`There are lessons from England - both good and bad'

12th June 2015 at 01:00
Expert urges Scotland to analyse education south of the border

Local authorities often fail to trust teachers and can become a "dead hand" blocking innovation, according to an academic who has been charged with turning around results in Manchester and Wales.

But Professor Mel Ainscow, a keynote speaker at this year's Scottish Learning Festival, also believes that local authorities can provide education systems with a "conscience" and that Scotland should not dismantle them as England is doing.

Speaking to TESS, he said that Scotland might benefit from introducing the controversial Teach First scheme, which fast-tracks high-flying graduates into teaching.

Professor Ainscow is leading Schools Challenge Cymru, an attempt to effect rapid improvement in the Welsh education system. Before that he was chief adviser to the Greater Manchester Challenge, an initiative widely considered to have had a dramatic impact on schools in the area.

"The approach I'm taking in Wales, which I imagine would have some currency in Scotland, is to try to take the best of the presence and coordination of local authorities as the champions of families and children, as the conscience of the system - but we have to help local authorities learn how to back off and trust teachers more," Professor Ainscow told TESS.

In Wales he had found "a sense that that old statement about the dead hand of the local authority was still there".

He gave the example of a young, dynamic headteacher who had been rated outstanding in an inspection and received calls from dozens of headteachers asking how she had done it. She decided to organise a conference on the subject, but after many delegates had signed up she suddenly panicked that she might be breaking local rules by not having asked permission from her authority.

Ups and downs

Local authorities were full of "good people who are well intentioned", Professor Ainscow insisted, but "often their practices provide barriers to the kind of innovation that we need - particularly if we're to reach the students that we're not reaching at the moment".

Professor Ainscow, co-director of the Centre for Equity in Education at the University of Manchester, added: "I'm certainly not wanting to promote what's happening in England, but there are lessons from England - some positive, some negative."

One of the worst things that local authorities could do was tackle schools' problems by insisting on higher targets enforced with warning letters and "endless" meetings, he said.

He added: "I am really in favour of local authorities, and if we abolish them, as we are gradually doing in England, sooner or later we'll need to reinvent them. But they've got to change."

He stressed that he was not familiar with the Scottish system and had been surprised to discover at a recent headteachers' workshop in Glasgow that their schools had no governors.

"One of the primary headteachers got very shirty about [the idea of governors] and said, `I don't want people in the street coming and telling me what to do.' "

Professor Ainscow acknowledged that governors could be "an enormous barrier to progress" - with Birmingham's Trojan Horse scandal being an extreme example - but said they provided a crucial link between schools and communities.

Research had shown that the best schools in Wales invited in people from the community - including businesses, parents and Scout groups - with expertise that could complement teachers' skills; governors could provide a "crucial bridge" with those people, he said.

Professor Ainscow also counselled Scotland to be open-minded about Teach First, a scheme in England and Wales that offers a quicker-than-usual route into teaching for high-performing graduates and places them in schools contending with high levels of poverty.

Ministers and education bodies in Scotland have blocked Teach First from being established in the country. Professor Ainscow conceded that the scheme did not always work and in an ideal world would not be needed, but argued that there were some "stunning examples" where it had been successful.

The Scottish Learning Festival takes place in Glasgow on 23-24 September. More details are available at bit.lySLF15

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