Educational thinker argues that schools should be liberated from council control and decide their own priorities
Schools should be liberated from the control of Scotland’s 32 local authorities, believes one of the country’s leading educational thinkers who was once an education director himself.
Keir Bloomer believes the national institutions of education are “no longer fit for purpose” and that schools cannot take full advantage of Curriculum for Excellence without being accorded a greater freedom to decide local priorities.
The former Clackmannanshire Council chief executive and education director, who now chairs the Tapestry Partnership, dismissed growing support for a reduction in the number of local authorities.
That might prove cheaper than current structures, he conceded, but “it fails to address fundamental issues” such as greater autonomy for schools or freedom to innovate.
The existing system was a relic of the industrial age that relied too heavily on “top-down policy”, and whose focus on improvement was merely an exercise in “doing inappropriate things a little bit better”.
There was a strong case for a national funding council, which would provide cash directly to schools, similar to the way in which the Scottish Funding Council gives public money to colleges and universities, he told the Managing Scotland’s Schools conference this week.
He mooted the idea shortly before School Leaders Scotland’s general secretary, Ken Cunningham, revealed a wide disparity of funding in otherwise similar schools.
Annual spending per pupil in 13 comparator schools, which Mr Cunningham had looked at, ranged from £4,172 to £6,518. It was a “harsh reality”, he said, that depending on where it was in Scotland, a school might have to get by with 20 fewer full-time equivalent staff than one elsewhere in the country.
Mr Bloomer called on whichever government came into power next May to hold a national review of the running of Scottish schools.
But his ideas did not meet with universal enthusiasm at the event in Edinburgh.
Richard Kerley, professor of management at Queen Margaret University, believed that creating a national body to share funding more evenly would not have a significant effect.
Fife Council’s education director, Ken Greer, said there were already enough freedoms and opportunities within the current system, pointing out that the authority’s response to Curriculum for Excellence was being led by teachers at both primary and secondary level.
Greg Dempster, general secretary of the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland, said he had taken a poll of 100 members, and found the favoured way to improve governance of schools was to reduce the number of local authorities.
The least popular of six options was the “free schools” – or state-funded independent schools – model being explored in England.
Education Secretary Michael Russell was dismissive of free schools when he spoke at the conference, organised by Holyrood magazine, insisting that there was no strong desire for them in Scotland.
He recalled that in 1989, when the Conservative administration attempted to introduce self- governing schools, only two out of 2,800 made the choice to become self-governing. He believed there would be similar antipathy from today’s parents.
Mr Russell’s position on free schools marked a change of tack for the Education Secretary, who returned from a fact-finding trip to Sweden in March, extolling the virtues of a “very impressive” free school he had visited in Stockholm; it was a model “worth discussing”, he said then.
Mr Russell has also commented that the Catholic education sector showed the Scottish system had room for other ideas.
At the time of his return from Sweden, he urged any Scottish local authority interested in the model to talk to him about it, promising he would “help make the connection with Stockholm and they can see how it might work for them”.