Why a model of locally-run schools deserves exploration

23rd April 2010 at 01:00

It all used to be so much simpler. If you ever get the chance to read the valedictory account of Baillie John Grey, a former councillor in Edinburgh Corporation, check the tale of the rug in the study of a primary school headteacher. It was seriously worn, Grey mentioned this to the director of education and the rug was replaced.

The lament from Grey was that, with "regionalisation", matters became so much more complicated and it became much less easy to redress concerns and problems in schools. No doubt, there is an element of exaggeration and "golden age" yearning expressed, but the main theme has a serious core of appealing simplicity to it.

This is not intended as "anecdotage" but as a historical illustration of council-school relations which, over recent decades, have come to be characterised by a working assumption that the "department", whatever it happens to be called at any one time, is responsible for, and to some degree controls, all the schools within the council's boundaries. This is an arrangement with which many are comfortable and only rail against when they see themselves or their school being disadvantaged in some way.

Usually, that disadvantage is expressed in relation to reductions in budgets when the complaint from schools is that the "department" is unfairly hitting schools and the council should find savings elsewhere.

What is currently being proposed in East Lothian Council, and discussed at a conference held yesterday in Queen Margaret University, is the possibility of moving away from that established model of an education "office", which has bilateral relations with every school in the county, to a different model. The aim is to explore the implications and the challenges of devolving more resources, more authority and more accountability to clusters of schools based on community management.

I deliberately use the word "explore" because this event was intended to be what we have described as "policy-shaping". Staff at Queen Margaret University are working with East Lothian officials and its education committee to examine all the implications of any such change and to share those implications with teachers, parents and other interested parties.

This is precisely the kind of discussion that should be going on across Scotland, and that is why we were delighted that half of Scotland's councils attended the conference and the Education Secretary spoke. Clearly what might work in East Lothian may not be appropriate for Shetland or Aberdeen or Edinburgh. So why East Lothian?

East Lothian is a county of distinct and well-established communities. They are not isolated and separated, but they have a sense of place and self that might lend itself to a form of school governance built upon communities of shared ties and neighbourhood and not simply upon the individual school.

The ideas therefore build upon the existing "clustering" of schools and envisage the possibility of a secondary working together with a range of adjacent primaries collectively to develop, plan and operate educational provision within the defined community right through from age three to 18.

A gradual shift of the greater control of resources to that kind of neighbourhood level will enable decisions to be made which will reflect shared interests and priorities; it may lead to some curricular and extra- curricular emphases that differ between the various clusters of schools.

More importantly, such arrangements might help to encourage a greater sense of autonomy, discretion and ownership of what are, after all, community facilities and services.

There are no certainties in this and that is one of the main reasons East Lothian has opted to explore these ideas in public, with the help of the university and colleagues from elsewhere. Some of the questions that arise are relatively easily captured; others are head-scratchingly difficult. It is far better that such questions are discussed in the open with as many interested parties as possible, rather than in a directorate office or a council committee room.

There is no pre-determined view of the right way forward for the organisation of our schooling system, whether in East Lothian or elsewhere in Scotland. However, there is good evidence that the schools themselves remain the best institutions to review and renew our educational provision and achievements. Moving to develop this kind of exercise on the basis of well-defined and recognisable "communities" of neighbourhoods is an idea that really merits serious and open discussion.

The chance to consider the possibilities and implications of community management of schools in East Lothian is a very good starting point for just that debate and discussion.

Richard Kerley is professor of management at Queen Margaret University and was one of the keynote speakers at yesterday's East Lothian conference.

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