This is the first of six Witness Statements from 2017 reflecting upon the implementation of Community Based Management of Schools in East Lothian.
I’ve been asked to reflect upon our experience of establishing a Board of Management for our Community Cluster of schools.
Looking back it’s hard to believe that we first started to talk about this over seven years ago. At that time the education system had remained virtually unchanged in Scotland for nearly 40 years, characterised by what most of us now recognise to be the cosy inter-dependency between between schools and local authorities.
In 2011 I was an innocent member of a our Parent Council and had stumbled into becoming one of the PC representatives on our Cluster Management Board. I didn’t have any particular expertise but I fulfilled one of the criteria they had set down in that I had a background in local voluntary service. On reflection the matrix approach whereby the Board had to be made up of a mix of people with different backgrounds and areas of expertise has perhaps been one of the most important things in making it the success it has eventually become.
I remember when we were setting up the Board for the first time how threatened Headteachers had been by the thought that they were going to be accountable to a bunch of amateurs who would only serve to interfere in their business. I suppose that was a legitimate concern and it might have been the case had we not been given the support in the initial stages to develop our expertise and capacity to understand our role and the world of education.
Our Cluster had been the third East Lothian community to volunteer to establish a Board of Management. We’d left it a year as we wanted to spend time developing our skills and understanding prior to making the leap. I know that one of the two initial communities who volunteered really struggled due to their resistance to accept any external help in the development phase. They had leapt into making key strategic decisions without properly understanding the consequences of their actions on the long term viability of education in their community. Perhaps their key mistake had been to see themselves in opposition to the other communities in East Lothian and that their success would only come about of they were able to draw in pupils from other areas, thereby maximising their income at the expense of other communities. However, they had not taken into account that the authority had changed the funding system to only fund a student from outwith a community to the sum of 50% of a similar student from within the community. The result was that although schools rolls had increased, their equivalent budget was greatly reduced.
A second problem with the early adopters had been that they had not grasped the change in relationship between the authority and the schools. In the previous system the authority always held back a sum of cash in the centre to cover unforeseen eventualities such as long term absence, emergency repairs, or even sending children to residential homes. The new system had seen all of that funding stripped out of the centre and devolved to the Board of Management and Headteachers in the Cluster. Yet six months into the first year one of the Clusters had come back to the authority asking for more cash as they had run up a huge bill for paying for an enhancement to their ICT system. Of course the authority had no option but to refuse to help out as remaining funding was now directed to the other schools who had not adopted the Community Based Management status.
This had proved to be an important lesson and had certainly focused our minds when we decided to embark down this path. It has proved to be a steep learning curve for our headteachers who have become much more independent and business focused which has led to much improved use of assets and budgets than had been the case previously.
This leads me neatly into describing the management structure which we have developed in our Cluster. The early adopters had moved quite quickly to appointing a Chief Executive/Principal of their Community Cluster from one of their Headteachers. Having seen how this system had so quickly centralised power and disenfranchised the other Headteachers we wanted to avoid a similar scenario in our own community. We were perhaps fortunate to have a group of outstanding Headteachers, who despite managing schools of disparate natures and sizes, seemed to to appreciate the benefits of working together as part of a team. Following advice from the support team which the Authority had put in place to help our transition we established a system of leadership rotation on an 18 month cycle. The Cluster Leader does not receive any more pay but does receive additional management support in their school for the duration their responsibility.
The wonderful thing about our Management Meetings is that they really do focus upon the education process as it affects our community. As someone who has a natural leaning towards the early years it’s been great to have discussions which sees this stage clearly within a 3-18 perspective. The other remarkable outcome of the change has been that it has reduced the workload of staff in our schools. The fact that most of our developments are shared across our schools means that we avoid the repetition of effort which so characterised the previous system.
Our Board meets once every two months but the various sub-committees meet in the intervening months. I’ve served on the Community Engagement; Literacy Development; and Finance Committees over the last five years. Each committee has a range of representatives and at least one of the Headteachers as an advisor. One the great successes has been to involve young people as members of our committees. The fact that they see that they can influence policy and associated budgets has really changed how they perceive their place in our community. The second advantage of the Cluster approach is how we have been able to capitalise upon the incredible range of expertise within our community. I was always a bit worried that the approach would just ask parents on Parent Council do have to do even more – with the result that it just scared people away. The fact that we have eight schools to draw parent representatives from, plus the fact that we can draw in a similar number of community representatives, has really strengthened our capacity to conduct our business in a professional manner. Oops – just about missed out one of the most important groups on the Management Board – the teachers themselves. This has been a revelation, particularly in relation to budget issues, where the financial transparency has helped to create a true community solution focused approach to meeting some of our key challenges.
I know one of the other concerns people had with the initial proposals was that Parent Councils would become marginalised by the establishment of a Board of Management. The key to avoiding this has been in the protocols and rules of governance which we and the Local Authority put in place at the outset. By having real clarity regarding responsibilities and duties have avoided some of the problems which plagued the early adopters – namely what happens when some schools want to do their own thing. By ensuring that we all signed up to a collective partnership has ensured that such an outcome has been avoided.
Our relationship with the Local Authority has waxed and waned over the last five years. I think they have had as many problems with the shift as we have had and have particularly found it difficult to realise that they have to “let go”. Nevertheless, I think we now have it just about right with the Authority having established a clear set of outcomes for us to achieve and a clearly understood funding mechanism. In the first few years the funding seemed to have too many strings attached and we felt that we were just replicating the previous system in another guise. However, as the Authority has become more confident in our ability they have also realised the benefits to be had from giving us more autonomy.
One of their biggest concerns related to how we would support the needs of the most vulnerable in our community, whether they have learning difficulties, behavioural problems, disabilities, social or emotional problems, or issues in home circumstances. It’s probably in this respect that we have all had to make the most significant changes in our outlook. I know that when I first came onto the Board I was of the opinion that the Authority was simply shifting the financial burden from the themselves to the local communities. However, as we became more experienced we began to see that many of the extra costs for which a budget was retained at the centre could be better managed if devolved to us. One of our great successes has been in relation to residential care budgets. When we asked how much had been spent on children from our community to provide them with residential care either in East Lothian or beyond over the previous four years we were staggered by the total, e.g. up to £4000 per week per young person. We negotiated with the Authority to devolve this budget to us based upon an average of the previous five years. They agreed to devolve this to us less 15% – on account that they reckoned that they needed to keep some capacity to manage eventualities elsewhere in the Authority.
We have used this money to invest in our child and family support system in our community. This is a specialist team of employees who work in our schools in an the community to support our vulnerable families and children. The fact that it’s done by us for us has also enabled us to establish a team of volunteers who enhance our provision. I think I can speak for everyone when I say that this has had a really positive effect on how we feel about our community.
Of course finances have been incredibly tight over the last few years. The fact that our budget reduced by nearly 10% in the first three years didn’t help but the fact that we were able to gather together some of the funding streams into a single community pot helped us to create some very creative solutions to our problems. This was particularly the case when we established a shared administrative support team for the schools in our community and linked them with the Business Manager in the secondary school who now supports all of our schools. We also have a large number of staff who work either between primary schools or between primary schools and the secondary school. This has really enhanced the notion of a collaborative community and has dramatically changed the idea of there being different sectors – certainly our kids don’t see it as being a huge shift – particularly as the curriculum for P7 and S1 curriculum is delivered by a single team of staff.
Of course, we are still looking at the potential of seeking Charitable Trust status. The real incentive is that it would save us from paying non-domestic rates which currently amount to nearly £600,000 for all of our schools. I know that there are members of staff who worry about that transition but their concerns are certainly a lot less now than they were when we first embarked upon this journey.
I know that I’ve only been able to touch upon just a few of the vast range of challenges and opportunities that have emerged since 2012. Nevertheless, I doubt whether any of us would want to return to the previous system. As I recall the original proposal was to promote community ownership of schools – I can assure you that although that journey has been bumpy it has certainly been worthwhile – both for the children and staff who have benefited from the change – and most certainly for our communities who have been drawn together as never before in a common enterprise.
If you have any questions I’d be glad to try to answer them if you leave a comment.