David Lee: Patience required to alter the face of education

Devolving control of schools to community boards needs time or it won't happen at all . . .

CHANGE happens slowly in Scottish education. Traditionally, its turning circle is that of a super-tanker with a dodgy engine. Yet a conference this Thursday could herald the biggest shift in education policy for decades.

This is largely down to two men. One is well-known; Mike Russell, the education secretary. The second, unless you are inside the education bubble, will not be so familiar.

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Don Ledingham, executive director of education and children's services for East Lothian Council, is the man who wants to revolutionise the way Scottish schools are run. His dream is of a seismic shift in power, from the traditional command model where councils dictate policy towards a new, devolved system where communities take control of their schools.

Normally, any suggestion of removing the "dead hand" of council control comes from a think tank report or political manifesto. It is strange to find it coming from the dead hand itself.

So why does Mr Ledingham want to put himself out of a job? Is he the educational turkey voting for Christmas?

No-one who knows Mr Ledingham would call him a turkey. He is one of Scotland's foremost educational thinkers and muses intelligently on policy in his online "learning log".

Devolving control of schools to community management boards has been one of his big ideas for some time, yet when he dropped it into the public domain in a budget document last autumn, the response was hostile. Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray dismissed it out of hand; Fiona Hyslop, the then education secretary, was uninterested.

Part of the problem was the phrase "trust schools", which raised the hackles of the establishment. This was partly a result of the trust model in England, where there are criticisms that private business can play too central a role and that stronger trusts poach talented pupils from outside their area, creating educational divides.

The counter view is that Labour in England has been brave and radical in opening up education to new ideas and new structures, while Scotland stagnates.

If Ms Hyslop had not been removed from her education brief, Mr Ledingham's idea might have crashed and burned. Instead, the arrival of Mr Russell – much more of a policy thinker – changed the landscape completely.

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The title of his speech at this week's the conference – Providing Space for Innovation – is instructive. The message from the Scottish Government is clear: show me a good plan and I'll let you get on with it. East Lothian can be a test-bed for change.

The idea is that the boards – composed of teachers, parents, community representatives, councillors and others – would run a cluster of schools in their area, typically a high school and its feeder primaries.

Like the old parish schools, the board would take control of education in its community. It is described by Mr Ledingham as a "these are our bairns" model. The board might, for example, choose to put more (or less) money into transporting children to sporting events, or shift resources to employ a teacher of Mandarin across the cluster.

Mr Ledingham envisages a slow release of power from the centre; the local authority would identify a clear set of "outcomes" for the board, monitoring how it performed and gradually releasing more money and responsibility as the system bedded down.

Over time, he suggests, "the size and scale of the centre would be significantly reduced".

Yet Mr Ledingham accepts there are still far more questions than answers about how a new system would work. Some of these questions are massive: how will the relationship between council and management board work? Who employs the teachers – the council or the board – and what are the implications for salaries and pensions? Does the council still provide central services like IT, payroll and human resources? How is it possible to ensure a board manages its finances properly, or to prevent vested interest groups taking over?

Mr Ledingham admits he doesn't have all the answers yet, but he is working hard to find them. His honesty and radicalism must be applauded.

If the East Lothian plan is to happen, parents and headteachers must be fully informed and involved at every stage, but Mr Ledingham is keen to get cracking. He wants to put a proposal forward by the end of the year and hopes a pilot scheme in one or two clusters could follow by August 2011.

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But the elephant in the classroom is a big one. Some areas will have an enthusiastic, willing and able group of people who will be happy to take on the responsibilities of running schools; other areas, notably those with social problems and a higher proportion of vulnerable children, will not. Some will have strong, committed headteachers and perform well; others will not and could struggle. How does the council ensure that struggling areas still have the safety net of central support, while trying to reduce the size of this central support network to let schools "free"? For all the criticism of council control, the YouGov poll in today's Scotsman suggests the public service ethic is still embedded in Scottish education.

There is little enthusiasm for giving parents the chance to set up and run their own schools. Although this is much further down the line in England, there is 58 per cent opposition and 19 per cent support in Scotland.

There is a long way to go to even start the kind of change proposed in East Lothian and there are plenty of vested interests, especially among politicians and teaching unions, who would be happy to see this fall at the first hurdle. Mr Ledingham will play into their hands if he tries to rush changes through.

With Mr Russell at the helm nationally, there is a real chance that the radical East Lothian plan will be piloted, but headteachers, parents and communities have to be on the plane.

If a rushed experiment fails, the chance to change Scotland's education system would be lost for another generation. What prospect for our children if the dead hand of council control remains firmly on the tiller?

Mr Ledingham must remember that change in education does happen slowly – and that the only alternative might be for it not to happen at all.