Uniformity or diversity of schooling?


One of the key findings of the OECD report on Quality and Equity of Scottish Education was that our system does not promote innovation and that there is very little diversity of schooling in Scotland. They identified the cause of this rigidity as a lack of autonomy – and what I would describe as an acceptance by all of a “command and control” model of education.  This is captured in a paper from the OECD which described various educational models extant in the world where we seemed to fit within a bureaucratic system of education.

Yet this notion of diversity causes shivers down the back of many in Scottish education who have come to accept the doctrine that there must be “equality of opportunity” in all schools. This is often translated into what is termed an “entitlement model” of education, i.e. what is on offer in one school must be on offer in another.  Any divergence from this orthodoxy is immediately labelled a “postcode lottery”. Now that seems fine to me in relation to some fundamental rights such a health treatment such a cancer care – but not for something as subjective as to what constitutes a quality education.

It interests me that people will call out for equality of opportunity, common entitlement, uniformity, (rigidity) within one local authority – yet in the neighbouring authority there exists another similar system – set in stone – but with it’s own unique differences – albeit at the periphery.

Even a cursory reflection upon the OECD report leads one to conclude the need to promote greater innovation and diversity in our system and that the fundamental levers for change should be an integrated approach to Funding and Governance.

I would argue that any improvement in outcomes for children in Scotland will only come about through providing schools with greater autonomy – and at the same time linking this with greater accountability. The key point to be borne in mind here is that there is a risk that greater autonomy can result in greater inequality. This would certainly be the case if funding was simply handed over to to schools with no regard to how that funding is used to tackle inequalities. I reckon that accountability in Scottish education is primarily motivated by compliance, e.g “we will do it so as not to get slapped”, whereas accountability should really be seen as a formative process, which should shape what we set out to achieve. Such a shift to a formative form of accountability would have to link funding with the achievement of clearly stated outcomes and objectives, without dictating how these outcomes must be achieved – and certainly no reference to the input requirements.

It’s at this point that the question of uniformity or diversity really comes into its own. For if I you gave two schools a common set of outcomes – and then stripped away any obligations as to how these outcomes should be achieved (whilst ensuring that they complied with health and safety and legislative requirements) I’d bet that we would end up with remarkably different schools over a period of time. Of course, one would have to expect that the divergence between the two schools would not happen immediately, the ingrained cultures and expectations would take some to to break down. Yet over a few years we would begin to see the two schools creating their own solutions to similar problems – yet in a way which suited their own context and community.

“But what if a child has to move from one school to another – how will they manage?” – I thought I’d get that in now as it’s the common question which arises about this time anyone attempts to promote a diversity model. I’m afraid such a question just leaves me cold for I’ve seen far too many children from other countries successfully join schools where I’ve been a teacher or manager to see it as an obstacle – what matters is the quality of the school – not the uniformity of the curriculum or the structure of the school.

But how could schools operate without the support and direction of Local Authorities? Surely they don’t have the expertise or sophistication to make the myriad of judgements that are currently made on their behalf? Obviously we couldn’t give control of our schools to our local communities as they couldn’t be trusted in the way we can trust local authorities – could they? And how could schools possibly ensure that they maintained a high quality of education for every child – regardless of ability – surely that can only be achieved through a bureaucratic system which checked that the needs of disadvantaged children?

1 thought on “Uniformity or diversity of schooling?

  1. “….there is a risk that greater autonomy can result in greater inequality.”

    I would argue that the differences in attainment and other indicators across the county (as in the rest of Scotland) already represents an incredible level of inequality in the system.

    In the light of this ingrained inequality giving communities more freedom to respond to the educational needs of their own children seems to me to have the potential to be a sane and ethical response to the different needs and characters of communities.

    Its possible to argue that diversity is neccesary for equality. A social system that does not accomodate difference cannot be equal. For example you cannot have an equal society that only allows one form of worship, or where only one form of sexual expression is allowed. However, you can have diversity without equality. The education system of my school years – fee paying schools, grammar and secondary moderns – was diverse but few would argue that it was equal.

    The question in my mind is – does giving more autonomy to communities in deciding priorities for education address the inequalities that already exist? Autonomy would give communities more scope for deciding priorities that suit the needs of their communities, for experimenting and for innovation, but would that be enough.

    Society isn’t equal – there isn’t a level playing field – if we are to have equality of outcome then how can you accomodate for the lack of a level playing field. If this isn’t built into the educatinal system then I fear that greater diversity will simply make the inequality that already exists more obvious.

    One thing is very clear – Scotland can’t pull itself up the European league tables for health and education unless we can tackle inequality better. Its the failue of health and education systems to meet the needs of different socio -economic groups that puts us at the bottom of the league. Lifting the bottom 20 % is not only the right thing ethically but the most effective way of improving the health and educational status of Scotland as a whole.

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