Turning up the heat for 'super schools'

The creator of Scotland's community schools, Ian McMurdo, argues that the concept still has much to offer

It was my daughter's advice which eventually swung it. "Get your life back Dad," she had implored me. So I decided that, rather than extend my fixed-term contract as director of education, I would take early retirement and bid farewell to the corridors of power.

Now call me rash, but I took the risk that I could learn to live without the gut-churning racetrack that is the A77, the brain-numbing post-midnight council meetings and the panic phone calls from councillors as I sipped my gin and tonic in some secluded swimming pool in a laughable attempt to use up at least a fraction of my annual leave. I could get used to this, I think, in hope rather than expectation.

The problem is that I was always a stickler for detail. Just ask the poor souls who worked their backsides off for me and, with merciless regularity, had their draft reports, probably written at half past two in the morning, ripped to shreds because a calculation was out by one trillionth or because of a misplaced apostrophe (which I genuinely believe should merit a short custodial sentence). Yet here I was bequeathing important unfinished business to my successor.

Take, for example, the little matter of school regeneration. You see, the thing is that I invented community schools. A whole host of Scottish Ministers will try to tell you it was their brainchild. Some misguided American and Scandinavian philosophers will claim they thought of the idea but don't listen to them. It was me all along. A few years have passed since Murdoch introduced us to coal gas, so I figured it was about time Cumnock got itself back on the map.

Try, then, to imagine my disappointment at the reaction in some parts of the land to the emergence of what the media are calling "super schools".

The big furore has been caused by a number of councils, my former employers included, having had the audacity to propose school mergers, amalgamations and closures which will lead to the provision of properly co-ordinated services housed in state-of-the-art new school buildings that will actually benefit children, their families and entire communities. The cheek of it all. What will these bureaucrats think of next?

Forgive me for being blunt but the fact is that we have too many empty desks, too many decrepit, half-empty school buildings and we simply cannot afford to prop them up any longer. Councils have little option but to bring their school estate into line with dramatically falling pupil numbers. It's called value for money.

The beneficiaries will surely be the children themselves, those attending sparsely occupied schools where opportunity is inescapably limited and those in more viable, vibrant schools who would benefit educationally and developmentally from further investment. It's called raising achievement.

Yes, it's true that umpteen council minutes and back copies of the Auchterknockie Chronicle are littered with gruesome accounts of doomed school closure campaigns, of chief officers' careers lying in tatters and of local councillors having defied the party whip to go native and re-emerge as independents at the next elections. It's also true that parents instinctively have fought to the death any attempt by "some wee bureaucrat fae the cooncil" to mess with their local school.

Things have changed a wee bit, though. The same councils now have the wherewithal to build new schools and refurbish others, thanks to a number of new funding streams and this is a carrot to be dangled in front of parents as they, by necessity, push ahead with plans to rationalise their school estate.

Hang on a minute though. Are schools not about children's education? Just how will our children be affected by these devilish plans to merge and to amalgamate? Well, let's think about that.

The fact is that our school infrastructure is seriously outdated, most schools having been built decades ago when children's learning was institutionally driven. Today our whole philosophy centres around the developmental needs of the individual child. Whereas in the past, nurseries were the privilege of the rich, all three and four-year-olds now have a legal entitlement to education and care.

Close curricular links now exist between nursery, primary, secondary and higher education. Continuity and progression are central to each child's development. Schools are rightly expected to be health-promoting. Close collaboration between educational, social, medical and a whole array of specialist services is now the norm. The problem is that much of this is being delivered in buildings constructed aeons ago to serve a system which no longer exists today.

The need now for authorities to address over-capacity, allied to the availability of "real" money, provides them with a unique opportunity to redefine the 21st- century school. Do we really want to persist with schools which have low and depressively decreasing rolls existing cheek by jowl, where curricular choice is severely limited, where multi-level teaching is the norm and where pupils experience limited peer group challenge, social and developmental opportunities and organisational settings?

Why should hard-pressed parents (many of whom are single) have to trail the length and breadth of the council area dropping off children and accessing social, medical and other support services at umpteen different locations simply to try to get by?

What an opportunity to create learning centres for communities and for children of all ages, further enriched by on-site support services, thereby removing unnecessary and potentially traumatic transition points in their already stressful lives. Those councils who have had the vision and the courage to grab the bull by the horns should be congratulated, not vilified.

So good on community schools - super schools if you like - and good on me for inventing them, although I admit that their introduction to contemporary society has not yet proved to be as universally popular as coal gas. I really must get back to my G and T. Furthermore, I haven't even begun to study today's Racing Post. Then again, maybe I should just get another job. Apparently I'm driving everyone mad, including my daughter - and it was her idea.

Ian McMurdo is former director of education in West Dunbartonshire.

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