EducationPoliticsSecEd

Cut out the middle man

By 28 April 2012No Comments

The Commission on School Reform, set up by think-tank, Reform Scotland, and headed by former EIS General Secretary and council Chief Executive, Keir Bloomer, hoped the Commission would publish an interim report in the spring.  Ross Martin, former Labour Education chair in West Lothian, and adviser to the Commission, said they wanted to find out “where we’ve moved away from that old template mentality of the bog standard comprehensive”.
This seemingly odd pairing, former Union leader, Bloomer, and former Labour councillor, Martin (failed New Labour candidate in Falkirk West over Denis Canavan) seemed to be opposing a council-managed system of comprehensive education.  Neither however had made some dramatic, unforeseen leap of faith.
Bloomer has long advocated that schools could be managed by charities or other voluntary organisations.  He sees, rightly, local authority management as stultifying creativity in schools.  There have been other, parallel pressures for reform, including Don Ledingham and East Lothian’s unsuccessful attempt to establish community control of schools.
Martin argued for a return to School Boards with enhanced powers but he also stated that the precondition of high quality secondary schools is ‘truly comprehensive catchment areas’.  He marred his case however by describing his own former school, and of which I was once headteacher, as ‘sink’ school, tawdry rhetoric appealing to defensive social conservatives.
In aligning with Reform Scotland, despite all-party representation on its advisory board, Bloomer and Martin, are allying with a Conservative-leaning organisation.  (Nothing wrong with cross-party thinking but this is a bit different.)  Two of Reform Scotland’s three employees are former Conservative Party officials.  One, Alison Miller, wrote an article in 2007, arguing against any capping of the numbers at the planned replacement for Edinburgh’s Portobello High.  “There is choice of schools for parents who can afford it; those who can buy a house in a nice neighbourhood or move into the independent sector; yet Labour seem determined to deny this choice to so many parents across the city by placing caps on our schools. Why shouldn’t good schools be allowed to expand to allow more pupils to benefit from the wonderful teaching on offer?”  What is missing from all such arguments for parental choice, from those who want selection on the cheap, is a clear, ethical perspective on the education appropriate for those whose parents do not choose to send them to schools in neighbouring affluent areas.  What is to remain for them?  Or are the educational fate and destination of the undeserving poor irrelevant to Ms Miller et al?
The give-away in Martin’s position is again the tawdry rhetoric: “the bog standard comprehensive”, a phrase redolent of splenetic Conservatism, a genuflection to those he requires to bring on board.
What is happening is that quite diverse groups, all unhappy with the status quo in terms of school governance and frustrated local aspirations are desperately coming together.  It is understandable.  The burgeoning local authority machine micro-manages schools and frustrates adventurous innovation.  The powers of the plethora of strategic and regulatory bodies, councils, government, the inspectorate, the health and safety industry, multiply.  Comprehensive education, substantially undermined by parental choice is perceived, rightly, as an increasingly two-tier system.
Change and simplification are indeed essential.  Schools need clearer direction on the big strategic issues and less interference in day-to-day management.  They need fewer layers of management but the genuine radicals, committed to social equality, must beware the allies they seek.
In a small country like Scotland, with a well-functioning national parliament, perhaps the first part of the answer is simple: cut out the middle-man and make schools, like Universities, a remit of national government rather than local government.
 
The above article was first published in SecEd on 25 January 2012: http://www.sec-ed.co.uk/cgi-bin/go.pl/article/article.html?uid=89082;category_uid=115;section=Opinion

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