Civil Grand Jury


My good friend John Connell’s blog is always worth a read and so it was this week when  I came across his post about the Civil Grand Jury system in San Mateo, California.

The San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury is an independent investigative body created by the California State Constitution. Composed of nineteen citizens, the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury serves as a “watchdog for citizens of the county.”

A Civil Grand Jury is charged with a grave responsibility. The Civil Grand Jury serves as an ombudsperson for the citizens of San Mateo County. The jury may receive and investigate complaints by individuals regarding the actions or performances of county or public officials. The attention of the entire county is centered upon an active Civil Grand Jury, and its every act is a matter of public interest. Malevolent and unfaithful public servants are uneasy, while honest citizens and the conscientious public servants are reassured. Therefore, Grand Jury service calls for diligence, impartiality, courage and responsibility.

Empowered by the state judicial system, the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury submits meaningful solutions to a wide range of problems. The San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury is a volunteer, fact finding body with the potential to recommend constructive changes.

John was particularly interested in the Jury’s finding in relation to the question:

Are school districts in San Mateo County utilizing online and virtual classroom programs to expand and supplement the curriculum?

The recommendations made by the Jury in relation to this question are certainly worth reading and go way beyond what an offical might suggest. 

Looking further into the previous Jury Reports I came across the “Performance Review of San Mateo County Education Office” Within the system the Jury can gather evidence, call witnesses and make visits – all which strengthen the validity of the process. 

In Scotland, local authorities were recommended by the Audit Commission’s Report of 1993 to establish audit committees which have evolved in most authorities as Scrutiny Committees, which according to a 2005 report have proliferated but whose “effectiveness is patchy”.

The “audit committee” process in Scotland is dominated by the need to fulfil the requirement to audit of accounts – see  audit committee principles

There are three fundamental principles which define the expression “audit committee principles” and these are that there should be effective mechanisms in place to provide;

  • independent assurance of the adequacy of the risk management framework and the associated control environment within the authority;
  • independent scrutiny of the authority’s financial and nonfinancial performance to the extent that it affects the authority’s exposure to risk and weakens the control environment; and
  • assurance that any issues arising from the process of drawing up, auditing and certifying the authority’s annual accounts are properly dealt with.

None of the various scrutiny systems in Scottish local authorities go anywhere near the scope and range of the Civil Grand Jury.  In most cases the Scottish system is based upon elected members who review and scrutinise the work of their peers. Given the ever growing expectation for public service to be more transparent and to involve citizens in a meaningful manner I wonder if we could develop something akin to the system. I’m not arguing here for the removal of elected member involvement in the scrutiny process but I am intrigued by the potential of a Civil Grand Jury to:

“submit meaningful solutions to a wide range of problems” and “act as a fact finding body with the potential to recommend constructive changes.”

I’m sure there a number of issues that we face in East Lothian which would benefit from a citizen’s perspective upon which policy and practice could be developed.

Developing my role

As Head of Education I had a very clear and unambiguous role, i.e.  I was responsible for everything which came under the banner of education of children and young people from 3-18 years of age.  In my new role as Acting Director of Education and Children’s Services I have a much wider remit which includes the oversight of education but also gives me responsibility for the social care agenda for children and families in East Lothian.  I’m fortunate to have two outstanding heads of service in the form of Alan Ross, Head of Children’s Services, and Maureen Jobson, Acting Head of Education, both of whom have tremendous experience in their respective fields and can be relied upon to deal with the business of managing our £85 million budget whilst also contributing and shaping our strategic direction.

As Director I also have a major corporate responsibility as a member of the Board of Directors, alongside the other directors and the chief executive.  It’s this area that has perhaps the greatest potential for seeing a change in the way that we do things in East Lothian.  For example, we have agreed following our recent Managers Conference to revise our corporate plan to consider things in a much more thematic approach than simply from a service perspective.  For example, by considering the corporate parenting agenda as a theme we can begin consider how each of the discrete services can work together more effectively to provide a service which has a positive impact on the lives of Looked After and Accommodated Children – as opposed to one where the needs of the individual service took precedence over the needs of the child.

As a Director I also play a key role in the interface with the elected administration through working closely with the convener pf education and children’s services and other senior members of the administration in assisting them to fulfil their democratically elected agenda. The range and number of meetings can be a burden in terms of the time required but this is a necessary outcome of democratic accountability if we are to ensure that local government is properly managed and effectively delivered.

I’m also heavily involved in developing our strategy and practice in relation to the integration of various services to ensure that we work together effectively to meet the needs of young people and families.  As the chair of the Chief Officers group which includes senior representatives from education, police, health, the voluntary sector, children’s services and elected members we have begun to see a more connected approach to planning and the use of limited resources.  One of the exciting dimensions of this approach is our emerging strategic emphasis on Early Year and Parenting.  I have used this concept as a prism through which to reflect upon all aspects of our practice – that is not to say that everything that we do can be explicitly connected to early years or parenting – but that it’s a useful process through which we can begin to align resources and our practice to make substantive , long-term impact on the lives of children who otherwise would be trapped by the generational cycle of disengagement and poor outcomes which can afflict so many families.

In addition to these long term agendas there are of course the wide range of day-to-day issues which can land on my desk as the person with whom the “buck stops” – in many ways these are the bread and butter of my job but there does remain a danger that they can draw you into that cycle of “fixing things” – a phenomenon I recently wrote about – as opposed to considering the underlying issues which often underpin the day-to-day problems. This does require a disciplined approach if I am not to get lost in the detail and keep myself focused upon the bigger picture – which doesn’t always happen.  To that extent I think the role of this Learning Log is absolutely crucial as it’s the one of the few times in my working week when I have the freedom to explore ideas, reflect upon my work and consider the “opposite worlds” which might provide a more fruitful outcome than our current practice which can so dominate our lives.

Looking forwards I reckon I also have key role to sustain and support my colleagues who are dealing with issues at a face-to-face level with our customers – our senior leaders in schools and children’s services face innumerable challenges and do so in such positive and professional manner which explains why our respective services are of such a high standard. Nevertheless, such challenges inevitably take their toll which is why it is my intention in the coming year to work with my colleagues at a much closer personal level by regularly visiting them on site, attempting to understand their problems and offering my support both in a practical sense and in a longer-term strategic manner to change the way in which we do things.

ICT twin dimensions

We held our Education Policy and Performance Review Panel (PPRP) meeting today in Preston Lodge HIgh School.

The panel consists of elected members who scrutinise the work of the Education and Children’s Services.

We met in the school to show elected members how ICT policy is translated into action in our schools.

We looked at two very different examples:

  1. The first was a demo’ of the interactive whiteboard in a maths classroom. This looked at how technology was assisting and enhancing learning and teaching.
  2. The second was a visit to the art department to look at some digital animation and a film produced by students about the holocaust – one of the most exceptional films I’ve ever seen – regardless of who was the producer.

The councillors were very impressed and the visit proved so worthwhile that we intend to make school visits a regular feature of the PPRP programme.

Thanks to all at PLHS.

Exc-el conference

8.15-9.45 Correspondence and phone calls

10.00-12.00 Education Committee – excellent presentation from Sheila Ainslie on Staged Assessment and Intervention. She really demonstrated a mastery of her brief and was well received by the committee – impressive stuff.

12.30 Met with Valerie Irving to complete a draft letter which HTs can use to send out to parents to explain the implementation of MIDYIS.

1.00-3.00 Met with an HT to cover a range of school-based issues.

3.00-4.00pm wrote up letters following meeting.

4.00-5.30 Exc-el Board Meeting – Ollie Bray, Sheila McKenrick, Robert Whiteside and Ed Offer were in attendance –
Ewan MacIntosh joined us by conference telephone call.

The format of these meetings is a convesration with no aganda but with one topic leading onto another. We covered –
guidelines for student bloggers see example for MLFE; using templates for student bloggers – this was an interesting pont and has potential for adult bloiggers who say, “what do I write about?”; log-ins for comment writers; a contract for users; promoting the site; using an alternative blogger tool but using exc-el as the point of access; and an exc-el conference – perhaps on a Saturday after Easter. The focus of the conference would be on blogging and how we develop a community of learners – it would be open to people outside East Lothian – we're going to set up a wiki to enable the conference to take shape. What fun!!

Efficiency savings

9.00 – 10.30 Education Committee agenda setting meeting. This is a meeting with John Ross and Maureen Talac (convener and vice-convener of the education committee) about the papers that are to be presented at the next education committtee. We finished the meeting with an update of the budget suituation. It is likely that we will have to make a number of efficiency savings in order to enable the council to manage its budget. The consequences of the
Single Status & Equal Pay and the
government funding allocation to local authorities could have a
significant impact. It’s a key part of my job to manage any such efficiency savings and the next few couple of months are going to provide a challenge if savings have to be made.

10.30-1.00 Worked on development plan guidelines and correspondence.

1.00-1.45 Met with Liz Morris, EIS , to discuss one of her members.

2.00-4.00pm Sport and Education Group – agenda – Active School Co-ordinators update; Active schools Group update; Primary visiting specialists; cluster planning; East Lothian athletics track.

4.00-6.00 Caught up with Alan Blackie for a quick chat, made some phone calls to headteachers and finished correspondence


7.30-9.00 Preparation for Education Committee and correspondence.

9.00 – 9.30 Quick impromptu meeting with Kay Affleck who is our Integration Information Officer. Kay is going to take responsibility for a new section of the site –
Additional Support Needs

10.00-12.00 Council Committee for Education. These are formal meetings where the officers, namely Alan Blackie and myself present a series of reports to the elected members about a range of issues. Today covered: 4 inspection reports; East Linton catchment area review; early years review; educational maintenance allowances; schools meals and free school meal entitlement; and college/school links.

12.30pm Out to a secondary school to meet a headteacher with Fraser Parkinson regarding a pupil who had been excluded and who the school were unhappy about taking back. We had an excellent meeting where we explored the notion of ownership and proper multi-agency support. We have agreed that the student will return to the school once a proper multi-agency plan has been put in place. Our collective problem is what happens when the “worst” student in the schol is permanently excluded? The reality is that another student simply moves up the ranking and takes their place as the “worst” and the only recourse to inappropriate behaviour is another permanent exclusion.

The challenge for us all to face up to is: Why do we want to keep such kids in school? Is it to comply with legislation? – don't think so – Is it to make our statistics look good? – nope – Is it to try to do something to improve society? – well although this sounds pretty grand I think it must be close to what should be driving us. I can't help thinking that if we really take on this idea about cluster collective responsibility – where all groups share responsibility – that we at least have a chance to make a difference. But there again I am a hopeless idealist!!

2.00-4.15pm Emergency Alert Training – this is an on-line system which is about to go live. It will allow the various agencies to communicate effectively in the case of a major emergency.

4.30pm -5.45 Back to the office . Joined in an excellent discussion between Ruth Munro and Rob Lewis – one of Management Information Team about how we intend to collect, collate and present 5-14 data. Ruth has picked up on work done by Angus Council assisted by Tony Conroy (LTS) where schools will set targets based upon actual students in their schools – as opposed to picking them out of thin air. The system will work by a teacher stating where students are in, lets day P2. They are then asked to estimate how many of the same class will ahve acheived the same level by P3. This will give a much more realistic picture of where schools are in terms of attainment. We are also going to consider creating comparator groups of schools within the authority, small and large and split by low FME and high FME. Should prove interesting.


9.00am Pre-agenda meeting for Council Committee for Education was cancelled. This enabled me to complete the paper I had been working on since yesterday relating to communication between nursery/primary headteachers and directorate. I've chosen the term directorate because people in schools often refer to communication with the council. I know it's only semantics but such terminology reinforces the erroneous notion that schools are not part of the council. Bounced it off a few headteachers and received a positive response. It will be a major item for discussion at next week's full HT meeting.

10.30 met with Karen Robertson to discuss her ideas about the future of ICT in East Lothian. Karen had written a very good paper on the matter but I wanted to challenge her on a number of points – most particularly on how ICT might relate to the proposed Attainment Action Plan. Karen was more than a match for me and demonstrated an excellent grasp of the issues and the needs of teachers and the authority.

11.00 meeting with Marion Wood, Chis Clarke and Sean Rafferty of Children's Services. This was another learning session for me and we covered a lot of ground in an hour and half. Most significantly we discussed how you manage a budegt over which you have no control over the demand in relation to resources available. For example if 10 young people suddenly needed to secure accommodation it would cost £500 per week for every child. This an extreme example but it gives an indication of the problem. Pupil Support face a similar situation with children who have additional learning needs which cannot be met in mainstream schooling. We discussed how we could look at better integrating our services for vulnerable children – particularly in relation to transport. I'm going to have a go at writing a paper on this topic.

Out for a quick visit to Law primary School. Neil Barnes gave me a tour of the school and I met a few staff. Couldn't help but be impressed with the atmosphere in the school. I had a chat with Neil about the advantages of large primary schools. I've never throught abut it before as I think I've always verged towards seeing the benefits of small schools but there are opportunities that a large school can offer children which a small school would struggle to match.

Then on to North Berwick Nursery for a chat with Sue Leach. Very interesting meeting where we discussed the role of the leader in schools. Sue is an inspirational teacher and is highly regarded by parents in North Berwick.

Popped into North Berwick High School on my way back. Quick chat with Colin Sutherland – he has agreed to help us out in developing our attainment evaluation strategy – we will be visiting another authrority in the next few weeks.

Back to the office for a meeting with Ian Reid – our School Travel Co-ordinator. Ian is having some problems convincing schools to particpate. I pointed out it does not really feature on the Service Improvement Plan so it will be very much up to schools if they wish to engage with the programme. We will consider putting it onto the updated SIP which comes out in December. It seems a very sensible initiative in that it links with Healthy living, Eco-Schools and Health and Safety.

E mail and correspondence until 6.15.