Can school governance reform make a difference? – Iain White

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I was pleased to be invited to be a panel member at the Commission on School Reform conference on 25 October that posed this question.  Given the Government’s focus in this area it is an interesting question to pose.  After all, what is the point of change if there will be no impact? 

My answer to the question is an unequivocal, ‘Yes!’  I can say this from the following evidence base.

As a panel member, I was able to make a contribution that was a bit beyond the realms of hypothesis because of my actual experience over the last 3 years.  Before that, I was, for 20 years, Head Teacher in a Local Authority secondary school and had worked in public sector schools since 1977.  In 2014, I was recruited to become Principal at Newlands Junior College (NJC), a new independent school that was opening on the Southside of Glasgow.  NJC Is part publicly funded but most of the sponsorship comes from the private sector.  So, after all this time, I was changing sectors and it would be fair to say that I had accrued a significant insight into governance of local authority schools.

Newlands Junior College exists to help young people who are disengaged from education to make a success of their lives and contribute to society.

Scotland has excellent schools. Most young people leave well prepared for adult life and work. But some do not, and among those are young people with much to offer. However, for some reason, the normal school experience has not inspired them and they become demotivated and likely to fail.

NJC has been specifically designed with these young people in mind. Its intensive individual support, emphasis on relationships and strongly vocational curriculum provide a different experience that can re-engage them and set them on the road to success. NJC is not for everyone: it provides a specialist service for a very specific group of students.

NJC aims to provide Scottish education with an additional resource. It is not in competition with comprehensive secondary schools. It aims to work closely with those near to it to ensure that every young person receives the kind of education best suited to their needs.

Local schools are invited to identify pupils of around fourteen years of age who are not currently benefiting from their education but who have shown signs of potential. NJC
and school staff work together to ensure that a different kind of opportunity is made available to those young people who seem most likely to gain from it.

The students spend the equivalent of S3 and S4 with us and are prepared for jobs and college places through a vocationally focused educational experience aimed at developing the students’ existing and latent potential. With positive relationships as the key to success, the experience provides a skills-based, personalised approach through which individual excellence is fostered in preparation for work.

It only works!  All of the NJC graduates in 2016 and 2017 left and went into either employment or a National Certificate course at a Further Education college.

The Governance model at NJC is much different to what I experienced in local authorities.  As Principal, I am accountable to the Board of Trustees, a body made up of representatives of organisations that support NJC financially and in other ways. My accountability is quite straightforward and is focused on the core purpose of NJC.  With my colleagues, I am expected to take a group of disengaging young people, work with them over a two-year period and, at the end, get each and every one of them into a real positive destination. 

Performance is monitored and reviewed at quarterly Board meetings.  For each of these I prepare a Progress Report and discuss this with the Board members.  An annual Standards and Quality report is also produced.  As Principal, I have to work with my colleagues to deliver success for the students.  Success is a quality positive destination.  It is simple. 

Crucially, how we go about doing that is largely up to ourselves as education professionals.  We do not have to seek permissions.  This is very different from the system to which I had become conditioned in the local authority sector.  Indeed, my experience there led me in the early days to be asking the ‘Can we’ questions quite regularly, until, the Chair of the Board of Trustees said to me, ‘Look Iain, will you please stop asking if it is OK to do things.  You are the experts in education.  Just get on with it and get the job done!’  Fair enough.

The differences that I can identify in this new approach to governance are

  • improved flexibility
  • improved speed of action and response
  • elimination of the fear of failure amongst the staff
  • improved personalisation in the young people’s experience
  • young people taking much more responsibility for their own learning
  • the ability to recruit members of staff who really believe and are committed
  • infinitely more flexibility of operation because of more flexible terms and conditions
  • FREEDOM

Paradoxically, although we have this freedom, as Principal I feel infinitely more accountable now than I ever did when constrained in the local authority approach to school governance.  Isn’t that a strange thing?!

So, what do I mean when I say that I was previously constrained?  In the Local Authority, as a Head Teacher I had 95 Management Circulars that told me how I was to operate.  One of these was 179 pages long.  In turn, this led to around 60 policies and procedural statements produced at school level.  The level of bureaucracy is mind boggling.  Now, NJC operating under its Board of Trustees, has a couple of dozen policy statements.  All of these were written by us with the direct focus on the needs and aspirations of our client group and the school’s purpose.  It is a whole new world.

For many years I have been concerned about the culture of uniformity and conformity that exists in the public education system in Scotland.  Increasingly, schools have been made to follow ‘guidelines’ that are not guidelines at all but instructions.  The system of inspection maintains this uniformity, dressed up as best practice, and the desire on the part of schools, and local authorities, to get ‘good inspection reports’ brings the conformity. Indeed courses by professional development providers around ‘preparing for Inspection’ are commonplace.

We need greater freedom of action for schools and a variety of governance options.  In this way, there can genuinely be a chance that local circumstances can be really taken into account and creativity will flourish.  Before we forget, it will also ensure that more young people get the deal from the public education system that they are entitled to and have the opportunity for success and fulfilment in life that they deserve.

Iain White is the Principal at Newlands Junior College

 This was prepared by Iain in a personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Board of Trustees of Newlands Junior College