Best Value

Friday 7th October

In at 7.00am to clear my desk for the day. Meeting of Education Officers at 8.15am. This is the weekly sweep of school issues arising from contact with HTs. I’ve missed the last few EO meetings for a variety of reason but it is proving very useful in tracking problems and improving communication between us all. Of course it doesn’t help that we are down two education officers.

9.30am – 1.00pm Management Summit at Musselburgh racecourse: This was for all managers employed by East Lothian Council. It was focussed upon how the council can prepare for the best value audit which will take place in 2007. It was interesting hearing how other department go about the audit process. It would seem that education has quite sophisticated evaluation systems – particularly when we introduce SELS.

One of the challenges presented to the audience was to consider if their services could be provided more effectively by another organisation. For example, could road repairs be contracted out to a private company?; could payroll be replaced by a banking service? That set me to thinking about the implications for education. Is the current system the best way to provide a quality educational experience?

What are the alternatives? The most obvious is to remove education from local authority control and make schools totally autonomous. This has obvious attractions – particularly for Headteachers. So what are the downsides? Well – when things are going well there isn’t really a downside – an effective school is an effective school. The problem comes when things are not going well: when a school is underachieving; when the children in one school are receiving a very inferior education in comparison with the school down the road; when teachers are working an environment which is not conducive to good health or professional development. In such circumstances there is a need to have some mechanism for quality assurance and external support. The HMIe inspections are one such mechanism but with schools only likely to be inspected on a six or seven year cycle, the scope for slipping through the net is too great to rely only on the inspectorate.

So we need some means for schools to be held accountable on a more regular basis and offered appropriate support and challenge. In England some authorities have contracted out the management of their schools to a private education company. A fee is set and it is the responsibility of the company to manage the schools to an agreed standard.

The problem with such a system is that I think it loses one of the great strengths of local authority responsibility – the notion of community attachment and belonging. Schools are something in which most communities take great pride – it belongs to them – you just need to observe the furore when any attempt is made to close a school. If schools are to serve a community they need to be connected to the democratic process in a very direct and clearly understood manner. The current system – for all its weaknesses – ensures that the locally elected councillors are accountable to their electorate and – ultimately – for the quality of education provided in the local school. If we need to do anything we need to make this link even more obvious than it is at present. One of the things I’ve learned from PPP is that private companies are fundamentally driven by the profit motive – and profit alone. So when you enter into a contract with a private company they assume responsibility – the phrase used in this world is the “transfer of risk”. The problem occurs around the edges of a contract. For concrete parts of the contract – if you can excuse the pun – it is clear if the contractor is fulfilling their responsibility. However, key parts of an education service are not concrete – they are abstract things, such as professional ethics; notions of duty and service; moral obligation to serve the needs of children and the community. In my recent experience if something isn’t explicitly stated in a contract then it is unlikely that it will be done by a contractor. The problem with such a mentality is that it reduces everything to a lowest common denominator – rather than creating an environment for professionalism and creativity can flourish.

However, that is not to say that the current system is working well – only to suggest that it has the potential to do a lot better than a profit driven enterprise. Our challenge is to create something which matches the best practice of commercial companies – their efficiency, dynamism and effectiveness – whilst ensuring that we retain our obligation to serve the needs of our communities.

Back to the office for 1.00pm to meet Sheila McKendrick – we are interviewing four candidates on Monday for the vacant education officer position. We were creating the scenario which candidates will have to respond to as the first part of the interview. The scenario – which I’ll post here on Monday night – describes a situation which an education officer might encounter in a school and asks them to identify an appropriate strategy.

2.00pm – first departmental briefing session. We are introducing a weekly briefing session to improve communication within the department – seemed to be well received.

2.30-3.30pm met with a teacher and their union rep about a phased return to work after illness

3.30pm meeting with Ollie Bray and David Gilmour to discuss the development of exc-el. We had a wide ranging discussion about weblogging; creating our community; sustainability; search facilities; the website; and an exc-el conference.

Ollie and David bring very different but complimentary skills to the table. David has many years experience in management levels in the nuclear industry before he decided upon a change of career and started teaching. He looks at education from a unique perspective and is able to see things that some of us close up too the action fail to recognise. Ollie was a member of staff at Glenmore Lodge – Scotland’s outdoor training centre. He is steeped in mountaineering, canoeing and outdoor life. From what I see this gives him two things – firstly – a recognition that you have to depend on working with other people to succeed (in his former life your life depended upon it) and secondly – a determination to make education and learning an exciting and life enhancing experience. In his new role as PT of Geography at Dunbar Grammar School it’s obvious that his enthusiasm for his subject is matched by his enjoyment of working with young people. He is constantly looking at his practice with a view to making the children’s learning experience better.

We reflected upon weblogging as a central core of the exc-el project. We considered setting up different sections on the site such a probationers blogs; Headteachers blogs; parents’ blogs; pupils’ blogs. After some discussion we realised that this only continues to place everyone involved in education into neat boxes as opposed to creating something which challenges that traditional perspective. We intend to develop the search facility on the site which will enable a person to look at a subject from a variety of perspectives – for example – if you wanted to find out about exclusions, you could enter exclusion on the search facility. The search engine finds every entry which mentions that issue on the site and presents them for the reader. We hope to make this facility more sophisticated but the essential part will be that it breaks down all the traditional barriers between the various groups engaged in the process of education.

Then we touched on the idea of “high reliability” organisations. David talked about the business of aircraft carriers and the need for a complex organisation with so many variables working together without making mistakes. I’ve come across this idea in relation to airports. Education is different but perhaps we tolerate too many mistakes? Or perhaps it’s just that mistakes in education are less obvious – it’s not quite the same when French teacher fails to prepare his lessons and bores kids rigid, thereby switching them off languages for good, compared to a plane crashing because an air traffic controller misread his screen. Our mistakes have more of a long term impact but how good could schools be if they tried to adopt something of the high reliability organisation mentality?

Sustainability of initiatives is always a difficult thing to manage. Usually an initiative survives as long as funding is available, the key person is in post, or enthusiasm is maintained. We are seeking to create something which is much more organic and can constantly be reinventing itself as time goes by. I’ve struggling to come up with a metaphor to capture this idea – the best I could think of – and I know it’s a potentially offensive notion – is that of “cells” (small goups of associated people). Imagine, if you will, a group of people who are linked by a common purpose but who are not dependent upon a hierarchical top-down system of organisation. Instead we create small groups of people, or cells – or better still they create themselves – using the website to publicise their work and to build and share their practice. It seems chaotic but it is a totally different way of working from what we currently experience. I’ll play around with this idea but would welcome comments.

Part of the exc-el statement of intent is to arrange an annual conference. Ollie is keen to develop an IT conference in East Lothian similar to SETT but with more of a practical focus involving teachers, students and parents. We played around with this idea before striking on the concept of developing a conference which brought the exc-el website to life. In other words create a conference which mirrors the website and gives participants the chance to meet and bring together some of the issues which have been raised the past year on the site.