Plans to devolve more power to schools have revived the discredited idea of “heroic headteachers” – with the corollary that when things go wrong headteachers will be left in the “firing line”, according to Scotland’s biggest teaching union.
The EIS fears that the idea to devolve more responsibility – which it broadly supports – will be a “poisoned chalice” for headteachers under current proposals.
Those views emerged from an EIS conference for headteachers last Friday, Heads Together for Excellence and Equity, where general secretary Larry Flanagan said the union had initially been “quite positive” about the proposed “headteachers’ charter” if it articulated the role more clearly.
Now, however, only six months after the plan for the charter was revealed in the Scottish government’s Education Governance Review report, Mr Flanagan said there were “alarm bells ringing” about what this would mean in practice. Scotland had long rejected idea of “heroic leadership”, said Mr Flanagan, but the proposed model seemed predicated on this and “puts all the pressure on the individual”, potentially leaving them “in the firing line” if things go wrong.
Handing more responsibility to heads for staffing could be a “poisoned chalice”, he said: moving recruitment away from 32 local authorities could mean headteachers being left exposed. He had similar concerns over the amount of control heads might have over school finances, with the union “absolutely opposed” to the prospect that they could effectively become finance managers.
“Who is going to be held responsible for any failure? It’s not the Scottish government,” said Mr Flanagan at the event in Glasgow.
The burden of bureaucracy
He added that bureaucracy around the Pupil Equity Fund – through which £120 million is being allocated to schools in 2017-18 to close the poverty-related attainment gap – is “an administrative burden” for schools. Mr Flanagan also said that heads in many local authorities already had a lot of freedom to shape the curriculum to the needs of their pupils, but that the governance review had been “wholly dismissive of a lot of the good practice that exists within the country”.
Jim Thewliss, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, which represents secondary headteachers, told Tes Scotland: “We have no appetite for either the concept or practice of hero leadership.”
But he added that SLS, “while not underestimating the challenges which it will present”, sees the headteachers’ charter “very much in a positive light”. He said that devolution of greater responsibility to headteachers could “improve the quality of learning” by providing the flexibility to respond to students’ “specific and identified needs”.
Greg Dempster, general secretary of primary school leaders’ body the AHDS, shared the EIS’s concern about headteachers being asked to do too much – and said that they would need extra support, but “we have yet to hear anything concrete about that”.
“AHDS very much agrees that the core agenda of freeing up school leaders to lead learning must be kept at the heart of things as these changes progress,” he said. “Crucial to allow that to happen will be the provision of sufficient resource to allow schools to benefit from high-quality business managers.
“Without that there is a real danger that heads will be diverted to more bureaucracy rather than less.”
A Scottish government spokesman said: “We are consulting on reforms to empower headteachers to become the leaders of learning, not the chief administrators of their schools. The Education Bill consultation is seeking views on the support headteachers would need to be able to take forward their charter functions. We want headteachers to be supported as well as empowered.”