Time to trust not-for-profit model

23rd July 2010 at 01:00
It is timely to consider whether the current structural model for delivering publicly-funded education is best suited to the needs of Scotland over the coming decades.

There are at least three powerful pressures: the wider economic context demands that the public education service be even more efficient and effective; the rapid development of what we might call teaching and learning technology is dispersing the times and places where learning takes place; and the changing structures of family and community life require us to reflect on how we make public service provision which enhances, rather than diminishes, our primary social relationships.

It is worth bearing in mind that no structure for the education service can transcend the quality of teaching and learning or leadership invested in it. Structure is never a panacea: it will, though, inhibit or assist good teachers and leaders.

Research consistently reveals that the quality of teaching and leadership are the variables which will add the most value to the experiences children bring to school. In particular, the continuing professional development of teachers is a strong positive factor internationally in student attainment. Structural changes should not diminish systemic capacity to promote those features.

The strength of the teaching profession brings advantages to classrooms and school leadership. But it can create a closed circle, a "secret garden" which, in turn, places parents and communities at the periphery of the education process. This makes it more difficult for them to see themselves as partners with education providers. They become take-it-or- leave-it consumers of a professional product, instead of committed co- producers of lifelong learning

Local councils meanwhile find themselves in the paradoxical situation where each authority is both the provider and single client for its own service. In my experience in England, the consequent dependence of local councillors on their professional officers is often combined with a tendency for politically-safe decision-making. The consequence will defray local challenge and accountability to the point of threadbare.

There is no "off the shelf" designer solution which can be adopted from some other country to fit Scotland's requirements. We will be told that academy schools from England, free schools from Sweden and charter schools from the United States are either the philosopher's stone or the road to ruin, depending on perspective.

When these structural features are successful, in broad terms it is when they have levered higher-quality teaching and leadership into their locality and built strong relationships with the local community. The danger is that this is a "zero sum game" for the system which moves leaders around but does not improve attainment overall.

My research and operational experience, as a school leader and senior local authority officer, have led me to conclude that the better approaches are those which nurture a powerful sense of autonomy and personal responsibility for the quality of a school vested in its senior leadership. These leaders do not, and would not, want cover provided by being able to say "we were following orders". They thrive on day-to-day autonomy to deliver a service commissioned to given standards, and for which they have a strategic, accountability to the local community.

Further success comes when governance arrangements integrate the school in its local community and local professional community for education and other children's services.

At the core of those conclusions is a view that the role of central government is to commission local authorities which, in turn, should commission local organisations to provide the education service. The use of commissioning as a concept in these circumstances allows central government to be clear about the national specifications it needs to establish, local government to be clear about the local features it can introduce and the schools to be clear about their freedom to determine the best day-to-day processes for teaching and learning. If the commissioning role fails, then the state will need to retain a capability to intervene and to become the provider of last resort.

Neither central nor local government officers are the right people to manage school leaders. It should be strategic, specifying the non- negotiable features of the service, including minimal outcomes and essential processes such as admission policies and pupil assessment, to protect the wider interests of the taxpayer and national community.

The one structural arrangement in England for which I have seen convincing evidence of an impact on student outcomes has been federations, where two or more schools combine their governing bodies. They have the option to continue with separate headteachers or to employ a single "executive headteacher". The evidence shows that this close association, especially between high-attaining and low-attaining schools, can significantly improve attainment overall.

I commend the trust school model which is being adopted by an increasing number of schools in England. This would be a "not-for-profit" charitable organisation to provide education for children of a given age in a given locality. That charitable company (the trust) is commissioned by the authority to provide a school or, more often, schools for the community (which would remain state-funded). The trust might opt to have a governing body for each school, or a federation of schools within the trust.

The advantage of the system is that the commissioning authority would no longer have the clash of interests which has been created historically by being service provider and quality assurer. The trust would be the representative of pupils, parents and communities. They would have a compelling interest in the quality of the professional leadership within the trust's school(s).

This is an extract from a paper to the Scottish Parliament's inquiry on the management of schools

Denis Mongon is visiting professorial fellow at the centre for leadership in learning at the Institute of Education, University of London; senior research fellow at the school of education, University of Manchester; and senior associate at the Innovation Unit.

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