‘Context is critical’ for new leadership plans

23rd March 2018 at 00:00
The head of one of Scotland’s highest-performing schools warns that, despite its success, their uniquely autonomous model is not a one-size-fits-all solution

It is the only mainstream state school in Scotland that is free from council control, receiving its funding in the form of a grant, direct from the Scottish government. It is also one of the highest-performing schools in the country – and one of the few in the state sector that covers the primary and secondary years, all the way up to S6.

Jordanhill School in Glasgow consistently tops the exam league tables and, if a family wants to secure a place for their child, they have to apply pretty much the moment they are born, says headteacher – or rector, as he is known in the school – Paul Thomson.

While Thomson is convinced that some of his school’s success is down to its complete – and in Scotland, highly unusual – autonomy over everything from staffing and the curriculum to finance, the Jordanhill model is “not a panacea”, he says. And when it comes to the government’s plans to devolve more power to schools, there should not be a one-size-fits-all approach, the headteacher warns.

Education secretary John Swinney has ruled out allowing schools to opt out of council control completely and thus has made it clear the government has no plans to create more Jordanhills, which is a one-off with a singular history: founded in 1920, the school was run by Jordanhill College of Education – which later became part of the University of Strathclyde – as its “demonstration school” until 1988, and was known as Jordanhill College School until then.

However, the SNP has said it wants headteachers to have more control over the way their schools are run, with more power and funding delegated to them. For most state school headteachers, this will be new territory. But Thomson is an old hand, having joined Jordanhill – which is soon to celebrate its centenary – as headteacher almost 21 years ago, on the same day that Tony Blair became prime minister.

Thomson says he would like to see different approaches to devolving power being piloted, given that what works in a school like his in the Central Belt, with a roll of more than 1,000 pupils across primary and secondary, is unlikely to work in a small, rural school.

He says: “We know that context is critical and you can’t just translate what works in one school into another school, any more than you can take solutions from one country and expect the same outcomes in another country.”

Crunching the numbers

Headteachers will need to be given the right support if they are to have more responsibility, Thomson says.

Secondary headteachers’ body School Leaders Scotland has been a firm backer of the government’s plans, but has consistently said that a business manager for every secondary is a must.

Thomson has done a quick calculation and has worked out that this will cost in the region of £20 million – there are around 400 secondaries in Scotland and they might expect a business manager to cost £50,000, he estimates.

It will be a necessary cost, he argues. Jordanhill has a budget of £5.5 million a year and the support of a bursar, but still the corporate governance of the school takes up a lot of Thomson’s time, he says.

Some headteachers who will be handed more responsibility fear their new duties will take them further from the classroom and that they will no longer be leading the learning in their schools.

Thomson is clear: nothing is more important than “the quality of the interaction between the teacher and the pupils in the classroom”. But other things support that relationship – from the school environment to IT infrastructure – and he enjoys being able to take “a holistic view”.

Thomson says: “It’s being chief executive of an organisation. It’s not just about teaching and learning, critical as that is, it’s about all the other dimensions of school life. You learn a lot about facilities management and HR – you learn a lot about financial management. I enjoy that challenge and I would certainly say some of the success of Jordanhill has come about because, as an organisation, we have been able to align all these different levers to the benefit of young people.”

 

Thomson, who started his career in teaching as a physics teacher, joined Jordanhill from Hermitage Academy in Helensburgh, Argyll and Bute, where he was depute head. It was having that wider control – as well as the freedom to experiment – that attracted him to the job. However, he is clear that “anyone in a leadership role has to be accountable and has to understand their accountability”.

The EIS teaching union has expressed concerns that the government’s plans involve “additional powers to headteachers and no governing body oversight”. It has warned “the bad governance” in the college sector could be repeated in the school sector.

Maureen McKenna – president of directors’ association ADES – has also said there is a danger the move leads to “hero innovators”. And education directors’ body ADES has raised concerns about the fate of vulnerable pupils under the plans.

Jordanhill and independent schools have boards of managers or governors to whom heads are accountable, says Thomson.

The 10-strong board of managers at Jordanhill is made up entirely of staff and parents giving the school “a level of democracy that is unique”, he says.

The levels of accountability that will be required in other state schools remains to be seen, as not enough is known yet about the extent of the powers headteachers will have, says Thomson. But “the greater the level of delegation of powers and responsibility and budget then the more explicit that accountability has to be”, he says.

So much remains to be teased out, but Thomson says his is one of the best jobs in Scottish education – and it, at least, is likely to remain the same.

@Emma_Seith

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