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March 17, 2010

Council looks to handover schools to local control

And closer to home but on the same theme, East Lothian Council have got some interesting ideas about how to manage schools in the future.  Based on the premise that centralised management by local authorities stifles innovation and diversity, the proposal is that local communities would be commissioned by the council to run their own schools. The Scottish Government seems to be supportive

RADICAL plans by an SNP-led council to transfer clusters of schools into arm’s-length trusts were last night given broad backing by the education minister.

Michael Russell said the scheme, by East Lothian Council, might fit in “perfectly” with the Scottish Government’s plans.

His remarks came as it emerged the local authority has set out a timetable for implementing the controversial scheme.

In a briefing paper sent to headteachers and parent councils, director of education Don Ledingham said the aim was to prepare a report by December which includes “an implementation strategy” towards a return to the “parish school” system.

He believes centralised bureaucracy leads to “a lack of innovation or diversity between schools”. The document lists 60 questions that need to be addressed about how the plan would work – and although it lists eight possible benefits, it also highlights possible weaknesses.

It warns that “communities might seek to recruit pupils from other areas” –a key criticism of trusts in England, where struggling schools have had brighter pupils “poached” by better performers.

Other potential problems include school clusters trying to move “expensive” students out of their area and “small interest groups trying to take control of a board”. And although it was originally put forward as a possible money saver, the document admits: “There may be no budget savings from such a scheme.”

Mr Russell last night said he was open to discussions and suggestions on how to improve Scottish education, but warned it was too early to say how the East Lothian scheme would take shape. His stance is in sharp contrast to that of his predecessor Fiona Hyslop, who was reluctant to embrace the proposals.

Mr Russell said: “I believe that the East Lothian plan envisages ‘trust’ arrangements for schools and not for ‘trust schools’ as they exist elsewhere in the UK.

“It therefore seems that what is being talked about is exploring a radical extension of arrangements that many Scottish councils already operate for devolving management to headteachers and individual or clusters of schools.”

He said the government supported councils giving greater flexibility and control to schools.

And he added: “So East Lothian’s plans may well fit in perfectly with the government’s aims.”

In November, the then education secretary, Ms Hyslop, branded the English trust school model as seriously flawed.

While she hinted at having support for more “community empowerment” in schools, she stopped short of providing backing for the scheme.

Mr Ledingham, seen as one of Scotland’s leading education thinkers, believes a wider debate is needed on how schools are organised.

A conference is planned in April to discuss the proposal with headteachers, parent councils, East Lothian councillors and other interested parties.

Mr Ledingham has said the move signifies a return to the “parish school” system.

In the report, he wrote: “Parish schools succeeded because they were so closely associated with their communities and accountability for success lay at the school’s doorstep – as opposed to being ‘handed over’ to a faceless bureaucratic system.”

Under the East Lothian plan, management boards would be set up for each cluster, including “young people, education representatives, parent representatives, councillors, community representatives and local businesses”.

Des McNulty, Labour’s education spokesman, said: “If East Lothian is flying a kite, then Russell seems to want to give it a fair wind.

“The government should be very cautious about being seen to promote arrangements for change when obvious problems exist in neighbouring Edinburgh, which need addressing far more urgently.”

The general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, Ann Ballinger, urged caution, saying it might not work universally across Scotland. She said: “In some areas, such as middle-class areas, school boards have been hugely successful, in that lots of people compete to get on them.

“In other areas, they can’t get anyone to sit on the board.”

Conservative schools spokeswoman Liz Smith said she supported greater devolution of power to headteachers.

“It shows it is time to have a very radical think about how we improve our schools,” she said.

What changes could pupils, teachers and parents expect?

EAST Lothian is looking at the trust proposal because it thinks the way schools are run now – with large staffs in a centralised council management team – will be too expensive as council budgets come under pressure.

Charitable trusts do not have to pay rates, can receive tax-free donations and access funding not available to councils.

Other benefits include schools “belonging” more to their community, greater flexibility to spend on local priorities – and potential improvements in pupil attainment.

Management boards would be set up for each cluster, including “young people, education representatives, parent representatives, councillors, community representatives with specialist expertise (eg finance) and representatives from health, community learning, social work and local businesses”.

Critics are unhappy about involving businesses in running schools, but the council says it would retain key responsibilities, from managing school-building programmes to looking after vulnerable children.

It would also devolve budgets, set targets, examine school performance and support trusts not achieving the required standard.

It is understood all East Lothian secondaries could be affected by the plans: Dunbar Grammar, Knox Academy, Musselburgh Grammar, North Berwick High, Preston Lodge High and Ross High.