform of the governance of Scotland's schools is overdue. However, the issues are very complex, and the best way forward would be for Parliament to commission a full review of the current arrangements and possible options for change.

Keir Bloomer is former chief executive and education director in Clackmannan-shire. This forms part of his evidence to the parliamentary inquiry into the management of Scottish schools.

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