The true meaning of accountability

6th February 2009 at 00:00

Speculation about Scottish council rationalisation has gained some initially positive responses among educationists. Many teachers look back fondly to the late 1970s and 1980s. The regions governed with a light touch. Regional politicians kept their distance from schools but were also people of stature: Geoff Shaw, Charlie Gray, John Mulvey and Brian Meek had clear strategic priorities, and were giants compared to many municipal pygmies.

Small directorates managed large numbers of schools cost-effectively and interfered only on major issues. They provided genuine curricular support through advisers. It contrasted favourably with today's complex, bureaucratic, often inept micro-management. Moreover, it seems absurd that we have schools governed by a mega-authority such as Glasgow and others by municipal Lilliputs.

Before we get excited, however, we might consider that present problems may not be susceptible to a simple change to larger authorities. The golden days of regions were also the period immediately after the introduction of comprehensive education and the raising of the school leaving age. It was an age of growth in education - irrespective of the municipal structure.

It was also a period when, with the brief exception of Lothian from 1982-86, the biggest authorities were run by political groups granted substantial majorities by the first-past-the-post electoral system. Where hard decisions were required, they were made decisively. The late Elizabeth Maginnis, while education convener in Lothian, closed the secondary (with less than 200 pupils) serving her ward, as well as another two in Labour wards: it was the right decision, but only possible from a position of electoral strength in her ward and in the council chamber. Our current municipal masters have neither that political courage nor the understanding of how to operate in a PR system which denies strong majorities.

One of the significant arguments for rationalisation is to achieve increased economies of scale. That has been the justification for the move to corporate local authority management systems in respect of services such as HR, IT and finance, and the amalgamation of education and social work services, all of which have gravely disadvantaged schools at the expense of other services. Larger authorities would only exacerbate that trend.

Before the "back to the regions" movement becomes unstoppable, educationists must ask serious questions about how to be part of a democratic system which gives clear direction without micro-management. There are at least three options worth consideration: status quo, with strategic educational policy emanating from parliament but daily management from local councils; centralised system where schools are responsible to parliament and separate from councils; public funding of autonomous, independent schools, following government-determined strategic priorities but with community management.

Perhaps the debate should not be about structures but about professional accountability. What do we mean by it? What are the limits? And accountable to whom: parents, council, government or the inspectorate?

Alex Wood is seconded head of Tynecastle High in Edinburgh.

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