Bill Nicol: Hometown case for school autonomy

Autonomous schools, freed of red tape, can focus on building the right atmosphere for learning. Picture: John Devlin
Autonomous schools, freed of red tape, can focus on building the right atmosphere for learning. Picture: John Devlin
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EXPERIENCE shows empowering teachers and communities gets results, writes Bill Nicol

The Hometown Foundation is a Scottish charity with a keen interest in education. Our inaugural project was to build a £500 million co-operative settlement in South Lanarkshire. The new town, called Owenstown in memory of Robert Owen, founder of the co-op movement, would have been owned and managed by its residents.

Owenstown included two primary schools, a secondary and research centre. This would have allowed academic development to take place in conjunction with inclusive, affordable and innovative education.

Although this project is presently in limbo due to planning constraints, the Foundation will apply knowledge we gained in the design process to help other towns and villages secure worthwhile improvements. Our main theme is empowering communities by helping them focus on improving their own circumstances.

Recent reports show Scotland falling behind other countries, including England, in educational outcomes. This is causing concern to employers and academics as well as parents. But every day lost in barren consultations to placate vested interests will result in even more young Scots having to leave school without the tools they need to make a success of their lives.

Hometown firmly believes a good quality and inclusive education, irrespective of religion, background or wealth, forms the foundation of every successful society. This is important to keep up with our competitors and to enable our children to achieve prosperous and fulfilling lives.

We have identified several innovative schemes to improve Scottish education. These include pupils getting cost-effective additional tutoring on a group basis, rather than on their own, and a re-training scheme to give teachers higher levels of proficiency and confidence. However, our main priority at present is to help parents form state-funded autonomous schools to put teaching professionals back in charge of education.

A significant part of Scottish education’s problems relates to areas of responsibility. At present, direct responsibility for raising standards and improving education does not reside with the school or head teacher. Funds are passed from the Scottish Government to local authorities to provide education and raise standards. Local authorities are not hands on or properly accountable for standards but their involvement adds a great deal of bureaucracy and cost. Autonomous schools give heads greater control while bringing parents, teachers and the community closer together. This makes the provision of education more of a team effort and encourages parents to take more interest in their children’s work and good behaviour. Local businesses can also benefit by providing goods and services to these schools.

The Hometown Foundation is working with a growing number of parent groups to form community-based autonomous schools. This will allow qualified professionals to use the best possible methods to improve both academic and non-academic competencies.

Due to our association with innovative and high-performing schools, the Foundation can help with the sharing of information on new and more effective teaching methods. The aspiration is to deliver better outcomes for pupils, parents, local communities and taxpayers while helping teachers attain a less stressful and more productive workplace. The day to day running of the school will be in the hands of professional teachers but parents will be encouraged to help, as our experience shows this achieves better outcomes.

Faith schools are sometimes, wrongly in our view, blamed for promoting sectarianism, however parental involvement is the norm and their above average results speak for themselves. Not only is the present system not delivering for our children, it can only get worse as cuts start to bite. However, having helped a number of schools to prepare fully-costed business plans for the Scottish Government, we are pleased to say the autonomous model can offer significant savings as well as turbo-charging scholarly performance.

We are encouraged that the Scottish Government has an open mind on autonomous schools and has engaged us in advanced discussions. We are keen that as many parents and heads as possible get in contact so that we can explain the full range of benefits that flow from the autonomous model. Irrespective of location, religion or ethnicity, the Hometown Foundation will assist any group which shares its core belief that every child deserves the best possible start in life.

• Bill Nicol is director of the Hometown Foundation.