This is the second of 6 witness statements reflecting upon Community Based Management of Schools from the perspective of 2017. See Witness Statement (1)
Witness Statement (2)
So you want me to give you an honest opinion on the debacle that has been Community Based Management of Schools? Do you really mean that? OK – you have been warned!
I had been the Headteacher of a school in one of the first two clusters in East Lothian to take on Community Based Management status in 2011. I’d been reluctant about getting involved from the very start. Partly due to the lack of clarity about what it meant for us as Headteachers and the fact that I really enjoyed my job and didn’t want to take on any more responsibility for schools which really didn’t have anything in common with my own, aside from the fact that we were in the same town.
Given the inital publicity about the proposals a lot of parents and community members generated a momentum which we couldn’t really hold back but I knew from the start that it was destined to be a disaster.
I’d always set my ultimate career goal to be a Headteacher and I think I was really good at my job. Our school had received a very positive HMIE inspection report in 2010 we were judged to have a good capacity for improvement. I had a great Parent Council and we were managing our resources within the budget which the authority allocated to us. However, at that time around 2010 the entire country was overwhelmed by the deepest recession which the UK had experienced since the war and we were all caught in the headlights of that crisis. I reckon it was this concern that panicked us into taking such a drastic step. Nevertheless, I was confident that we could have managed to chart a course through that time if we had been left to get on with by ourselves.
My biggest issue with the proposal was that I saw it to simply be a system for the authority to pass on all the risk and responsibility for budgets to the schools. Over the previous few years more and more of the budget responsibility had been devolved to us but there were still some key budgets which were retained at the centre. I had always thought that to be fair as I believed it to be important that we needed to be protected from the burden of unexpected costs. It was my job to manage the quality of learning and teaching in my school – anything which detracted from that focus could only be of detriment to children in our care.
The second problem I foresaw was the inevitability of ill-informed parental interference in the educational process and operational management of my school (in fact it was to be worse than that as it wasn’t just parents but members of our community who were given the power to interfere!). Our Parent Council had been a great success and was certainly an improvement on the previous School Board. We had a group of parents who were representative of all stages within our school and I provided them with monthly reports on all aspects of the school. They took great interest in our curriculum and the learning and teaching process and helped us on numerous occasions to liaise with the authority on issues of mutual concern. They also provided a excellent social unit to bring parents together and also to fundraise to assist the school. So why change? – I’m still trying to work that one out!
That first Board of Management was skewed towards a particular type of parent. If I were to be generous I would describe them to be evangelical in their desire to “improve” the school. It was as if the leash had been released and all of a sudden an incredible range of initiatives and programmes – most of which were driven by individuals who had their own specific, and very personal, interest in that topic. In addition to this we had some members of our community who became members of the Board who held long time grudges against the school – dating back to well before my time. They saw this as an opportunity to “fix” the school – even though it had moved on during the intervening years. A consequence of that was that individual teachers were often identified as being the problem and entire meetings were taken up with trying to work out what could be done about “Ms ……”
You can imagine the difficulty that such a situation created. I tried to protect my Parent Council from the Board of Management but it was inevitable that tensions would grow as the Board saw it necessary to go one way whilst we – as a school – felt it necessary to go another. A key contributor to those earliest problems was the fact the the authority no longer provided each school with their own budget but allocated a budget to the entire cluster in a single lump sum. Well, you can imagine the bun fight that ensued as each of the Heads and their parental representatives tried to argue for a greater proportion of the diminishing resources. I’ll never forget on one occasion how one parent arrived at the meeting having worked out that they had 15% more children who lived in the most deprived areas in our town – and tried to use that for a reason for gaining a funding advantage. It was things like this that started to set Headteachers against each other. I’ll never forgive the authority for that as we had always previously got on so well and had even socialised together on many occasions. As you know, once relationships have broken down there is no easy way to build them up again.
Another consequence was the complete undermining of my authority within the school. I no longer could make quick decisions about matters which previously I could have taken in a couple of minutes. The fact that we were expected to follow common policies within our community made us lose some of the valued systems that we had built up over a number of years. This was particularly the case with some of our curricular programmes which we had to drop in order to fit in with the rest
The other real issue I had with the whole idea was how it forced us to apply common behaviour support practices. The cluster had also decided to invest in some additional support for young people outside school and had decided to pay for two Community Learning and Development leaders who were paid to work with children outwith the school following reference from staff in the school. What really got to me was the fact that a significant part of their salaries was actually coming from my budget!
I could go onto list some of the myriad of problems we encountered: refusal of the authority to take responsibility for repairs and maintenance (they said we had the money); having to manage the long term absence budget with no back stop; no authority curricular support officers; a parental expectation that they could get anything they wanted if they just spoke to the Board; an expectation that extra-curricular activities were now part of every teachers job; and a reluctance for anyone in the authority to accept any responsibility for anything.
The final straw came when the Board of Management decided they wanted to appoint a Chief Operating Officer from amongst our Headteacher ranks. They had increased the remuneration for this post by nearly 25% through the job sizing process but also by adding an additional premium from our own resources. I did feel obliged to apply as the longest serving Headteacher in the cluster but was not surprised when they appointed another of the Headteachers in the cluster to the post. I resigned/retired not long after that time but I have heard from friends that things have continued to go from bad to worse. It won’t surprise me in the least when I hear that this crazy scheme has been abandoned and that someone has come up with the bright idea of a system where schools – once again – are given their own independence to operate solely to meet the needs of the children who attend their own school.
One of the things these scenarios may be useful in helping to identify are key decision points. By that I mean decisions which have the potential to be more significant over time than they might initially seem.