Council prepares to devolve powers to school ‘clusters’

5th February 2016 at 00:00
Clackmannanshire considers ‘school board’ model, giving more power to parents and the community

Councillors in Scotland’s smallest authority have become the first in the country to approve plans to devolve more powers to local school “clusters”, a move which could hand more power to parents and senior pupils.

Under the changes, Clackmannanshire Council is considering introducing “school boards” that could approve budgets and be involved in the appointment of school staff. The boards would include parents and a range of people from the local community.

School boards would oversee decision-making within local clusters of schools – usually a secondary and its associated primaries and secondaries.

Councils across Scotland are expected to be watching the devolution of decision-making with great interest, partly because of its potential to save money by reducing staff costs.

The changes have come about in the wake of the collapse last year of the shared education service of Stirling and Clackmannanshire (see box, right). The arrangement, set up in 2010 to save cash, fell apart after Stirling claimed that it was subsidising the smaller county – which has just three secondaries – to the tune of £400,000 a year.

Keir Bloomer, a former chief executive of Clackmannanshire Council and one of the architects of Curriculum for Excellence, was brought in by the council to investigate ways in which Clackmannanshire could manage its schools.

The council rejected the traditional “command and control approach” to school management, under which the council is responsible for policy and schools are responsible for mainly operational decisions.

Instead, it decided to give school clusters more power. Joint planning among clusters is not unusual but in Clackmannanshire they are set to become the “basic unit of management”, the council says.

Mr Bloomer wants clusters to have responsibilities in relation to curriculum continuity, primary/secondary transfer, liaison with parents, collaboration with other services and external agencies, and budget and resources.

He said that the clusters could be overseen by school boards, which would be involved in formal governance, unlike existing parent councils that are mainly consultative bodies.

Some schools found it hard to attract parent council members, particularly those in disadvantaged areas, but if boards were established at cluster-level it made attracting “high calibre candidates” more likely, he said.

This would allow schools to engage more effectively with the communities they served and to benefit from the expertise of board members in the way that universities and private schools did, he added.

Mr Bloomer told TESS: “The head would still take the decisions but the ability to talk to and get the views from a wide range of people who are expert in their fields would be of considerable value. The ability to communicate effectively with parents is probably just about the most important single ingredient in terms of closing the gap.”

In his report, Mr Bloomer said that the Clackmannanshire school clusters would be run by a secondary and a primary headteacher, with an education officer assigned to each grouping of schools. The new set-up would improve collaboration and bring schools and the centre closer together, he said.

One of the risks of the traditional model adopted by most councils was “development of a sense of us and them”, he wrote in his plans. Under cluster management, managerial responsibility could be “more genuinely shared between the centre and the school”, he said.

The new model would make schools more responsive to local need, said Les Sharp, leader of Clackmannanshire Council.

He said: “One of the main advantages is the fact that this brings the education of Clackmannanshire’s young people back into the ownership of, not only the council, but directly to the schools and communities.”

It allowed the council to “tailor” education to the needs of communities, he added.


School board powers

Clackmannanshire has opted to give school clusters more power when it comes to delivery of education. It is also considering introducing school boards at cluster level to strengthen “community participation and democracy”.

The cluster boards would have “real power”, a report by Keir Bloomer envisages. It suggests that they could:

approve cluster budgets

be involved in senior staff appointments

consider and comment on school performance information

commission reports on relevant matters from senior management

make recommendations to the council on the running of the cluster.

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