Perhaps the time is right to explore alternative delivery models for education where we shift our thinking from people being users or consumers, to being participants? Ironically there is much to learn from our Scottish educational heritage as we consider our future.
The shift from School Boards to Parent Councils – which surely must be one of the best things to happen in Scottish education in the last twenty years – begins to provide an insight into the potential of true community involvement in the delivery of education at a local level.
Our current system – as it has evolved – has been dominated by the tenets of centralised control – both from the government and, in their turn, local authorities. The dependency culture, which this has created, is not the fault of those who work in schools, yet – in an ironic twist – it has become one of the key barriers to enabling teachers and school leaders to grasp the opportunity provided by a Curriculum for Excellence.
So how might we release the potential that so clearly exists in our schools and our communities?
Maybe the answer lies in our past? For when Scotland led the world in education it was through schools that were “owned” by their communities. The Scottish parish schools, which originally were purely elementary, were encouraged to provide at least the elements of secondary education. These schools played this role so well, that the Argyle Commission in its report of 1868 reported that over fifty per cent of the students attending the four Scottish universities came direct from parish schools. Parish schools were later joined by the establishment of burgh schools, essentially secondary schools, and in this way both types of schools became universal education providers, and gave to Scotland an education system that was the envy of Europe.
I want to make it clear here that I am not relating the traditional parish school with any religious affiliation – but instead see the concept as a powerful one where a community’s emotional bond to their schools is matched by an opportunity to translate that affinity into an active and substantive role in shaping and improving the quality of education delivered in their name.
What I have in mind is community-based management of schools. To a certain extent this concept has been trialled in certain areas of Scotland. This is where the local primary schools and secondary school work to promote links to smooth the journey for children and to benefit from sharing good practice. In some areas these developments have had dedicated management time allocated in the form of Learning Community manager or leader. However, the governance of these schools still lies with each of the respective head teachers. But what if we could establish a Community Educational Trust to which was devolved the entire budget for running education within that community? The main change that such a system could introduce is the notion of the schools being “owned” by their community. The shift in the perceived ownership of the school would actually match what people feel about their local school but where the perception of a centralised power base still keeps them removed from the real running of the school.
The reason I opt for community- based, as opposed to school-based management, is drawn from the lessons from South of the Border where schools have actually sought to limit their intake to particular types of student. This has resulted in huge variations in terms of the quality of education provision, with “magnet” schools and “sink” schools existing in close proximity to one another. The community-based model perceives the provision of education to be a much more inclusive and universal process. This is where the concept of “these are our bairns” underpins and permeates policy and practice.
Of course, the practicality of community-based management of schools throws up as many questions as it does answers. Not least of which would include how such schools would relate to their local authority? How would they manage budgets and systems that currently benefit from large-scale procurement? How would such communities relate to other Council delivered services and other agencies: and; How would the authority ensure that the needs of ALL children were being met?
Despite these, and many other such questions, I’d like to think that the potential of such a scheme is worthy of serious consideration and exploration. Even if such an idea comes to nought, it may indeed allow us to create different forms of educational delivery that might emulate the genetic traits that so characterised the success of the Scottish parish school system.