Issue 5

HOW DIVERSE CAN WE BE? THE COMMISSION ON SCHOOL REFORM

By Councillor Paul McLennan, member of SNP opposition, East Lothian Council

The Commission on School Reform, which published the report ‘By Diverse Means‘ in February was a joint commitment by Reform Scotland and the Centre for Scottish Public Policy. Chaired by Keir Bloomer, well known educationalist, it comprised members from all parties and none. Here commission member Paul McLennan, of East Lothian, reflects on how  that council - then under SNP control - approached discussion about changes in the organisation of schooling.

During 2010 East Lothian Council decided to look at how we could devolve more authority, responsibility and budgets to our school communities.

There is an old African proverb ― It takes a village to raise a Child. It is a principle that we held to with our proposals.

We asked our Education department to look at how we could delegate more powers to schools to make curricular and budget decisions at a local level. We wanted to encourage our schools to be more outward facing, enabling them to be more flexible in responding to the needs of their local communities.

Our concept  was called “Community Partnership Schools” which would offer the operational responsibility of head teachers within a revised school and cluster governance model. East Lothian schools broadly match the 6 main towns in the County. We wanted our schools in each of our main towns to work more closely with each other, working hand in hand with their communities.

There was a focus on confirming self-evaluation of performance; developing the capacity of schools and clusters to help themselves; and maintaining the education authority‘s capacity to directly intervene to support any school where the quality of education is seen to be declining.

We encouraged our Parent Councils to involve a wider representation from the local community. The Education and Children's Services Department were asked to explore the allocation of funding to clusters as a way of developing joint working. The purpose of this funding was to enable strategic decision making to take place to support the 3-18 educational agenda.

We needed to research other similar models in the UK. We visited North Bedfordshire Council to explore its delegation system to schools and to speak with head teachers. Visited Sharnbrook Community High School to speak with staff, school managers and students on their Community Trust model.

A policy Shaping Conference was held at Queen Margaret University to shape next steps and a submission was made to the Scottish Government‘s Education and Lifelong Learning Committee‘s request for evidence for the Future Management of Schools.

Importantly there was the establishment of a Stakeholder Working Group - Head teachers, Parent Council Reps; Unions reps; Elected members; Officers; and Community Council reps. They met on a regular basis.
Briefings and discussion were held at the East Lothian Headteacher Conference and the East Lothian Parents Council Association.

Why did we think there was a need to change?

East Lothian Council is rightly proud of the educational achievements of our young people and our schools perform above the national average in terms of attainment and achievement and have shown sustained improvement over a number of years. Nevertheless, we believe that it is still possible to improve further and are committed to finding ways in which we can ensure that every child, regardless of background, can fulfil their potential.

There are some underpinning key factors in any change:
1. Democratic accountability - to  endeavour to discuss and decide all key matters in public after consulting with those people most affected.
2. Community orientation - to devolve decision-making down to the ward level as far as it makes economic and managerial sense.

These were the imperatives for considering an alternative model of educational delivery in East Lothian.

There is also evidence that, where schools work in partnership with parents and the local community, the quality of education can be enhanced.

The reality and complexity of 21st Century society means that single institutions have to work together to achieve the outcomes communities require. Our current funding, management and governance systems work against developing a coherent 3-18 education system that is fully connected to the needs of the local community. The unprecedented social, cultural and financial challenges facing society in Scotland is forcing us to consider alternative educational models. We had to go beyond simply tweaking and improving services and develop new ways of delivering our services to transform the experiences of those whom we serve.

The 2007 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report into the quality and equity of education in Scotland criticised Scotland for a lack of innovation and diversity in the way in which it delivered education.

Children and young people only spend 15% of the week attending school. Seymour Sarason, in 'The Skeptical Visionary' (Temple University Press, Philadelphia (2003) argued, as have many others, that separating education in schools from education outside schools defeats the purpose of education by maintaining a gulf between the two worlds of learning.

Our governance models did not fully engage parents or other stakeholders in the evaluation or school improvement agenda and we want to see a movement towards greater delegation of responsibility to local level.

What were our opportunities for change?

Within current legislation, there exists significant flexibility for any local authority to delegate more management functions to head teachers. Children's Services have much greater experience in delegating responsibilities than Education Departments, with many third sector organisations being commissioned to deliver very complex and risk associated services. Local authorities can also delegate any other such functions in relation to the school that the authority think fit.

The range and extent of responsibilities delegated to schools varies considerably from one Local Authority to another as the Cameron report demonstrated. Nevertheless, there are considerable opportunities to explore further delegation to schools particularly in relation to budgets and raising standards. Such a delegation model depends on there being a clear system whereby the local authority could commission the school to deliver education to an agreed standard on its behalf. In such an arrangement, the local authority would have to maintain a central capacity to fulfil the other responsibilities set out in the various Acts.

Were local authorities to delegate more responsibilities to schools, there would have to be some form of contractual agreement that sets out the responsibilities of the individual school and the local authority. The local authority would have to have some means of ensuring that the quality of education is maintained and each school is engaged in raising standards and managing budgets. In such circumstances, the local authority would need to retain some capacity at local authority level to intervene and support any school that was deemed not to be fulfilling its agreed responsibilities.

Our current funding, management and governance systems work against developing a coherent 3-18 education system that is fully connected to the needs of the local community.

Were such an extended delegation system to be adopted, schools would have to develop their own capabilities, previously exercised at council level. Undoubtedly, any such move would require significant initial input from the local authority to build the capacity of the school to operate in a more self-determining manner. There is also evidence from other countries that a much greater proportion of budget management can be delegated to a local level of governance.

Local governance has three advantages:

It deepens local understanding about savings that may have to be made, it exposes them to closer local scrutiny (both of which are uncomfortable but build civic capital), it allows decisions to be made locally by people who understand the local priorities and imperatives.

There is also evidence that, where schools work in partnership with parents and the local community, the quality of education can be enhanced. Such partnership can release the untapped social capital in all of our local communities which could contribute positively to the development of children and young people.

Scotland has a proud heritage of local charities, employers and communities who have played an important role in providing high quality educational services to children and young people. We believe that it is possible to re-energise this resource when developing alternative models of managing our schools.

In meeting stakeholders however, it was emphasised at all of these meetings that there would be real benefit to learners and communities in building and developing upon the existing successful partnership arrangements between schools and stakeholders.

Partnerships need some key features if they are to be successful, namely:

Negotiated agreements; a mutually agreed culture of ‘give and take’ with clear lines of accountability; clarity over roles, remits, behaviours and values.

Future partnership arrangements must therefore attempt to address the above in a coherent and consistent manner without being overburdened by unnecessary bureaucracy.

A significant concern for head teachers throughout all the discussion period had been the potential for confusion/conflict over operational responsibility for the management of the school. In our discussions it was clear that parents and other stakeholders did not wish to have operational responsibility for the school at that time. They felt they had neither the time nor the expertise. However, there was a clear willingness from parents and other stakeholders to be real partners in the education process and in the place of schools within their communities.

As mentioned previously the ethos which underpins Community Partnership Schools echoes the sentiments of the well-known proverb – “It takes a village to raise a child”.

Our modern interpretation of this was a belief in partnership, where we build working relationships between schools, parents, families and other services within a community, to overcome the challenges of raising children in today's society.

By adopting a school-centred approach – as opposed to a school-centric approach – we hoped to build on the concept of the universal service of education and provide a means by which others can share responsibility for success. We are very aware that a one-size-fits-all model would probably fail, so were determined to create differing models tailored to the needs of different communities.

Our goal was to liberate our leaders so that they can imagine and create services that address the challenges that we all face in partnership with their communities, not in isolation from them.

I believe that the proposals in the CSR report go a long way toward recognising that “it takes a village to raise a child”.

By Councillor Paul McLennan, member of SNP opposition, East Lothian Council

Issue 5

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