Why the big fuss over DSM?

14th October 2011 at 01:00

David Cameron's report on devolved school management was published last Friday, leaving me wondering what all the fuss was about. Its recommendations are hardly revolutionary; neither is DSM the central issue for headteachers in Scotland today. The report would have benefited from some empirical basis for its recommendations because, as the First Minister is fond of saying, "facts are chiels that winna ding."

Every education minister since the 1980s has promised to devolve more power to headteachers but, as my School Leaders Scotland colleagues often point out, none has actually done it. So, when all the political parties gave priority to this in the recent Scottish Parliamentary elections, I took a closer look at six DSM schemes from a range of councils across Scotland.

Typically, functions that are not devolved are: statutory provisions provided under contract or centrally organised, eg, pupil transport, psychological services, capital infrastructure; grants like the education maintenance allowance; support for schools and centres, eg, some aspects of curriculum and staff development; council-wide educational activities and programmes, eg, arts education, active schools and sports; and others, eg, pensionearly retiralseverance costs; long-term absence cover.

A compelling rationale for not devolving these budgets can be made - consistent with the current 2006 guidelines.

Satisfaction with DSM schemes seems to be greatest when there is a combination of optimum devolvement; maximum flexibility across budgets; and corporate and inclusive working between heads and council officers based on transparency and confident leadership.

One example of good practice is where staffing budgets are determined via an agreed formula, with schools taking devolved responsibility for determining organisational structures, numbers and types of posts within local and national guidelines and legislation. Secondary schools can optimise timetabling efficiency in deploying staff, thereby creating resources. Where there is greatest transparency in the council budget, heads are content that certain functions are not devolved, given the potential bureaucracy involved. Schools are most satisfied where there is local administrative support for managing budgets.

Heads have considerable flexibility and autonomy to vire between budgets and to carry "over" and "under-spends" (eg, up to 5 per cent, and in some cases more) over financial years. No other council budget holders have this facility.

Owing to economies of scale, primaries have much less capacity than secondaries for making efficiencies and creating resources for local priorities. Clustering or pooling could help to address this, as David Cameron suggests in the report.

Routinely, devolved schemes share the explicit principles of maximum devolvement of decision-making and budgetary control, consistent with efficiency and effectiveness in the context of the key role of headteachers to provide educational leadership in the local community.

Let's hope the redrafting of guidelines captures the best practice and makes it commonplace.

John Stodter, general secretary, Association of Directors of Education in Scotland.

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