Amongst a number of other duties the Standards in Scottish Schools Act 2000 sets out two key responsibilities for Scottish Local Authorities in respect to school education, namely Raising Standards and Reviewing School Performance.
Yet I was wondering if it’s time to reconsider these duties in light of the impact – or otherwise – that Local Authorities have had upon schools in their charge? As a headteacher, and in my ten years a member of school senior management teams in a variety of schools, I would have to question what impact Local Authorities had upon raising standards in the school and whether or not the School Review process made a positive contribution to the raising of said standards. I want to make it clear that I am not denigrating in any way the efforts and support given to schools by Local Authority colleagues but that the very assumption that an external force can drive improvement within a school is perhaps founded upon a false premise.
For the reality is often that the standards in a school are directly related to the quality of leadership and commitment from staff in that same school. However, by giving responsibility for raising standards to the Local Authority it creates an expectation – from all – that the authority can make an impact from an external position. This is turn gives rise to what I’ve previously described as the “Dae Sumthin” mentality where Local Authority managers are under pressure to be seen to be taking action – even if this action doesn’t necessarily result in any observable consequence. The important thing is that action is taken.
In a similar fashion Authorities have gone to considerable trouble to create a range of means of “Reviewing School Performance” . These mechanisms have taken many different forms all with the intention that we can “know our schools”.
What I want to question is the assumption that there is a direct causal relationship between how well we know our schools and how well we can raise standards? ( in the case the “we” are those outwith the school).
It would be my contention that the responsibility – and much more importantly the capacity – to raise standards lies with those who work in a school. That was always my belief as a headteacher, a principal teacher, or even as a teacher and I’ve seen nothing in the last five years as an educational administrator to change that opinion. I’m not saying here that all of our efforts in Local Authorities are wasted but that there is an unintended consequence of our adherence to the notion that the more we do from “outside” the school the better things will be “within” the school.
So if the responsibility for raising standards should lie with the school does that mean that the Authority can abdicate from it’s responsibilities for school education? I would argue that the quality of school education should still lie with the Local Authority – yet the responsibility to raise standards should lie with the school. Now if this seems like “having one’s cake and eating it” I can understand how such an assertion might appear peculiar. Yet what I have in mind is much more of a commissioning approach, whereby the Authority commissions the school to deliver education on its behalf. Just as Children’s Services currently commissions a charity to deliver an aspect of its service, the overall responsibility still lies with the commissioning body. It is the role of the commissioner to ensure that those who are commissioned are delivering the service to the agreed standards – it is not the commissioner’s responsibility to raise standards, simply to ensure that the standards set out in the agreement is achieved.
This actually chimes with something which Pasi Sahlberg said recently at a conference when describing the success that is Finnish Education. For Pasi said that in Finland to be “good” is “good enough”. They do not aspire to excellence as a system but focus on ensuring that everyone is at least “good enough”. I know this seems to lack the aspiration of our Journey to Excellence – but I actually think that this provides exactly the kind of space in which teachers and schools can flourish.
So in such an environment what should happen to the Authority’s responsibility to “Review School Performance”? Perhaps the clue lies with the last couple of sentences in that particular section of the Act when it describes how where the Authority concludes that following a review that where:
” the school is not performing satisfactorily they shall take such steps as appear to them to be requisite to remedy the matter.”
It’s here that I would want to refer to the model of practice which is emerging from many directions, namely Risk Assessment. What I’m wondering is whether or not a Risk Assessment approach might provide schools with much more space to innovate and develop local solutions to raising standards? Would it be possible for an Authority to assess the “Risk” relating to the quality of education provided by a school. Rather than stating that a school’s performance is somewhere on the six point scale we instead provide a simple statement to parents and others that the risk that the school is not providing a “good” education is low, medium or high. Schools would aspire to be in the “low” risk category. I would reckon that only around 5% of schools would fall into the high risk category and that the Authorities’ resources could be targetted on those same schools – with others being given ever more freedom to innovate and create local solotions without external interference.