Has anyone really thought through the pitfalls of taking education out of local authority control, asks John Connell
THERE appears to be a tendency in The TES Scotland these days to put the boot into local authority management of education. Columnist Pat Sweeney drooled recently over a little megalomaniacal fantasy in which a secondary headteacher such as he could run his school in whatever way he sees fit, and without the encumbrance of catchment areas.
He forgets, of course, that he is just passing through and that "his" school has an existence beyond his transitory presence and an "ownership" that goes way beyond even the whole of the school community that, at any one time, inhabits it.
Now we have David Cockburn, an educational consultant, trying to dress his particular brand of prejudice in the guise of common sense (TESS, June 26). His belief that the foundations are already there for handing over control of education to the Scottish Executive is not necessarily wrong, but his understanding of what would flow from such a move is too simplistic for words.
Not only does he reveal an inability to see the full implications of his suggestion, but he also makes the grave error of attributing human characteristics to a social organisation. He also gives away his brand of "common sense" when he rants about the "chicanery of pseudo-socialistliberal thinking that has pervaded education since the sixties". Similar, methinks, to the Michael Forsyth or Norman Tebbit brand of common sense?
My own experience of teachers and local authorities is one of caution and level-headedness with regard to the latest trend or philosophy. "Steady as we go" seems to have been the typical response to the claims for a new educational freedom over the years.
Mr Cockburn has every right to ask where the locus of control of Scottish education ought to lie. But whether it stays with local authorities or shifts to the centre, there is a vast array of functions and responsibilities that would still have to be undertaken.
Let me ask a few simple questions. In this nirvana of direct control of education by the Executive, who would manage the thousands of school properties, ensuring maintenance, upgrading, ensuring safety and security? Who would plan for future schools provision, taking careful and detailed account of moving populations, planning consents? Who would deal with the myriad comments, complaints and queries that arise from the complex interaction of teachers, pupils, parents and others every single day and which cannot be satisfied from within the school?
Who would provide school meals? Who would administer the much needed clothing grants and higher school bursaries? Who would manage the deployment of teaching and support staff? Who would administer the systems for redeployment of surplus staff? Who would co-ordinate the integrated services currently being set up in the new community schools? Who would audit individual school budgets?
Who would establish and manage provision for special educational needs? Who would provide psychological services to pupils and parents? Who would establish and maintain the networks of study support and out-of-school activity that are beginning to flourish across Scotland?
Oh, and who would continuously ensure the quality of education provision? Who would ensure headteachers work effectively for the benefit of their pupils? Who would evaluate the effectiveness and balance of the curriculum?
There is no reason why all this and much more has to be provided by a local authority. But someone has to do it. Can you see the Parliament and education department (or whatever it is to be called) taking this on for every school in the country? Would the Executive simply take over the management of the existing teams of specialists up and down the country? And would they then put in place a number of regional managers - somewhat akin to directors of education perhaps? "Think of the money that would be saved," writes Mr Cockburn. Where from exactly?
Of course, the ForsythTebbit philosophy might fairly question whether all these functions are necessary. But we start to strip out any of these functions to the detriment of an equitable and comprehensive system of schooling that has taken a long time to build up.
Mr Cockburn's freedom from the dead hand of local democracy would allow "each school to decide the kind of institution it wants to be". Show me a school that has a mind, a social conscience, a sense of culture, history and heritage, and a responsibility to those that come after.
A school is not an organism. It is a collection of people whose stay within that school is short-lived: heads (including Pat Sweeney), teachers, pupils, parents - all are just passing through. None has the right to change fundamentally the nature of a school.
Councils are looking with a fresh eye at problems, and many are proving willing to seek radical solutions to the quest for higher levels of attainment by young people. Aberdeen, whose ideas Mr Cockburn derides, is just one of the forward-looking authorities.
I wonder how much of this energetic development would be taking place under a national department of education. Mr Cockburn's solution also sits rather uneasily with the "community governance" model in which education authorities across Scotland are playing their part.
Finally, I can't help but wonder if a schools system freed from local authority control would provide more abundant feeding grounds for the shoals of educational "consultants" swimming in these shores?
Just a thought.
John Connell is professional services manager with West Lothian education department.