Time to do things more cheaply
"In cloud cuckoo land." That was how East Lothian education director Don Ledingham described critics of reforms to the education authority management of schools.
Outlining his council's plans to devolve the running of schools to local communities, he told a conference in Edinburgh last week: "The status quo is not an option. It's doomed, and anyone who believes in it is living in cloud cuckoo land.
"Public services are talking about taking between 15 and 20 per cent out of their budgets over the next four years, and the backroom function has to shrink. We need to find ways of doing things more cheaply. If we don't . we will find ourselves dealing with crisis management."
Mr Ledingham, who revealed his thinking in his TESS column last April, made it clear that funding levels and key performance targets would be set by the authority. But he admitted a similar move in New Zealand 19 years ago had not been a success.
Michael Russell, the Education Secretary, maintained his cautious approach to the proposals from SNP-run East Lothian Council. Despite reports that he supports them, his response in a speech to the same conference was tentative. "We need to explore more ideas like this," he said. "I am open to them. I am listening. They will get a fair hearing if they build on traditional Scottish virtues and can guarantee access and excellence."
A poll taken at the conference, run by Holyrood magazine, revealed stronger than expected support for East Lothian's plans. Asked about the major arguments against community-based school governance, 34 per cent of the audience said a "postcode lottery" - but 35 per cent felt there would be "no major drawbacks that couldn't be resolved through careful planning".
An apparent split of opinion emerged between Mr Ledingham and John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland. He suggested that "local authority management of education is effective," but added later that "there is an argument that we don't need 32 education authorities and 32 different education policies in a country the size of Scotland."
Mr Stodter, former director of learning and leisure in Aberdeen, said the challenge facing education management was to make sure that pupils of all abilities did well. "If two children at the top and bottom of the ability range improve by 10 per cent, the gap between them has not narrowed," he pointed out.
"In my 10 years in charge . there were only two years when the authority was able to say that the gap between the lowest and highest achieving pupils had narrowed."
In another apparent difference of opinion, Janet Brown, chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, slapped down Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, who criticised the "contradiction" between Assessment is for Learning and the qualifications requirements of SQA.
Dr Brown said there should be no difference. "The SQA aims to serve learning and teaching, not drive it," she said. "Teachers are heavily involved in working with the SQA, and we are proud of that. It enables a sharing and understanding of standards. The next generation of qualifications must be deliverable on the ground, must be valued and must have currency."