Community Based Management of Schools: A migration, not a jump

I recently met with Headteacher colleagues in East Lothian to discuss Community Based Management of Schools.   The following is a summary of that meeting and will form the core of a briefing paper for members of staff and interested parties in the run up to our conference on Community Based Management of Schools to be held on the 22nd April at Queen Margaret University.  The paper is not intended to answer every query relating to the concept but it will hopefully set out the parameters within which an informed discussion can take place.

It’s important from the outset to emphasise that we have been considering the potential of such a system since August 2006 when we first queried whether or not we (the central Education Service of East Lothian Council) added sufficient value to the education process in East Lothian.  As a former Headteacher I was convinced – and remain so today – that the school is the most effective unit of educational improvement and is best placed to sustain these improvements over time. I also believe that those who work directly with learners have the most informed and credible opinions about the educational arrangements that will benefit those young people, particularly if their focus is on the learning and teaching process.  In line with this principle we have continued to seek to put power in the hands of those who have a the most significant personal stake in the well-being of the school, and have sought to support this by devolving resources to the point where they can have the most effect.

Over the intervening years we have continued to build our local approach by developing the cluster model with primary schools and their local secondary school working in ever closer harmony. We have supported this model by moving to an outcome-based approach towards improvement which recognises that a one-size-fits-all approach to development does not work across our very different communities in East Lothian.  This has empowered schools and clusters to develop their own solutions and strategies to achieve these outcomes, as opposed to slavishly having to implement a universal strategy which may not suit their context.

As our cluster model has developed so we have realigned our internal support support systems to reflect this change, hence our change to the validation of school self-evaluations based upon mutual trust and engagement – as opposed to a mini-inspection process.  In a similar fashion we have moved all of our central management responsibilities to match the 3-18 age range – as opposed to discrete sectoral responsibilities – and matched this with a greater emphasis on local autonomy. The impact of this change has been to see a marked improvement in the outcome of East Lothian school inspections by HMIE over the last three years, all of which have identified a real capacity for improvement within our schools.

Over the last four years, therefore, we have been on a journey, which can be characterised as a shift from centralised, top-down control,  to one where we have collectively created a much more responsive, sustainable, fit-for-purpose and user-centred model of service delivery.

This gradual migration from central control to cluster autonomy has been influenced by a number of factors. The first of these can be traced to the Scottish Executive’s 2006 publication entitled Transforming Public Services. In the introduction to that document the Scottish Executive challenged local communities and public services to work with them to identify reforms that will “transform” service delivery in their area  – whilst recognising that some services will be delivered nationally, regionally or locally.

In 2007, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published a report on the quality of Scottish education. One of the key recommendations within that report that there was a lack of innovation and diversity in Scottish education caused by a lack of autonomy for school leaders. This was followed by East Lothian Council’s new political administration’s Corporate Plan 2008-2011, which set out a commitment to more localised community planning and service delivery.  Finally, a factor which was not apparent in 2006 – but which has taken on much greater significance  – is the financial crisis which is only just beginning to impact on Scottish public services.

It is against this backdrop that we have been encouraged to explore and consider alternative models of educational delivery in East Lothian which capitalise upon our strengths, take advantage of our current direction of travel, and seek to direct all available funding to the classroom. Nevertheless, regardless of the current budgetary pressures we would still be exploring Community Based Management of Schools as a model of educational delivery in East Lothian. The key driver here lies in what we see to be the importance of schools  to their local communities, and communities to their local schools.  For what we have in mind is a means of closing the gap between the local community and the schools which serve that same community through the development of a system which builds upon the tried and tested model  of co-operative practice.

With the exception of parents (and even for parents that involvement is limited) the current system excludes the local community from any involvement  in the management and governance of schools. However, the exceptional resources and expertise which reside in all of our East Lothian communities would suggest that our schools would have much to gain from tapping into that social capital, especially in a time of challenge.  We are therefore committed to seeing people in our communities not as consumers but as participants and partners in the development of local services.  By extending the local co-operative governance model to include all schools within a cluster, as opposed to individual schools,  we believe that we can ensure a rich representation on a Board of Management which can sometimes prove difficult for smaller schools to achieve. The added benefit of seeing school education as a coherent path for children and young pelople aged 3- 18 will mean that a strong focus can be placed on transitions and mutual support – two areas which are often weaknesses in the current system.

Thereare numerous international examples to show that local accountability and collective responsibility for education can raise aspirations and educational achievement for young people.  The challenge for us will be to create model in East Lothian which anticipates and avoids some of the pitfalls that have emerged in other systems of local governance, such as selection, exclusion, and a failure to support the needs of more vulnerable children – whether these needs be social and emotional, learning, or associated with disability.

It is this latter point, i.e. advocating for, and supporting the needs of the more vulnerable children in our communuities upon which we would intend to build our East Lothian model. For such a model to succeed it should be able to actively demonstrate that every child is “valued  by”and “belongs to” their community, and that the concept of “these are our bairns” is lived out in practice in the school and the community through an integrated approach to supporting the needs of all children and young people.  We believe such an aspiration to be exceptionally worthwhile – if also exceptionally difficult to achieve.  However, there is significant risk if all centralised resources and mechanisms for supporting such children were to be “devolved” to the local level in a single step.  What we want to promote is an  approach which seeks to gradually migrate services to a local level, only when it is deemed to be more effective for young people – as opposed to adhering at all times to a point of principle.

Our proposed model of Community Based Management of Schools  for East Lothian would build upon our existing cluster system in the following manner:

1. Identification and Devolution of as much and as many of the resources currently required to deliver education in that area to the cluster.

2.  The Council would identify an unambiguous set of educational outcomes, with clear standards of delivery, to be achieved by the cluster on the Council’s behalf.

3. A Community Board of Management would be established to be accountable with local headteachers for the delivery of these outcomes and the use of devolved resources.  The Board of Management would be made up of key stakeholders within the local community including, teachers, parents, headteachers, community members, young people, elected members.

4. The Council would monitor the quality of the outcomes at regular intervals and ensure that statutory obligations ere being satisfied.

5. The Council would gradually migrate more of the budget and associated areas of responsibility once the Council has satisfied itself that the cluster had the capacity to meet the standards of delivery required and, thereafter, realign the central provision of services accordingly. 

6. As the system evolved the size and scale of the centre would become significantly reduced as responsibilities were shifted to the local level.

7. In the implementation phase the Council would continue to focus  upon developing the capacity of clusters to work effectively  to deliver the agreed outcomes.

The initial publicity that Community Based Management of Schools received was initially generated by the inclusion of a single line in a budget consultation referring to Trust status for schools, which was one of a wide range of possible cost reductions in education arising from the £1.9 million that we currently pay in the form of non-domestic rates for school buildings, which charitable trusts do not have to pay, e.g. Loretto School, Jewel and Esk College, Queen Margaret University.

It is important to point out that we do not see any of our clusters being in a position to move to Trust status in the immediate future.  The key term to be used here is that of migration.  For we have been on a journey over the last four years and it may be that some time in the future one or more of our clusters may be in a position to seek Trust status and  use the savings generated through such a change in status to the benefit of education within their community. However, we would suggest that such a destination only forms the last 5% of our total journey and may or may not be a place where our communities decide they want to go.

Next Steps

1. Conference at Queen Margaret University 22nd April. Invitees include all East Lothian headteachers, union representatives, local elected members, parent council representatives, community council representatives, and guests from other local authorities, Scottish Government, Queen Margaret University.  A key part of the conference will be to reflect upon a series of questions which have been generated about the model over the last six months.

2. Stakeholder Group established to reflect upon conference findings and to conduct further research and reflection into Community Based Management of Schools – with a particular focus upon how we might manage the identified risks associated with the model.

3. December 2010 Report submitted to East Lothian Council outlining the finding of the Group and making recommendations to Council.

4. Depending upon the decision by Council we could abandon or modify our vision for Community Based Management of Schools, or develop an implementation plan along the lines described above which would allow one or two clusters to volunteer to pilot the scheme from August 20011.

5 thoughts on “Community Based Management of Schools: A migration, not a jump

  1. I come at this issue with a background of working as a supplier of IT solutions over many years delivering projects to the public sector, in particular local authorities around the UK. I am not an educationalist – I have no specific background in this area other than being a parent, a member of an East Lothian Parent Council and an active member of other community groups. I would also stress that I am relatively apolitical.

    The underlying philosophy of individual and community empowerment, devolving more power away from the top towards the grass-roots level, appears to be of broad appeal to almost all political parties (although they all call it different things). It is difficult to argue against it so it is an easy principle for politicians to espouse – as one of the articles below says “who wouldn’t be attracted by a bigger say in how they [public services] are delivered”.

    I guess this whole thing is based on the underlying idea that you are far more likely to take care of something if you feel a sense of ownership over it. I do see that and feel there are probably lots of public service areas which could benefit from having a stronger sense of local ownership – not least strengthening the local democratic process itself.

    While I personally welcome some additional control being passed to parents through the sort of ideas that Don promotes here I think there are also many risks. However I think it is vital to recognise these risks in advance and come up with mitigating actions. Many of the problems have been highlighted in recent days with the publication of the Conservative Manifesto. This strongly advocates the concepts of “big society” and “people power”. However my views here are not a party political ‘dig’ at the Tories. It would be pretty easy to apply almost exactly the same points to all the party manifestos. It is more an issue about the best organisational and management model for running public services – in this case schools.

    See for example:
    (1) Conservative ‘big society’ plan risks increasing corruption –
    (2) A people power fraud that promises mass privatisation –
    (3) Mary Dejevsky: We already do too much. Don’t expect us to govern, too
    (4) Election 2010: The Conservatives have a vision of ‘big society’. But who has got time for DIY government? –
    (5) Cameron’s ‘big society’ is a toy town –
    (6) Manifestos: rhetoric and reality –

    Many of my concerns with greater ‘grassroots devolution’ are highlighted across several of these articles notably:

    (1) It can lead to important decisions being put in the hands of a small number of, in some cases, not very well qualified individuals who are offering their time for free and therefore may have their own self-interested motivations for volunteering. In the worst case this can lead to biased decisions, mis-management and even local level corruption.
    (2) In many cases, only certain types of people are prepared to offer their time – so some areas will benefit from an extensive pool of committed volunteers while others are likely to have serious problems finding anyone prepared to offer their time. Ultimately this leads to widespread inequalities with a ‘postcode lottery’ of different services being offered depending on exactly which area you live in. Is there anything wrong with pupils having the option to study Japanese, Spanish, German and French at Dunbar Grammar while those at Musselburgh Grammar only get the option of French? Maybe, maybe not, but you could easily come up with more sensitive examples of differences.
    (3) There is an assumption by political parties that significant proportions of the population have the time, energy and commitment (ignoring skills and knowledge) to invest their time voluntarily in running public services. Why? The percentages of people volunteering are still fairly low and the pressures on their time are huge, not least right now due to work commitments. What is the evidence for assuming that everyone wants to get involved in delivering public services to their local area?
    (4) Trying to get a single unanimous voice from a community group is, in my experience, extremely difficult. Very often the silent majority who are not overly bothered about a particular issue or who are too time strapped to attend a meeting are ignored. The voices of a vocal minority often dominate because they have some form of self-interest in the outcome. Getting agreement on an approach and policies to adopt across a cluster of schools, a very serious matter that impacts on the education of our children, could be fraught with difficulty and ultimately end up being extremely socially divisive. One community (say, North Berwick) may want to do something that another community (say, Gullane) in the same cluster finds extremely unappealing – reaching agreement when the stakes are high is far from simple. The only way I can possibly see this type of arrangement working is at the level of individual schools where boards act on behalf of their school.
    (5) I can’t see how devolution of power to school clusters could lead to greater efficiency savings. Surely this approach is likely to lead to more over-lapping services (and higher costs) as they will be less well coordinated. The often quoted example is that schools right now have little incentive to conserve energy as their energy consumption is bought in bulk across EL. If schools were managed independently and had to purchase their own energy then there would be an immediate incentive to adopt conservation measures. This is true to some extent although ignores the fact that schools would need significant up-front investment to allow them to control their electricity and fuel usage before they could do anything like this. However do we need devolved school clusters in order to adopt better energy practices? No, we just need incentives whereby a school can recoup any of its unused energy budget and spend this on something else next year. What is needed is greater financial flexibility in budget spending and some ‘carrots’ to incentivise school managers.
    (6) Assessment of the performance of schools across EL is also likely to become problematic if they all start operating more independently. This is not a major problem provided more measurable standards are available that can be universally adopted across all clusters in order to ensure a minimum ‘common denominator’. But are these standards available right now? I don’t believe they are – Curriculum for Excellence is (as I understand – I may be wrong) still rather vague on areas like this.
    (7) The whole ideology down-plays the value of ‘expertise’ in favour of ‘local knowledge is best’. It undervalues the role of ‘neutral experts’ who have been trained in a specific area and have built up a potentially huge volume of experience doing a job and talking to stakeholders. Suddenly we are suggesting that a random selection of civic minded individuals from the local community can actually make better decisions about their local services because they have a vested interest that the outcomes will impact on their local area. What’s the point in becoming an expert with the capacity to weigh up the views of different communities in order to come to a balanced view?
    (8) Devolving decision-making to a voluntary board rather fudges the whole area of accountability. What happens if they make a very poor decision? At least you feel that with the current system, one person at the top is directly accountable for key decisions. As always with ‘out-sourcing’ the chain of management and decision-making becomes blurred and accountability is weakened as a result.
    (9) This process rather undermines existing local democratic processes. I am surprised that existing councillors are in favour of these ideas – if indeed they are – as it appears to undermine their democratic role. If local services are to become run by elected ‘community boards’ then surely this dilutes the role of an elected councillor ultimately to the point where they are longer needed?

    Do I, as a local citizen, need to feel more empowered? What I would like is to feel that my voice can be heard and taken seriously when there are significant issues that impact on me and my community. The geographic scale of ‘my community’ is likely to vary significantly depending on whether the issue is to scrap trident missiles or improve local re-cycling services. I think it would help if local public bodies ‘pushed’ their latest news and changes to me so the emphasis shifts from me to them. It no longer becomes a responsibility on me to keep up-to-date with, for example, changes to local services and local planning applications, but it becomes a responsibility of the local authority to inform me of things I’ve told them I want to know about.

    There are already plenty of areas where I feel empowered without having to volunteer more of my time to newly created community boards. If there are local issues of concern, about crime for example, I can easily contact the local community police unit who, I suspect, would treat it seriously. It would also be simple to raise this issue with my local councillor and I’m confident he would treat it seriously. In terms of education, I’d like to feel I have an open channel to the headteacher to report on any issues of concern and, if nothing happens, I could go higher up the hierarchy. My involvement in the Parent Council means I feel I can do this already – perhaps other parents don’t feel as ’empowered’. I just don’t understand why public bodies want to push more responsibility to ‘us’? You have to wonder whether the incentive to do it is, in some way, to palm off responsibilities they have right now to “community groups”. Savings can be made somehow by shedding resources for the slack to me taken up by community volunteers. This is a rather cynical view that I’d like to not stress too heavily but you do wonder.

    Autocratic rule from above is largely discredited. However that doesn’t necessarily mean that community and individual management is the the ideal. As citizens most of us want some control of some things some of the time. But there are a huge range of things that we are all quite happy to devolve to publicly owned bodies provided these bodies fully appreciate they are owned by us and have a responsibility to us to be open and fully accountable. They have to make difficult decisions around finite resource allocation and no-one will be happy 100% of the time. The best way of empowering most of us is to ensure decisions are made in a fair, transparent and democratic manner and to make sure their are open channels for consultation, feedback and scrutiny. Is the current system so ‘broken’ that we have to apply serious fixes? At a time when we need to find significant financial savings is this the moment to be taking the first steps towards a re-structure of school management?

  2. Don,
    Lots to read here about devolving decision making and resourcing to the school level. As you know I work in Victoria, which has one of the most devolved educational self management models in the world.

    I have spent lots of time this year employing teachers as the baby boomers retire and the late 30’s teachers new baby boom hits. In fact I have had 45% of my staff on various forms of leave and retirement and needing to be replaced.

    While I wouldn’t swap this for the world it requires new skill sets of ‘head teachers’ which need to be thought about as well. I could go on here but my second point about local councils also needs to be made.

    I have an elected local school board who I report to as executive officer on the strategic direction of the school. There are sub committees of council who do a power of positive work for the school.

    However I am employed and ultimately report to my regional director who acts for the Minister. The lines of management [my responsibility as principal] and policy and auditing role [council responsibility]. I advise council on statewide policy, innovations and trends.

    Some tensions can arise here between council and principals. I [and the school] am fortunate to have attracted committed and dedicated parents with skills sets needed to really support and advance the schools improvement agenda.

    What happens in those communities less fortunate remains an issue.

    Summary – great self management journey – full of learning – binding communities together – now developing supportive networks in groups of 25 schools.

    Mark Walker

  3. This proposal has the potential to create new partnerships and a heightened sense of belonging. Of course, it also heralds dangers, for instance of cliques wielding undue power outwith democratic processes. For we must not forget that schools in Scotland are already run by communities through local government. I think Don’s point though is that this is somewhat remote and that more direct and focused mechanisms are needed. If this could be made to work well then this would heighten community involvement and linkage.

    I have just written and published a report ‘Inspection at the End of Time’ calling for a systems approach to quality review in place of arbitrary standards, indicators and imposed judgement. It discusses the way that communities of interest may be brought in directly into the accountability processes to create a partnership of purpose.

    At the heart of a systems approach I see a process of involving ‘communities of interest’ who are engaged in dialogue concerning constructing purposes within a school: ‘what are we doing here’, ‘what shall we change’, ‘what shall we work on’, ‘what shall we develop’, and so on, right through to ‘how can we have some fun here’. These purposes need to be locally owned, albeit within broader practice and policy frameworks. I then see the potential for a new form of accountability opening up as comprising the processes of engagement concerning the extent to which these purposes are being achieved and as determined by the communities of interest. This then fosters a collaborative notion of accountability, itself based on partnership.

    Teachers as professionals would still operate within practice frameworks such as the General Teaching Council, but not applying graded specifications as now. I see that the approach of the incoming curriculum, based on new intrinsic forms of learning, requires a profound move away from done-to judgementalism, imposed commentary and fixed practice notions. Systems approaches allow for genuine learning, linking the personal and organisational. Community involvement, whether through liaison with ‘communities of interest’ or more directly through community based ‘management’, then enables enhanced partnership to flourish through locally owned processes in which change is fostered collaboratively.

    The two ideas then come together, community involvement (or indeed management) and involvement-as-accountability. Indeed, the more I come to see it, I see the linkage as inextricable. One won’t work without the other. External done-to judgementalism would break up these partnerships. Thus a new culture of responsibility is needed in place of (or rather as) accountability. Once this is based on involvement processes which are collaborative and discursive, moving away from ‘holding to account’ and demeaning grade lists, then genuine joint responsibility can be fostered which directly involves the communities of interest. External moderators could take part from time to time, literally partaking in the learning. In so doing we create capacity just as fear and judgmentalism close it down. True capacity building derives from and creates a culture of ‘done with’, in which we foster genuine responsibility through ownership and partnership. Accountability becomes the respectful processes of accounting for our successes and difficulties, with the central focus on the paths forward, learning as a system, and banishing blame and fear. At the core is the involvement of and partnership with all of our communities of interest.

  4. A fascinating post, and some equally interesting comments.

    I’m working with the Nordic Enterprise Trust – a Scottish social enterprise – which received some seed funding in respect of the development of a simple but radical partnership-based apprach to legal and financial structures.

    Our approach is to use the infinitely flexible UK LLP legal form not as an ‘organisation’ – such as Glasgow’ five municipal LLPs which are currently in the spotlight – but as legal frameworks for ‘self organisation’ using the templates which we developed.

    This prsentation toaconsortium of Scottish environmental groups may give an idea of our thinking

    which offers some interesting new options in relation to the sharing of resources generally, and in particular to investment in school buildings

  5. I took a look at the slides and the model. This is inspired. A framework allows a form of organising to emerge without the panoply of a wholly separate organisation. If wholly separate then this requires its own mode of governance, its place within the hierarchy, its remit of control and its accountability mechanisms. It becomes something ‘other’. The Trust schools model come to mind. But self organising within a framework allows for organic fluidity. It could nonetheless be powerful and enabling with strong community ownership. But the retention of formal democratic governance prevents a clique or vested interest take-over. I would see it more as an organic network. Then accountability and governance merge into the one process of review – action – reflection. Purposes become locally owned and locally framed, successes and difficulties locally probed with local understanding and local solution, integral accounting for our processes and outcomes rather than ‘holding to account’, and we move to a systems model. The local authority plays its part in this but not in a way where it does something ‘other’ too. It should not know its schools but be an integral part of the process of knowing. It should not assure quality but be an integral part of the process of assuring. It role would be to enable the process of community involvement, or rather staff pupil parent community linkage, ensuring and assuring, and making sure that the process does not become stifling, onerous or a straightjacket, and thereby professionally disenabling. Sounds good. The job would be to make it work, but that work then would be the work.

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