They were different and they had to go

30th May 1997 at 01:00
It is no surprise that Scotland's two self-governing schools are to be re-amalgamated in the council sector. The move was clearly spelt out in Labour's manifesto intentions. There has been a long and concerted campaign against the self-governing concept by unions and activists. Self-governing schools do not fit the communitarian mould. Some will recall the rolling bandwagon of organised union interests, reinforced from south of the border, which steamrollered meetings and intimidated parents from Paisley to Dornoch.

The pejorative "opt-out" label was quite deliberately pinned on the concept by the previous Government's opponents and the media. A parent of a child at a school disparagingly labelled "opted-out" (rather than "self-governing") is likely to feel just a little uneasy: potentially even selfish in the eyes of other parents.

The self-governing option for Scottish parents never had a proper chance. Like the nursery voucher scheme, it suffered from abysmal timing in introduction. Government innovation and reforms in Scottish education have traditionally taken six to eight years to become embedded, and accepted - by the previous opposition and present Government.

To time a pilot voucher scheme for the last few months of an 18-year-old Parliament, and to introduce the first universal vouchers within a week of polling day indicates arrogance, or languorousness to the point of lethargy, and a startling disregard of realistic time-scales. Likewise there was never any likelihood of potential interest in self-governing status showing above the parapet within the final three years of the last Government, when the normal procedures to achieve it take up to two years.

But there is something here which should be well noted by the new Scottish Office team, if it intends more than lip-service to parental partnership. It is a fact that several dozen schools have expressed interest in self-governing status. The Scottish School Board Association, which set up an important advice line, and the Scottish Office can both attest to this. Those schools were waiting the outcome of the general election, so of course their interest lies dormant.

Brian Wilson, Minister for Education, should pause for reflection on why parents want something different. What message is here detectable? Could there just be something which the comprehensive system could learn? Take little Dornoch. It wasn't just the substantial savings instantly found, for example, in the school's electricity bills. Such savings follow as day after night when funding goes direct to schools, and is not paying for middle-tier officials, advisers and their support teams back at town or county hall.

In that respect alone the truncation of the experiment is a potential loss in financial terms. We need more time to see how direct buying-in of services as required by a school affects the resources available for children in the classroom. Existing self-governing schools actually offered a small pilot project to look at these options. Funding mechanisms are only part of it. Parents at Dornoch wanted a six-year school. But they also wanted a different ethos from that on offer at alternative secondary schools. They did not want their children roaming the streets unsupervised at lunch time. They wanted uniform. They wanted a controlled and caring environment. They were prepared to back their ideas and their school at personal cost.

Many parents within the self-governing "pilot" see its abrupt ending as the cutting off of a potential alternative route within the Scottish system. Diversity and flexibility have a part to play in the achievement of excellence. The bath water may be going, but the baby is worth cherishing.

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