Value can be added without any strings

1st October 2004 at 01:00
Scotland has a fine tradition of philanthropic giving which should be allowed to continue, says Ewan Aitken

At a recent meeting of the Cosla education convenors' group, Colin Dalrymple, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland (ADES), was clearly thinking of other things when he introduced himself as general secretary of Asda.

Whether this was a consequence of what had been pressed into his hands as he left the house that morning with those eternal words of true love, "don't forget to go for the messages", or an indication that ADES has taken educational sponsorship a step too far, was not entirely clear.

The incident made me ponder again about recent newspaper reports on what is commonly called proposed private investment in schools and the contradictions that has posed.

The biggest contradiction has been the casual interchanging of private investment with what is actually being discussed, which is the potential role of philanthropists in Scottish education. That is a crucial distinction.

A Sunday newspaper ran a story recently suggesting that Cosla was against private investment in a way that was deliber-ately designed to undermine any potential relationship between the Executive, Cosla and those offering their wealth for educational purposes. It portrayed the particular benefactor as only wanting to invest in so-called city academies and Cosla as taking a stance that meant no money for anything would come forward.

Neither was true and to say so was to mean less chance of this money arriving.

As a paper along with the others from that stable, it would happily see the end of state education and education to be privately funded and sponsored.

For them, St Asda's High school is merely a reflection of their own "religious" affiliation.

I wondered about why they would do such a thing. It was a brief visit to Dunfermline, the town of my own schooling and the birthplace of Andrew Carnegie, Scotland's greatest philanthropist, that helped me see why.

The individuals talking with the Scottish Executive and with Cosla are not private investors. They are philanthropists. They want to use their wealth for the common good of others. Neither of the two I have met has expressed any desire to buy influence over the curriculum or to remove schools from local authority control. They simply want to be sure that their money will be making a difference, creating new opportunities and developing more potential in young people.

It is that commitment to the common good that our critics struggle with, especially those in certain sections of the media. They do not want state education to be supported by people who do so because they care about others. They want to perpetuate the individualism of the Thatcher years where everything, even education, can be dumbed down to a product and where choice is a monetary statement, not an educational one.

Ironically, even given the political affiliations of one of them, such individualistic priorities are not on the agenda of these philanthropists.

Nor is pushing a particular political, moral or personal agenda. Anyone who did would get short shrift from Cosla and, I am sure, from the Executive.

My Cosla colleagues and I are clear that, whatever is happening south of the border, Scotland has devolution for a reason - to create its own solutions to the challenges it faces. Blairism in education stops at the border.

Any relationship with an individual who wants to give education financial support would be predicated on schools still being in local authority control and the authority remaining the employer of teaching and education support staff in the school. The purposes for which the money is given would be to achieve outcomes that the local authority had been party to agreeing along with the school concerned, based on present curriculum guidelines. These discussions are about adding value to education, not undermining the very system they are endeavouring to assist.

That the headteachers would have 100 per cent control of any additional cash goes without saying. It would be up to them to decide how best to achieve any outcomes agreed by all involved. And any additional cash would be just that, additional, not to replace money from authority or Scottish Executive resources.

I know this journey is fraught with problems. There is a great need for clarity and transparency in the process of choosing what money is spent where and to what ends. But there is also huge potential here for us as a society to rediscover the power of philanthropic giving at a time when charitable giving is under threat, to have significant role models choosing to use their wealth for the common good and to have a great deal of added value brought into our education system.

Ewan Aitken is education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

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