Why pull back on shared services?

18th February 2011 at 00:00

I share little in common with celebrities. I dress badly, it is more than 40 years since I was photogenic, I do not use Twitter and only close friends and family tolerate my Facebook friendship.

However, on a cold winter's night in the main hall in Auchenharvie Academy in Stevenston, North Ayrshire, I had a celebrity moment. I refer not to being hunted for autographs, snapped by paparazzi or even recognised by the general public. Rather, I refer to a moment when my personal and professional worlds collided.

I am a university lecturer specialising in the study of poverty in Scotland, with a particular interest in matters pertaining to children. I am also the proud father of a 16-year-old son. He is sitting five Highers in a few months' time and changing his mind hourly about whether it is university, college or S6 that awaits him in the autumn.

Thus, it was personal interest that brought me along to learn of the options that would be available to him if he elects to give his father an extra year to save for the bank-account-emptying years (otherwise known as collegeuniversity) that he ultimately craves.

I have been most impressed with Auchenharvie Academy over the years. It is not the most fashionable school in Scotland; in 2010, one-third of its pupils were on free school meals (far higher than the Scottish average) and only 8 per cent of S5 pupils gained five Highers or more (which, although a remarkable increase from the 2 per cent on the previous two years, was still below the Scottish average), and my schooldays recollection was that this was where the "bad boys" were sent from Kilwinning Academy, my own alma mater.

However, the school has served my son (and his sister before him) very well. He is among peers who are bright and highly motivated, he has been inspired, supported and encouraged to improve by the teaching of many, and the school benefits from an enthusiastic headteacher who seems driven to ensure that all of his pupils maximise their potential.

At the meeting, I was heartened to learn that Auchenharvie Academy plans to encourage S6 pupils to pursue learning programmes that develop non- academic lifecareer skills (which would be particularly pleasing if it included some advice on how to dye your hair a sensible colour), and that the school would endeavour to accommodate each pupil's particular career- related learning needs. Where there was demand for a subject, the school would strive to deliver.

However, when shown what would be available at Advanced Higher, the dearth of options took me aback. Mathematics, art and music were likely to be offered and not much else. It was intimated by the headteacher that compounding the problem for 2011-12 was that the school would not be able to use its own funds to transport S6 pupils to and from nearby secondary schools to allow them to partake of options that were available in these schools. We were advised that our school was not immune to wider budget cuts.

None of this presents a personal problem. If need be, I will scream and shout and, if that does not work, I will put my hand in my pocket to meet the costs of transporting my son to nearby schools to access the learning that he needs (I am less convinced that he will welcome the new bicycle that I envisage). However, professionally, it raises grave concerns.

I am currently preparing a report for the Scottish Government on poverty- sensitive budgeting, advising on ways in which budget decision-making and service planning might be informed by routine and systematic consideration of the impact on the most vulnerable in Scottish society. Perhaps this encourages me to the following conclusion.

Other than schools in remoter parts, it is socially regressive - and therefore unacceptable in modern Scotland - that pupil demand at the level of the school be used to determine options at S5 and S6. It is blatantly obvious that a Williamwood, Jordanhill, Cults, James Gillespie's (and the like) will generate demand, whereas those schools at the other end of the (crude academic league table) performance spectrum cannot. Put bluntly, the harsh reality is that pupils from schools serving poorer areas will lose out. In systemic terms, education will favour those children who already have the greatest advantage.

Surely, local education authorities must see the merit in maximising the potential of shared delivery across their schools. I have no doubt that many already do (or have done until now). However, as this vignette highlights, what we have now may not be what we have tomorrow. At a time when local government in Scotland is progressing on shared delivery of service management and delivery across local authorities, it beggars belief that the direction of change in education within some local authorities should be away from it.

Dr John H McKendrick is a lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University. He has co-edited `Poverty in Scotland 2011', which will be published by the Child Poverty Action Group in March.

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