Uniformity or diversity?

22nd January 2010 at 00:00

Two of the key findings of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's 2007 report on quality and equity of schooling in Scotland were that our system does not promote innovation and there is very little diversity of schooling. It found the cause of this rigidity was a lack of autonomy, and what I would call a tacit acceptance by all of a "command and control" model of education.

Yet this notion of diversity sends shivers down the backs of many in Scottish education who accept that there must be "equality of opportunity" in all schools. This is often translated into an "entitlement model" - what is on offer in one school must be on offer in another. Any divergence from this orthodoxy is labelled a "postcode lottery". That is fine in relation to some basic rights such as health treatment, but not for something as subjective as what constitutes a quality education.

I would argue that any improvement in outcomes for children in Scotland will only come about through providing schools with greater autonomy - at the same time, linking this with greater accountability. The key point here is the risk that greater autonomy can result in greater inequality. This would certainly be the case if funding were simply handed over to schools with no regard to how it is used to tackle inequalities.

I reckon that accountability in Scottish education is primarily motivated by compliance - "we will do it so as not to get slapped" - whereas accountability should really be seen as a formative process, which should shape what we set out to achieve. Such a shift to formative accountability would have to link funding with the achievement of clearly-stated outcomes and objectives, without dictating how these outcomes must be achieved - and certainly no reference to the input requirements.

It's at this point that the question of "uniformity versus diversity" really comes into its own. For if you gave two schools a common set of outcomes - and then stripped away any obligations as to how the outcomes should be achieved (ensuring they complied with health and safety and legal requirements), I bet you would end up with remarkably different schools.

Of course, one would have to expect that the divergence between the two schools would not happen immediately; ingrained cultures and expectations would take time to break down. Yet over a few years, you would see the two schools creating their own solutions to similar problems, in a way which suited their context and community.

"But what if a child has to move from one school to another - how will they manage?" This is the common question which arises when anyone attempts to promote a diversity model. I'm afraid such a question just leaves me cold, for I've seen far too many children from other countries successfully join schools where I've been a teacher or manager to see it as an obstacle. It is the quality of the school that matters, not the uniformity of the curriculum or its structure.

But how could schools operate without the support and direction of local authorities? Surely they don't have the expertise or sophistication to make the myriad of judgments currently made on their behalf? Clearly, we couldn't give control of our schools to local communities as they couldn't be trusted in the way we can trust local authorities - could they? And how could schools ensure that they maintained a high quality of education for every child - regardless of ability. Surely, that could only be achieved through a bureaucratic system which checked that the needs of disadvantaged children were being met?

Don Ledingham is director of education and children's services in East Lothian.

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