Here’s a bright idea: empower heads to innovate

15th June 2018 at 00:00
Lessons from business show school autonomy is the key to re-energising education and raising standards, writes Angus Tulloch

“If you put fences around people, you get sheep. Give people the room they need.”

William L McKnight, American businessman and philanthropist


Notwithstanding a paucity of relevant statistics, it is now generally acknowledged that the international standing of Scottish education is in relative decline, that core literacy and numeracy standards have fallen and that the attainment levels of pupils from deprived areas have remained disappointingly depressed. Somewhat belatedly, the Scottish government admits that the governance of publicly-funded schools has been partly to blame for this sad state of affairs. The new Education Act is aimed specifically at increasing school autonomy.

Based on my own personal business experiences, and discussions with a number of those engaged directly in the sector, I am convinced that sufficiently radical legislation on school governance would make a significant long-term contribution to reversing recent negative trends in educational outcomes.

Around 100 years ago, control of Scottish schools passed from more than 1,000 school boards to 39 (now 32) local authorities. Over the intervening period, major changes have been made to almost every aspect of education, in some cases several times, including: the school leaving age; the curriculum; the examination system; the status of the inspectorate; and teachers’ conditions of service. The only thing that does not seem to have changed is the governance of schools by local authorities.

Change should certainly not be desired for its own sake, but it would be truly remarkable if a governance structure implemented so long ago was still deemed fit for purpose a century later, when so much else around it – both within and outwith the world of education – has altered to the extent that it has.

As an investment manager, I was privileged, over the four decades of my career, to meet executives of numerous companies operating in different industries all over the world. Our discussions focused every bit as much on their corporate cultures – how they motivated their employees, how they viewed their customers, and other “soft” issues – as on the more typical review of their business models, financial strength and market positioning.

Devolving power works

Almost invariably, the more successful companies proved to be those that emphasised devolving as much power as possible throughout the organisation. By doing so, they sought to establish clear accountability, a spirit of innovation and a climate where independent thought was encouraged rather than stifled. More often than not, such businesses also featured less hierarchical structures and a stronger customer affinity than their peers.

In sharp contrast, those managements that operated on a “command and control” basis – ie, those where decisions were made through a “top-down” rather than consultative process – seemed to attract less motivated employees. Too often, these people came over as unwilling to admit or accept responsibility for mistakes, appeared hostile to new ideas (unless everyone else in their company or industry was moving in the same direction) and gave the impression of being more focused on progressing their own careers than living and breathing the aims of the company they worked for. Their attitude to customers and other stakeholders frequently disappointed.

The worlds of education and business are obviously very different, but I wonder if there are not parallels to be drawn. Five years ago, I was recruited to Keir Bloomer’s Commission on School Reform as a business representative. In collecting evidence for its By Diverse Means report, we interviewed school leaders to establish their views on governance. In almost every case, there emerged a clear frustration with the lack of discretion that local authorities (and trade unions) allowed them in managing their schools. With some notable exceptions, I received the impression that many headteachers had lost their will to innovate even when permitted, and had succumbed to a compliance culture of pleasing their local authority masters rather than doing what they believed would be best for their pupils.

I have since heard disturbing reports that many teachers fear speaking their minds openly on educational issues at all, being obliged to check with their respective education director or headteacher before doing so. Whatever one thinks of recent changes to governance structures in England, there seems to be a much more vigorous debate taking place there with regard to innovation.

Opposition must be overcome

In the same way as vested individual and departmental interests have often blocked moves to devolve power within commercial enterprises, there will be significant opposition to any proposed governance changes of real substance. Voluntarily ceding control is not a natural human or organisational instinct.

Local authorities and unions will fight tooth and nail to preserve their current powers. Both will focus on the purported loss of democratic accountability, even though current provision for this has been found wanting. Unions will argue against an unbridled power for headteachers to appoint and remove teachers who are not pulling their weight – obviously, teachers should retain the protections that are accorded to employees elsewhere.

However, from a business perspective, the process of dismissing an underperforming teacher, or organising any school staff redeployment, seems absurdly cumbersome. This is not to say that private enterprise does not have its own house to sort out, not least in the area of egregious remuneration. It is simply a matter of trying to use limited educational resources more effectively, thereby improving pupils’ schooling experiences and making the teaching profession a more attractive career proposition.

The Scottish government’s recent consultation on governance was a milestone in education, as it was explicitly concerned with increasing individual school autonomy. At the outset, deputy first minister and education secretary John Swinney made it clear that decisions should be taken at school level. Depending on the extent to which this presumption survives, the act could herald an exciting and productive new era.

We should be willing to experiment and be careful that a natural desire for consistency does not lead to inertia. As an outsider, I have been amazed by the lack of diversity in Scotland’s schools system. There is every possibility that re-energised and empowered school leaders will innovate in ways that will surprise the most sceptical. Over time, the overall pupil experience should improve beyond all recognition – and Scotland’s former reputation as a world leader in education should be restored.

Angus Tulloch is a retired investment manager and member of the Commission on School Reform

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