BELMAS Conference: Keynote abstract “New Organisations, New Leadership – Community Ownership of Schools”

I’ve been invited to give one of the Keynote addresses to this year’s BELMAS conference. Founded more than 30 years ago, BELMAS seeks to advance the practice, teaching and study of educational management, administration and leadership in the United Kingdom, and to contribute to international developments in these areas. The theme of the conference is “New Organisations, New Leadership”.

Here’s an abstract of what I’ll be saying.  I’m leaving it relatively broad at this time so as to give me some scope to include developments which will take place over the next six months.  The reality is that I rarely complete a presentation prior to the night before it’s due to take place.  This isn’t to do with laziness or lack of organisation but simply that my mind is usually working on the topic right up to the event.  If I submit a summary/PowerPoint too early I’ve found that it places unnecessary limits on what I want to say. 

Nevertheless, here’s the abstract:

“New Organisations, New Leadership – Community Ownership of Schools”

Throughout the world educational goverance is under intense scrutiny.  The common factor is a dissatisfaction with the centralised bureaucracy which characterises so many of our systems and stifles innovation, local control and diversity.

Allied to this exploration of the principles of governance is a recognition that the costs of a centralised bureaucracy must be reduced to reflect the financial reality which is impacting upon public services throughout the world.

In the course of his presentation Don Ledingham will reflect upon changes to school governance on a global scale and use this context as a backdrop for the changes taking place in Scotland.

The evolving model of “Community Ownership of Schools”  being developed in Scotland is in direct response to a singular challenge presented by the 2007 OECD Report on the Quality and Equity of Scottish Education.  A key finding of that report was that the Scottish system was essentially a “command and control” model with relatively little autonomy or accountability being transferred to schools.  This leads in turn to a lack of innovation or diversity between schools.  The outcome of this uniformity of provision is that Scottish education is being gradually overtaken by other countries in relation to educational attainment.

Community Ownership of Schools rests upon a governance model whereby a local community takes on responsibility for delivering an agreed set of outcomes for it’s local primary schools and associated secondary school.  A local Board of Governers will oversee the development of the educational process for children aged 3-18. The funding body – currently the Local Authority – will provide significant freedom for the local community to develop local solutions to meeting the agreed outcomes. 

In many ways this approach reflects a genetic link to a time when Scottish education was seen to be an international beacon for high quality education through the “Parish School” system.  Parish schools succeeded because they were so closely associated with their communities and accountability for success lay at the school’s doorstep – as opposed to being “handed over” to a faceless bureaucratic system.

A key feature of the presentation will be to explore how the development of educational policy and practice will have change over the next ten years, as the classic solution of governments using additional funding as the main lever for change will be out of reach for most countries. Countries who can enable, encourage and capitalise upon local innovation and improvement, within existing resources  will move well beyond those who have relied upon regular funding injections to maintain momentum.

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?

School closures due to snow

Making a decision to close a school to pupils due to adverse weather conditions is one of the trickiest things a headteacher has to do.  The negative impact on pupils and the inconvenience to parents make it a decision that can never be taken lightly.

I was first put in such a position within three weeks of taking up my post as a Senior Depute Headteacher and having to take over when the Headteacher became ill. Some school buses couldn’t get in, some buses had to go home early otherwise they wouldn’t get the pupils home, and other pupils were in school and had no one to go home to.  The mechanics of making it all work are ingrained on my memory. It actually ended up with some pupils and staff having to stay in school overnight.

It was much the same when I took over as Headteacher at Dunbar Grammar School where within my first three weeks I had to close the school due to conditions they hadn’t experienced for over twenty years – I was beginning to think I was a Jonah as far as snow was concerned?

And so it was today when faced with a forecast of up to 15cm of snow to fall between 6.00pm and noon tomorrow.  My own preference has always been to leave the decision on school closure to the Headteacher as conditions can often vary considerably between one location and another within the same authority.  Nevertheless, the apparent certainty of the forecast, allied to the already extreme conditions and accumulations of snow in and around schools made it sensible to take the precautionary step to close all schools in East Lothian.  Such a decision is never taken lightly and involved a wide range of colleagues from the Council, most notably our friends in Transportation who have been doing such a great – and often thankless task – in keeping our roads clear.

It is certainly can be a case of being “damned if you do” and damned if you don’t” but I’m comfortable with the decision.  We will reconvene tomorrow afternoon to consider the situation for the rest of the week but I would dearly love to be able to move back to a situation where individual Headteachers could make a call based upon local conditions. 

I visited a number of schools today and was taken by the professionalism of staff who were focused upon the needs – and well being – of children as their paramount concern – whilst also keen to get back to  working as normal. It reminded me again – if that was necessary – just how lucky we are with all the people who work in our education service.

Federations of Schools

Schools in England have had the opportunity to join up as a local Federation of Schools since 2003 – see guidance document.

Glen Rikowski gives and excellent critique of the evolution of this approach and it would appear that it has become synonymous with the notion of businesses taking control of schools. Yet there are many aspects of the Federation of Schools model which might provide a template for our ideas for community ownership of schools – albeit in a very different direction of travel.

Categories of English Schools

As part of my on-going research into international school governance models I’ve copied the following from School Autonomy in England. It sets out the the main distinguishing features of the different legal categories of schools in England as follows:

Community Schools
· do not own land and buildings (these are owned by the local authority)
· receive recurrent funding through the LA
· receive funding for capital projects at 100 per cent
· have a governing body in which no group has an overall majority
· are not the legal employers of their staff (staff are employed by the LA)
· do not have primary responsibility for admissions (the LA has responsibility)
· must provide the National Curriculum
· may not have a religious character and must follow the locally agreed religious
education syllabus.

Foundation Schools
· may or may not be supported by a charitable foundation
· may own their land and buildings (if not, these are owned by a charitable foundation)
· receive recurrent funding through the local authority
· receive funding for capital projects at 100 per cent
· have a governing body in which no group has an overall majority, although different
arrangements may apply to foundation schools which are also Trust Schools
· are the legal employers of their staff, but teachers’ pay and conditions are bound by a
national framework
· have primary responsibility for admissions but must follow the School Admissions
· must provide the National Curriculum
· may or may not have a religious character; if not, must follow the locally agreed
religious education syllabus for the area.

Trust Schools (from September 2007)
· are foundation schools (as above) supported by a charitable foundation or trust
· have a governing body in which the trust appoints either a minority or a majority of
the governors; the decision as to which model to follow rests with the existing
governing body of the school seeking trust status
· will form the majority of new schools according to current government expectations.

Voluntary Controlled (VC) Schools
· do not own their land and buildings (these are normally owned by a charitable
· receive their recurrent funding through the LA
· are funded for capital projects at 100 per cent
· have a governing body in which the foundation governors form one group on the
governing body, but no group has a majority
· are not the legal employers of their staff (staff are employed by the LA)
· do not have primary responsibility for admissions (the LA has responsibility)
· must provide the National Curriculum
· have, in most cases, a religious character; if not, religious education must follow the
locally agreed syllabus for the area.

Voluntary Aided (VA) Schools
· do not own their land and buildings (these are owned by a charitable foundation)
· receive their recurrent funding through the LA
· are funded for capital projects but not at 100 per cent; must contribute a minimum of
10 per cent of costs
· have a governing body in which the foundation governors, that is those representing
the church, faith group or other trust, have an absolute majority over all other groups
of governor
· are the legal employers of their staff but teachers’ pay and conditions are bound by a
national framework
· have primary responsibility for admissions but must follow the School Admissions
· must provide the National Curriculum
· have, in most cases, a religious character; if not, religious education must follow the
locally agreed syllabus for the area.

City Technology Colleges (CTCs)
· are legally independent schools
· are supported by sponsors which constitute an educational trust and own or lease the
· receive recurrent funding through a funding agreement with the Secretary of State20
· receive funding for capital projects but not at 100 per cent; 20 per cent of the initial
capital cost was paid by private sector sponsors who continue to contribute 20 per cent
towards all capital projects
· are legal employers of their staff and set their own pay and conditions for teachers
· have primary responsibility for admissions and may select those applicants who are
most likely to benefit from the emphasis on science and technology; although they are
not bound by the School Admissions Code they are prohibited by their funding
agreements from selecting by general academic ability
· are not bound by the National Curriculum programmes of study, but are required to
provide a broad and balanced curriculum with an emphasis on science and technology,
and to teach the subjects of the National Curriculum
· are now being encouraged by the Government to convert to Academies.

· are legally independent schools, usually established as a charitable company limited
by guarantee; this charitable company, often referred to as the Academy Trust, is
incorporated with the sole intent of running one or more Academies
· are usually secondary schools but some Academies are all-through schools for threeto
· own their own land and buildings
· are supported by sponsors who provide around 10 per cent of the initial capital costs,
up to a cap of around £2 million
· receive recurrent funding from the DCSF on a comparable basis to other schools
within the same area; there is no requirement for a sponsor to contribute
· are, as a charitable company, the legal employer of their staff and responsible for
establishing teachers’ pay and conditions
· have a governing body whose members are the directors of the company constituted
under the Memorandum and Articles of the Academy Trust
· have a subject specialism
· are not bound by the National Curriculum
· have primary responsibility for admissions but are bound by the School Admissions
· are prohibited by their funding agreement from selecting by high academic ability
· may or may not have a religious character; the funding agreement specifies
requirements for religious education that parallel the requirements for maintained
· are increasing in number towards the Government’s target of 400; there were 83 in
operation in October 2007.

Some particular types of maintained school, based on categorisations that cut across the legal categories of maintained school, are listed below.

Specialist schools
· are secondary schools belonging to any legal category
· may or may not have a religious character
· must raise £50,000 in sponsorship (£20,000 for the smallest schools) and receive
additional government funding
· have a special focus on their chosen specialist subject area: arts, business and
enterprise, engineering, humanities, language, mathematics & computing, music,
science, sports and technology, or they may combine any two specialisms
· are expected to establish a distinct identity through their chosen specialism while still
providing the National Curriculum
· may select up to 10 per cent of their intake by aptitude for the specialist area, but not
by general academic ability (unless a designated grammar school).

Faith schools
· are designated by the Secretary of State as having a religious character
· may be either a foundation or a voluntary (aided or controlled) school, but not a
community school
· are most commonly associated with the Church of England or the Roman Catholic
Church, although there are now a small but increasing number of publicly funded
Muslim, Sikh and Jewish schools
· if oversubscribed, may give priority for admissions to children who are members of,
or who practise, their faith or denomination
· are exempt from the locally agreed syllabus for religious education – religious
education is provided in accordance with the school’s trust deed or in accordance with
the beliefs of the designated religion or denomination.

Grammar schools
· are secondary schools belonging to any legal category
· may or may not be a faith school
· may or may not have a subject specialism
· may select pupils for general academic ability and may leave places unfilled if there
are insufficient applicants of the required ability. Ability is usually assessed

Charter School Movement (USA)

Charter schools are elementary or secondary schools in the United States that receive public money but have been freed from some of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results, which are set forth in each school’s charter. Charter schools are opened and attended by choice.

While charter schools provide an alternative to other public schools, they are part of the public education system and are not allowed to charge tuition. Where enrollment in a charter school is over subscribed, admission is frequently allocated by lottery-based admissions. In a 2008 survey of charter schools, 59% of the schools reported that they had a waiting list, averaging 198 students. Some charter schools provide a curriculum that specializes in a certain field—e.g. arts, mathematics, etc. Others attempt to provide a better and more efficient general education than nearby public schools.

Some charter schools are founded by teachers, parents, or activists who feel restricted by traditional public schools. State-authorised charters (schools not chartered by local school districts are often established by non-profit groups, universities, and some government entities. Additionally, school districts sometimes permit corporations to open chains of for-profit charter schools. In the United States, though the percentage of students educated in charter schools varies by school district, only in the New Orleans Public Schools system are the majority of children educated within independent public charter schools.

(copied from wikipedia)

Frequently Asked Questions about Charter Schools

US Charter Schools Movement website

School Choice, Kiwi-Style

THE NEW ZEALAND EDUCATION REFORMS link  (my highlights in bold)

More than a decade ago, New Zealand faced problems similar to those in Canadian public schools, rapidly expanding costs and declining performance. The Kiwis made bold, across-the-board reforms, with positive results.

New Zealand’s government had created a massive, unresponsive educational system where parents had little or no influence. The system was failing to meet acceptable achievement levels. There was outright bureaucratic capture, and little or no performance accountability. The system consumed 70 cents of every education dollar, with only 30 cents spent in the classroom. As in Canada, budget figures underestimated these overheads; what were officially described as “administration costs” represented a convenient fiction.

The New Zealand government administered education through a highly bureaucratic structure. The Ministry of Education, the central body that answered to the federal government, made all of the rules and controlled expenditures with prescriptive regulations. It determined the curriculum, how it would be taught, and how performance would be measured. In every region, the ministry established Boards of Education to whom it delegated limited power.

Since reforms were implemented, about 67 cents of each education dollar is now spent in the classroom, more than double the previous amount. Parents play the dominant role in the educational choices for their children. Learning has improved, and classroom size is down.

Education continues to be fully funded by the central government from general income and consumption tax revenues. Every child is still entitled by law to a tax-supported education until completing secondary school. Little else remains the same.


Comprehensive reform in New Zealand reversed the top-down style of governance. All Boards of Education have been eliminated. Boards of Trustees have been established for each school. Parents of the children at that school run for election to boards, which are unpaid positions. The Trustees deliver accountability directly into the hands of the parents. The Board of Trustees makes all spending decisions, and has full responsibility for what happens at their school.

The Board of Trustees writes the Charter for their school, and is bound by and accountable for achieving its goals. The Charter can only be changed after a consultative process with the parents.

The role of the Ministry has been changed to that of the body that passes to the Board of Trustees a block of money determined by a formula based on the number of students at the school. It is also responsible for auditing school performance against its Charter requirements. Reflecting its new role, the Ministry was reduced to about half its former size.

Because education is the most important influence on a child’s future, next to parenting, New Zealanders participated in a significant debate over parental rights regarding education. They decided that parents have an absolute right to choose the school at which their children will be educated. The consequence: good schools with good teachers get more students, less capable schools with less capable teachers get fewer students, which means that less money and fewer teachers are employed at that school.

Private schools may get state funding equivalent to public schools. To do so they must make an application to the Minister of Education to integrate. This process requires them to prove their buildings, grounds and facilities meet code standards. About 15 percent of all schools are private, and to date about 90 percent of these schools have integrated.

Once integrated, private schools have the right to maintain their special character (normally religious education and ethics), though they must teach the core curriculum and be open and actively teaching the students for a prescribed number of days each school year. For this they get identical funding to public schools, including capital funding. They may compete to educate any children. This process started in the 1970’s, and is now non-controversial.

The elimination of bureaucracy freed up large quantities of money, and the national government decided that all of it would remain a part of education spending. This decision allowed major investments in classroom technology, a significant investment in teaching aides and bringing all maintenance projects up to date.


The Third International Mathematics and Science Examination gave international achievement tests to samples of students in multiple countries. Students were tested in the 4th, 8th and 12th grades. The figures below present 1995 mathematics achievement scores for the United States and New Zealand compared to the international average.

Achievement scores are influenced by a variety of factors other than the quality of schools. For instance, New Zealand introduces mathematics and science into the curriculum at later grades than is commonly the case. Although this curriculum severely handicaps the performance of New Zealand’s 4th grade students on international exams, it is ultimately of no real consequence.

The influence of school quality, however, increases as a student spends more time in the school system. Idiosyncratic factors have largely played themselves out by the graduating year. The 12th Grade tests are ultimately more important than earlier ones, reflecting the quality of skills held by students entering college and the workforce.

The 1995 Mathematics TIMSS exams reveal that New Zealand 4th graders start 30 points below the international average, but they quickly catch up, with 8th graders being only 5 points below the international average, and 12th graders scoring 22 points above the international average. Obviously, once mathematics has been introduced, the lessons are learned well in New Zealand.


Ironically, the cautionary lesson to be drawn from the New Zealand experience is to avoid school choice programs that include only public schools. The key problem with the New Zealand program lies in the fact that the government retained ownership over school facilities, and has been reluctant both to spend money expanding popular schools and to close unpopular schools. This is a problem for those who argue for keeping choice within the realm of public schools, not for those advocating full school choice. Such political considerations interfere with the functioning of the education market in New Zealand, but would be less of a problem under a full choice program. Private and charter schools in the North America can and do open, expand and close their doors, free of considerations about government capital support.

The “cautionary tale” for competition models is the fact that some schools will gain students while others will lose them under competition. The authors, however, acknowledge that many of the schools having difficulty under the reforms are the same schools that had trouble under the previous centralized regime. The authors have therefore mistaken a real gain of the reforms for a problem. New Zealand schools esteemed by parents have grown, while unpopular schools have shrunk. What this means is that fewer Kiwi children today attend schools which parents regard as being of relatively low quality than was the case beforethe reforms. This is a victory to be celebrated rather than a failure of the reforms.


Although not without its imperfections, school reform in New Zealand has, as stated earlier, been quite successful, and is supported by a substantial majority of the population. Individual schools have much more control over the style and content of their offerings, and budget decisions reflect the values of educators and parents instead of the needs of politicians, bureaucrats and teachers’ unions.

Post-reform, the proportion of resources dedicated to front-line educating in New Zealand has doubled, while administrative layers have been peeled away. This change in priorities is reflected in New Zealand’s improved ranking in international test scores.

Boston Pilot Schools Network

I came across a very interesting project from Boston, USA, which sets out to give schools more autonomy and accountability.  Known as the Boston Schools Project its has been running since 1994.  The results are impressive and include:

·         Pilot Schools are attractive to Boston families, as evidenced by high waiting lists;
·         Pilot Schools have high holding power, as evidenced by high student attendance and low transfer rates
·         Pilots Schools are safe, as evidenced by low suspension rates
·         Pilot Schools are successful in educating students, as evidenced by low grade retention rates; standardized test scores (in MCAS and Stanford 9) that are comparable or higher than the BPS district averages for most Pilot Schools; and high graduation rates
·         Pilot Schools provide students with expanded life opportunities, as evidenced by high college-going rates.  

I was very interested in what they describe as their Conditions of Autonomy:

Five Pilot School Areas of Autonomy, plus Accountability

1. Staffing: Pilot schools have the freedom to hire and excess their staff in order to create a unified school community. This includes:

Deciding on staffing patterns which best meet the academic, social, and emotional needs of students
Hiring staff that best fit the needs of the school, regardless of their current status (member of the district or not, although every teacher hired becomes a member of the local teachers union)
Excessing staff (into the district pool) that do not fulfill the needs of the school

2. Budget: Pilot schools have a lump sum per pupil budget in which the school has total discretion to spend in the manner that provides the best programs and services to students and their families. This includes:

A lump sum per pupil budget, the sum of which is equal to other BPS schools within that grade span
The district has moved toward itemizing all central office costs, and allows Pilot schools to choose to purchase identified discretionary district services or to not purchase them and include them in the school’s lump sum per pupil budget

3. Curriculum and Assessment: Pilot schools have the freedom to structure their curriculum and assessment practices to best meet students’ learning needs. While acknowledging that all Pilot schools are expected to administer any state- and district-required test, these schools are given the flexibility to best determine the school-based curriculum and assessment practices that will prepare students for state and district assessments. This includes:

Schools are freed from local district curriculum requirements
Graduation requirements are set by the school, not by the district, with an emphasis on competency-based, performance-based assessment.

4. Governance and Policies: Pilot schools have the freedom to create their own governance structure that has increased decision making powers over budget approval, principal selection and firing, and programs and policies, while being mindful of state requirements on school councils. This includes:

The school’s site council takes on increased governing responsibilities, including the following: principal selection, supervision, and firing, with final approval by the superintendent in all cases; budget approval; and setting of school policies

The school has flexibility to be freed from all district policies, and set its own policies that the school community feels will best help students to be successful. This includes policies such as promotion, graduation, attendance, and discipline

5. School Calendar: Pilot schools have the freedom to set longer school days and calendar years for both students and faculty. In particular, research supports a correlation between faculty planning time spent on teaching and learning and increased student achievement. Scheduling which allows for summer and school year faculty planning time contributes to a more unified school community and educational program. This includes:

Increasing planning and professional development time for faculty
Increasing learning time for students
Organizing the school schedule in ways that maximize learning time for students and planning time for faculty (e.g., longer days Monday through Thursday in order to have half-days for students on Fridays, enabling faculty to have a significant planning and professional development block every Friday afternoon).

Accountability: Pilot Schools Network Statement

(Adopted 4/2000) The Pilot Schools believe that having in place a strong system of assessing student progress is vital to creating excellent schools in which all students learn and achieve at high levels. We believe in standards that lead to excellent schools, not standardization. We support the development of network-wide competencies and assessments that, while providing common information on how schools are doing, also allow for and encourage uniqueness in approaches to instruction and assessment among schools. Ultimately, good assessment systems should open doors for all students rather than shut them, and help students graduate with a range of options.