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July 1, 2015

Community-run schools

It seems we never quite agree on how to run our schools. The presence of such a large private sector is viewed by many as a root cause of the inequalities running throughout society and the legitimacy of their claim to charitable status is once again being called into question. But at various times the question of communities being able to run their own schools, in partnership with the state, also raises its head. Writing in the Guardian, Kevin McKenna highlights the case of one school in Glasgow that could be heading in that direction.

Kevin McKenna, The Guardian

Within the handsome walls of douce Milngavie, just a few miles north of Glasgow, a campaign is building that may yet change the face of education in Scotland. The intended closure of St Joseph’s primary, a much-loved, 140-year-old school at the heart of its community, has awoken in the breasts of parents a crusading zeal that is challenging shibboleths about how this country teaches its children.

The campaign provides an early opportunity for Nicola Sturgeon to give substance to SNP rhetoric about listening to the people and governing for the people. For the Labour party in this area, though, represented by a ruling group of councillors on the coalition East Dunbartonshire council, this has not been their finest hour. Their conduct, as the three-year struggle to keep St Joseph’s in Milngavie has unfolded, has been a microcosm of that shown by the national organisation: a refusal to listen and an arrogance bordering on outright contempt for local people.

Following a lengthy consultation process, the council took an arbitrary decision to shut St Joseph’s despite there being no issues of cost or capacity. The council decided that one of the four local primary schools had to go and commenced the consultation to convey the myth that they were considering all options. The decision to shut the school and force the children to travel by bus to a new-build in neighbouring Bearsden, a shared campus facility with another Catholic primary school, will leave several community groups in Milngavie that also use the school facing a bleak future. One parent commented: “Instead of a local school, they are offering us a bus pass.”

There is no valid educational reason for closure and the parents have demonstrated to East Dunbartonshire council that there are no cost benefits accruing from the decision. On the eve of the local council elections in 2012, several of them witnessed their local representative, Maureen Henry, vice-convener of the education committee, expressing her support for the school. Later, her re-election safely secured, she performed a volte-face.

Last month, her constituents watched open-mouthed as she turned up late at a council meeting once all other business was conducted for the specific purpose of ensuring that a proposal to reverse the decision was defeated. Subsequent efforts to solicit some sort of explanation from the Labour group, including its director of education, Gordon Currie, have been met with a uniform response: talk to the hand. Such an attitude may be familiar to a student of North Korean politics but it tends not to go down too well in the west of Scotland.

So the parents, backed by hundreds of their neighbours, have upgraded their campaign. To them, it is simply unthinkable that a school that has provided a high-calibre education for several generations of their families can simply be erased from the map by a faceless municipal hit squad. They have devised a plan that, if backed by the SNP government, will give birth to Scotland’s first community partnership school.

In this model, the school would receive core funding from central government backed up by extra funding from the third sector. This would enable it to deliver an imaginative and diverse educational service that would also address the needs of children with additional learning needs. Thus, while the core requirement of achieving academic excellence would remain sacrosanct, also at the heart of the school’s ethos would be a desire to encourage non-academic attainment and to deliver nursery and out-of-school care.

In this way, the concept of the school being at the heart of the community would be reborn. The model borrows heavily from the co-operative schools, one that operates successfully in England and that builds in third sector support to bolster its infrastructure. This is the key to unlocking a school’s potential to be at the heart of its own community, constantly engaging with it and empowering locals. Indeed, the funding model already exists in Scotland in special schools such asCraighalbert in Cumbernauld.

There is an appealing flexibility in such a plan. The school would be able to raise funds for an assortment of initiatives deemed to be beneficial to its pupils and also to the wider community. Although it sounds revolutionary in concept, it isn’t really, as the levers exist in current legislation to enable it to happen; it’s just that no one has previously thought to deploy them. The school would be handed over via a public sector asset transfer or through the new powers that are expected to be contained within the forthcoming community empowerment bill. Indeed, it would be the model for what the new community empowerment legislation is seeking to achieve.

This represents a radical challenge to the one-size-fits-all approach to delivering education in Scotland. For the responsibility of the local education authority to maintain and manage the school and to provide education would immediately cease and pass instead to the community school partnership. The new community school would be governed by a board of management comprising parents, staff, appointed members and the head teacher.

What it isn’t, though, is an end to state education that has served the nation well for more than a century. Recently, the state model has begun to ship water in the struggle to keep class sizes down and achieve increasingly onerous targets in numeracy and literacy skills. The St Joseph’s community school partnership simply eases the burden a little. It also provides a lifeboat for other schools, especially in Scotland’s remote places, where the vagaries of depopulation and rural decline can, in the space of a generation, render a revered old school obsolete.

Nicola Sturgeon has already met the St Joseph’s parents and has seen merit in their plans. So too have Willie Rennie, leader of the Liberal Democrats, while Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, has supported them every step of the way.

The election of 56 Nationalist MPs to Westminster was deemed by some to be a peaceful revolution but it wasn’t really. A revolution starts when people start to think the unthinkable and that is what has been happening in Milngavie. It remains to be seen if the Scottish government is also willing to do so.