What a difference 40 miles can make

20th November 2009 at 00:00
The TESS looks at two schools close to the border where the similarity ends with their names

Original paper headline: What a difference 40 miles can make, when it comes to school autonomy

The secondary school nearest Berwick upon Tweed Community High is Eyemouth High in the Scottish Borders, which lies eight miles to the north. And Berwick's football and rugby teams play in Scottish leagues.

But the last time Berwick upon Tweed was part of Scotland was in the late 1400s. Today, it is the northernmost town in England, and its Community High, with the local secondary, is very much an English school run by the headteacher, Stephen Quinlan, and a board of 18 governors.

Meanwhile, in Scotland for the past decade, Colin Sutherland has been headteacher at North Berwick High in East Lothian. An inspection report published earlier this year said it was a high-performing school with "a clear vision and sense of direction" which Mr Sutherland had played a "key role" in shaping.

In September, Scottish headteachers were criticised for being too compliant and local authorities for being too dominant, by Neil McGowan, a former Scottish head now in charge of an Oxford secondary. He said Scottish heads were managers, not leaders. They had control over the curriculum, pedagogy and discipline, but without control over timetabling, the length of the school day and in-service days, they could not effect transformational change, he argued.

In England, the Secretary of State spoke directly to headteachers, he continued. But in Scotland, minsters spoke to directors of education.

Mr Sutherland admits "you can see his point" but only "up to a point". Headteachers, through their professional associations, do have the ear of the Scottish Government, he argues. And in East Lothian, a small authority with just six secondaries, headteachers are involved in decisions as senior employees of the council, he points out.

Currently, Mr Sutherland is part of a group examining the council's education budget - how money is spent and other ways of working. He also sits on a group looking at how assessment and reporting will be taken forward under Curriculum for Excellence.

Too much structure can stifle creativity, Mr Sutherland concedes, but he argues that just enough gives security and autonomy, guaranteeing a certain standard while allowing flexibility within it. "Youngsters should have equality of opportunity, he says. It should not be determined by their postcode."

Taking responsibility for tasks currently handled by the authority would be a distraction from his main goal: the continuous improvement of learning and teaching, says Mr Sutherland. "Good teachers teaching good lessons and youngsters learning - to me, that's at the heart of what we do."

But would he not like more control over the school budget? Not in these straitened times, he feels.

Local authorities face a 12 per cent reduction in funding over the next three years; East Lothian is looking to save pound;3 million next year.

Things are "very, very tight" for schools, says Mr Sutherland, and having a minimum staffing standard is a comfort. "The majority of any school budget is spent on staffing, so the flexibility of receiving a global sum is less than you may think at first sight."

Ironically, however, as part of its money-saving measures, East Lothian is looking at introducing trust schools, a move that would give local communities more control over school budgets.

In Berwick, Mr Quinlan rejects the idea of giving up any responsibilities. Berwick upon Tweed Community High is a comprehensive in the truest sense, he says. Around 20 per cent of pupils have additional support needs and the rural setting means the school, a specialist college focusing on business and enterprise and applied learning, is the only option for local youngsters.

"There are four routes through the curriculum: the vocational route, which includes courses such as fashion and art or hair and beauty; the professional route, the traditional academic curriculum; the baccalaureate route for the very able students; or the flexible route, a combination of these three," explains Mr Quinlan.

The decision to become a specialist school was taken by Mr Quinlan and the governing body, which consists of representatives from the parent body, the staff, the community and the local authority.

"I'm very much in favour of local schools and governing bodies being in control of their own destiny," he says. "People working in the community know what it needs."

Provided the school performs satisfactorily, the authority does not interfere, he adds.

Money is a worry, admits Mr Quinlan. The bulk of the school's funding is on a per pupil basis but, in the current climate, he fears the figure could be cut.

Forty miles away in Scotland, Mr Sutherland admits staffing ratios could also be reduced by councils.

A potential danger of the English system, Mr Sutherland suggests, is that schools work in silos, with no natural affinity or links with each other.

Not so, retorts Mr Quinlan: specialist colleges are obliged to co-operate and form partnerships with other schools to secure their additional funding. The Westminster Government also requires schools to form behaviour and attendance partnerships with other schools, he says. Berwick High has even worked with its Scottish neighbour, Eyemouth High.

The only thing that would tempt Mr Quinlan to move the border south is Scotland's school building programme. Eyemouth High has a "state of the art, 21st-century" building; Berwick High is in an "old-fashioned, 1950s building".

But he quips: "I'm 56. I think I'll be dead and buried before there's a new school built in Berwick."

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