Ben Davis was head of St Joseph’s Academy in Kilmarnock three years ago, but he wanted a new challenge. Or, as he puts it, he and his young family were looking for an adventure.
They decided to move to north-west England, so that he could take over as head of the 1,150-pupil St Ambrose Barlow Roman Catholic High in Salford. In doing so, he became one of that small group of people who have worked as headteachers on both sides of the border, giving him a better vantage point than most people of the two education systems’ merits and shortcomings.
The drama and English teacher – who is full of praise for his old employer, East Ayrshire Council – maintains that while he was not seeking greater professional autonomy, that is exactly what he ended up with in England.
He says: “I viewed moving from one education system to another as not being insignificant, but I thought ‘a school is a school, kids are kids’ – and in many respects that is true. However, the differences between the systems around accountability and autonomy are gigantic, and they have huge implications for headteachers, teachers, parents and kids.”
As the head of a Scottish secondary, Davis had control over a budget of several hundred thousand pounds; in England, he has £6 million. He has used his greater say over how his current school is run to recruit a wider range of professionals to work with pupils, from counsellors to attendance officers. Davis has also introduced one hour of teacher professional development every week after school, and replaced report cards with extra parents’ evenings for an entire year group.
He is delighted to have thrown off the “rigid” council procurement processes, he says, and can now procure services more cheaply and quickly. Davis believes you have “got to give the people close to the action in schools the power to do the things they want”. And with his insight into the education systems north and south of the border, he thinks that the Scottish government’s plan to give more money and autonomy to headteachers could be a step in the right direction. But he stresses that, in his current role, the buck now stops with him.
Davis has had two Ofsted inspections in three years and describes the support he receives from his business manager as “vital” – echoing headteachers’ organisations in Scotland, which have repeatedly stressed that the role of business managers will be crucial to making a success of schools’ greater autonomy.
“Key for Scottish headteachers will be having the right level of business management and finance support,” says Davis. “Without that, it would be a case of just throwing headteachers to the lions.”
However, a Tes Scotland analysis of business manager numbers in Scotland shows a downward trend: from 199 in 2010 to 184 in 2016.
Davis also warns that Scotland must have a coherent strategy of what it is that the education system should be trying to achieve – not just focused on exam results and attainment, but a “positive, progressive and child-centred” vision that sums up the country’s aspirations for its future citizens. Without that, the danger is that Scotland might end up with its 360 state secondary schools all ploughing their own furrow. He believes that this is one of the English system’s weaknesses: it is “very fragmented” and highly confusing for parents.
“We have lots of different people exercising their autonomy in all different ways,” says Davis. “You have some children who are being served better, but not necessarily the country as a whole.
“We have to face the possibility that greater freedom and autonomy, and greater variety and shapes of school, does not always benefit the most disadvantaged and vulnerable.”
That view chimes with concerns in Scotland, where education directors have warned that exclusions could rise and pupils with additional support needs (ASN) could be denied access to their local school (“The ‘significant risk’ of headteacher reforms”, Tes Scotland, 2 February).
Davis already enjoys more power in England than the Scottish government plans to bestow on its own school leaders. The government has made it clear that it has no desire to replicate England’s “divisive academy model”, nor to introduce grammar schools and label children “as failures at the age of 11”.
But it does want heads to have greater control over school finances and to be able to choose their own staff teams; to determine the management structure in their schools; and to have control over curriculum content, within a broad national framework.
Davis’ school is a voluntary aided school, meaning that it is a state-funded school to which a foundation or trust – usually a religious organisation – contributes to building costs and has a big say in its running. The 14-strong board of governors employs the staff and, while it is not a local authority school, it continues to procure many council services.
The fear often expressed by Scottish heads is that being given more responsibility would take them further from the classroom – that they would become HR managers and accountants instead of leaders of learning. But Davis believes that to lead learning, you need to have “a good understanding of how that learning is resourced”. Similarly, he argues that one of the most important things you do as a leader of learning is to appoint new staff.
“I get more bogged down in pastoral matters than finance or HR,” he says. “The situations where children are in crisis, or there is an issue with children and families, are always more thorny and difficult than dealing with HR or an order that has not come through.”
Davis concludes that increasing headteacher autonomy could result in improved outcomes for pupils. But he points out that there are no guarantees and, ultimately, the changes could have little effect on the relationship between pupil and teacher, which is the key to improving learning.
He says: “If you want to improve schools, you improve the quality of the training for teachers and the quality of professional development – that’s it.”