Spirit of youth is needed in these challenging times

23rd September 2011 at 01:00
When you look closely, the Devolved School Management Review and the delays surrounding it tell us a great deal

The experience of the Devolved School Management Review has been unusual. The recommendations have been in the public domain for months and have received extensive coverage. Despite this, publication of the full report was not agreed until this month. The delay would appear to suggest that the report was radical in its conclusions, but it is far from it.

The recommendations fall into five categories. The first concerns redrafting the existing guidance to place less emphasis on the percentage of funding devolved and more on schools having autonomy over those budgets that most affect curriculum and methodology. Curriculum for Excellence gives schools the responsibility for these areas; devolved management arrangements should give them the capacity to make decisions about them.

The second set of recommendations asks for budget stability for schools over a three-year period with limited carry-forwards between these periods. There are difficulties with this, but it should be the standard that we seek. The limit on carry-forwards recognises that schools have funding to spend on those attending them, rather than on those who will attend them. Schools should have flexibility to manage their budgets over time, but, in the interests of the students actually attending, that time should be limited.

Third, the review seeks to restore the role of parents and the wider educational community in shaping and approving a school's plans, including its plans for spending. This was a requirement lost with the repeal of the School Boards Act and reflects the importance of the role that schools play in their communities. The review appreciates that it has been difficult at times to get this sort of involvement from communities, but that does not make a case for denying that right. As I will argue later, we are too ready to be limited by past failures.

Fourth, it encourages the establishment of shared budgets across learning communities. There are two reasons for this: first, to encourage the management of a coherent and progressive curriculum for learners from ages three to 18, and, second, to ensure that all schools can benefit from devolved management. The reality, currently, is that some schools have such small budgets that they cannot make decisions of any significance. Financial restraints make it unlikely that this will change, so we can only address this through establishing shared budgets.

Finally, the review argues that we should work towards a national formula for devolving budgets. This should not be an impossible task, given that Strathclyde once had such a formula across an enormous and varied region. A common formula would reduce the discrepancies that exist between schools, while still allowing local authorities to determine how much of their budgets should be allocated to education rather than other local priorities.

The review has been a small-scale one compared with Donaldson, McCormac and others, and that has inevitably meant that there are important issues unresolved. Funding to meet additional support needs requires further consideration, as does the question of how the accountability arrangements would work in practice. There are other significant issues of detail that need to be fleshed out. However, I feel that the review makes a strong case for further work to be commissioned. A first step in this direction will be the establishment of a group to revise the guidance on devolved management.

We are in a period of intense change and, if we are to respond effectively to that, we need to adapt what we do and the way that we do it. I have long argued that we need to align the changes that we are making. If we change what we do in schools through Curriculum for Excellence, we need to make sure teachers' terms and conditions keep pace with that. We need to look at how we train teachers, at our buildings and resources and how we reflect changes in technology. We also need to ensure that our governance arrangements support the ambitions that we have.

There are clear signs that the Scottish Government is striving for this sort of alignment. Nonetheless, the review encountered considerable anxiety and, at times, scepticism about change. Past failures were often quoted as reasons for maintaining the status quo. There was little sense that, while our education system is improving, it is improving too slowly to maintain our competitiveness as a nation. Challenges were regularly overestimated - for example, in relation to the establishment of a national formula for the devolution of funding. The default position was often to be confrontational.

Many who contributed appeared to see their role as to criticise proposals made, rather than contribute constructively to the debate. Others were open and positive and, importantly, were prepared to accept recommendations, even where they had reservations, if they were part of an overall package of which they approved.

There were several interesting and exciting proposals, but, overall, there was a sense that self-interest would always dictate behaviour and that there was little hope for improvement. That spirit cannot remain if we are to make the improvements that we need.

I love the quote from Robert Kennedy that "Youth is not a time of life but a state of mind - a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over love of ease". Perhaps such difficult and challenging times call for that spirit of youth.

David Cameron is author of the report on Devolved School Management.

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