Using outcome agreements for school improvement


I came across the concept of a social return on investment last summer when Jim Honan explained the Program Logic Model.

The model seeks to find a way in which public services can actually have a greater impact by focusing upon the things that will actually lead to a return on social investment.  The tendency in education has often been to focus on outputs or activity and to only try to work out the outcome – or success criteria – at the end of the planning process, i.e. there are a legion of initievies and activities which have been implemented in Scottish education which have not had any discernible positive impact.

The model flips this on its head by forcing the service to consider the impact that we wish to have as the starting point for action. I’ve explored this in a number of previous posts but this week we sent out our Service Improvement Framework which schools will use to guide their activity for the coming year.

The Framework tries to make a link with the Council’s corporate plan and priorities but the pages which schools will undoubtedly focus upon are pages 8 and 9 – which set out the outcomes which we will use to judge the level of return we are getting from the investment in education in East Lothian, i.e. £75 million.

Borrowing from the Scottish Government’s concordat with Local Authorities we intend to give much greater flexibility to schools and clusters as to how they will go about achieving these outcomes – what works in one school or community won’t necessarily work in another school or community.

I know how positively I would have responded to such an approach, or as  one head teacher said to me this week – “trust us and we’ll do the business”.

Engaging with our communities – the role of social media


We held a meeting last week where we explored the potential of weblogs to assist the community planning process – based on the edubuzz model -although not necessarily using the same platform.

Community Planning is a process which helps public agencies to work together with the community to plan and deliver better services which make a real difference to people’s lives.

The aims of Community Planning in Scotland are:

1. making sure people and communities are genuinely engaged in the decisions made on public services which affect them; allied to

2. a commitment from organisations to work together, not apart, in providing better public services.

There are two further key principles in addition to the two main aims outlined above:

3. Community Planning as the key over-arching partnership framework helping to co-ordinate other initiatives and partnerships and where necessary acting to rationalise and simplify a cluttered landscape;

4. the ability of Community Planning to improve the connection between national priorities and those at regional, local and neighbourhood levels.

As we discussed the potential of weblogs it became apparent that this might just be a vehicle which could be of some real use.  If we could encourage key figures and other members of a local community to keep a weblog where they would reflect upon local issues and stimulate a dialogue within a community, the likelihood of planners and public services to take account of these opinions would be greatly enhanced. The old ways of questionnaires, focus groups, community conferences, canvassing do not enable a substantive, two way, on-going dialogue to take place where ideas can be shaped and developed over a period of time.

I know how I am being influenced by being able to read the weblogs of teachers, parents and children – surely this has some possibility for community engagement?

So how might such a scheme work? Let’s take a community like Tranent.  If we established an area where the weblogs of of the community could be accessed and new members could participate we would begin to build up a very rich picture of the strengths, opportunities and needs within the community.  Officers and elected members could engage with this dialogue and perhaps even have their own weblogs to make the decision making process even more transparent and interactive. 

I know some people might feel very threatened by such a suggestion, as it appears to almost encourage anarchy by handing over the “airwaves” to the public – yet surely that is what community planning is about? – a transparent enagagement with the local community to the point where people eventually (it would take some time) begin to believe that they do have a voice and that it is listened to. Even more importantly those who do make the decisions can explain the thought process and reasoning behind decisions – even those decisions which are unpopular (see example).

Last observations:

  • A councillor recently described how no one had attended any of their surgeries in the last four weeks. 
  • Another councillor described how few people had attended their surgeries over a three year period. 
  • East Lothian Council have started to hold some council meetings in the evening to be more available to the public – very few (less than 10 have attended in any one evening) .

Perhaps it really is time to explore alternative vehicles for community interaction?

Efficiency savings

The concordat agreed by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Scottish Government sets out how funding and outcome agreements will operate over the next three years.

The document is worth reading on a number of counts but it’s the section relating to efficiency savings that perhaps sets out the greatest challenge for education.

The text reads as follows: 

For the period 2008-09 to 2010-11, the level of efficiency savings which all parts of the public sector will be expected to meet has been set at 2 per cent per annum. Under the partnership offer, local authorities will be allowed to retain all of these, to re-deploy against ongoing pressures and address local priorities. This represents special treatment for local government. All other parts of the public sector will have an element of their efficiency savings deducted at source.

When combined with the impact of removing ring-fenced funding streams, retaining efficiency savings will give authorities significant scope to re-deploy their resources to meet many of the funding pressures they will face over the next three years.

So at least 6% savings over a three year period.  At first glance it looks a reasonable deal for education but the reality is that there is no guarantee that efficiency savings made in education will remain there, although they may be spent elsewhere within the authority depending upon need.

We had a meeting of our Finance Advisory and Scrutiny Group on Friday and the challenges facing education in East Lothian will no doubt be replicated in the rest of Scotland to a greater or lesser extent.

The key role for all leaders in education is to ensure that we maintain our focus upon improving our service at a time when our budgets may be reducing – easier to say than to do – but an obligation nevertheless.

Parents and Children as Customers – an outward facing public service


You know that niggling feeling that you get when you’ve got an idea bubbling just underneath the surface and can’t quite express it – then again perhaps you don’t but it’s one with which I’m often afflicted.  It’s like that for me at the moment with this business of parents and children as customers.  I just can’t help feeling it would make such a difference to the quality of the service we provide – yet at the same time the very word customer sets up such a huge obstacle – no matter how you might try to redefine it as a concept in the 21st century.

I’ve played around with  suggesting that “customer” should be a metaphor for how we should treat parents and children – but this hits the same deep rooted problem of traditional perceptions of the relationship between provider and customer.

My niggle was rekindled yesterday when listening to Anna – a sixth year student from a school in the Scottish Highlands. She was very positive about most of her school experiences – but the recurring theme was how things could be so much better of the teachers and the school tried to look at the school experience through her eyes, and the eyes of her fellow students. To paraphrase what she was saying – and this is, of course, my interpretation – “school isn’t designed for her or her peers, but one where their needs are secondary to the interests of the school”. Yet when I asked a question to headteacher, who was also on the panel, if he was comfortable with the idea of children as customers he immediately replied that he wasn’t, to be quickly supported by Anna herself.

So that was it for me – here was someone pushing for a service which was directed towards her needs – a customer focussed service – but  for whom the very word customer put her off. So no more talk of customers – but what are the alternatives?

Guineapigmum likes the idea of partners – and I think a good school should be characterised by a partnership between teachers, parents and children – but it still doesn’t capture for me the idea of being “customer” (oops) facing. In other words it’s possible to enter into a partnership where you are primarily interested in fulfilling your own needs – and that by working in partnership with others we gain mutual benefit.  However, should schools only enter into partnership with parents and children to gain something for themselves? What if a parent doesn’t want to be a partner – do we treat them differently? What if a six year old child doesn’t want to be a partner – do we give up on them and wait until they do? 

As I’ve mentioned more than once on this Log my own father was a doctor.  He served his patients – their needs predominated.  He sacrificed his own needs to serve the needs of his community.  Sure he worked with his patients and they loved him for it – but it wasn’t a partnership.  I suppose the word here is “duty” – a duty to serve those who needed his services. They didn’t have a “duty” to work with him. 

For me it’s all to do with which way you are facing.  Do we start facing towards our own needs (inwards)? – or do we start facing towards those whom we serve (outwards)?

So that’s it – simple really!  We need to be an outward facing service where we seek to provide the highest quality service possible to those whom we serve – parents and their children (not customers) – and if that means that some of our own needs and wants have to be sacrificed to that end then so be it.

Local Outcome Agreements


We are about to enter a brave new world in relation to local governn ment funding with the introduction of Local Outcome Agreements (LOAs). An LOA changes the way in which money is released to Local Authorities by the Scottish Government and has the potential to radically shift the way in which we do our business.

Up to this point in time the focus has been on inputs to the system and linking money to particular national initiatives. For example in education we would receive money for developments such as Healthy Eating, or Study Support.  This money was “ring-fenced” i.e. it had to be spent in these areas and as long as it went to that budget heading the government were happy (within reason).

The idea behind Local Outcome Agreements is that funding is less tightly connected to particular initiatives leaving the local authority with more flexibility to meet local needs and circumstances. What will be specified will be the outcome that the authority agree to focus upon, e.g to raise the academic attainment for the lowest attaining 20% –  how this is achieved will be up the authority with less interference from national governement – or so the theory goes.

The following is essentially a worked example. An LOA includes three elements – Outcomes; Outputs and Baselines. The examples included:

outcomes such as ‘a reduction in the number of crimes committed by ..% from x to y
by 2003/04’;

outputs such as ‘deployment of .. neighbourhood wardens in A, B and C’ and

baseline ‘The number of crimes committed in 2006 was x in AA community. The
target is to reduce the number of crimes by 5% to x-5% in AA by 2007/08. Source:
police/local crime surveys’.

The report sets out the following advantages and disadvantages of Local Outcome Agreements:

• Local ownership – priorities are set by partners and communities to reflect local
issues within a broad national framework.
• The shift in policy focus to outcomes and impacts – the LOA format makes partners
think about impact rather than just delivery and challenges them to consider what
approach to delivery is the most appropriate.
• Flexibility – the emphasis on outcomes rather than outputs allows partners flexibility
in programme delivery – a positive feature, particularly from the standpoint of
community involvement as the services and projects are not pre-determined.
• Clarity – LOAs provide a clear statement of priorities and aims.
• Accountability – there is a transparency about LOA partners and what they aim to
achieve. This allows the LOA to act as a reference document for the public and other
• Partnership – the general view was that the process of drawing up a LOA had helped
to engage community planning partners.
• Evidence – emphasis on outcomes means that LOAs have the potential to provide inbuilt
monitoring and evaluation and thus provide an evidence base for future policy
• The challenge of programme design – designing a programme with appropriate
performance indicators, in consultation with local people, is challenging.
• Consultation issues – for some Pathfinders the level of community consultation
involved in LOAs was excessive while for others not enough time had been allowed.
• Time limited – despite the greater flexibility of payment through Revenue Support
Grant (RSG), LOAs are still constrained by the difficulties of a time limited programme e.g. the difficulty of attracting and retaining staff for a temporary initiative.
• Conflict – for a few Pathfinders the use of LOAs led to a deterioration of their
relationship with the Executive. Other Councils felt that the Executive had been
flexible and understanding.

Education perhaps faces the greatest challenge in this new system as we had a large number of ring-fenced funding streams whcih went directly to support educational services in the authority. These funds will no longer be protected and it will be up to local authorities to prioritise where their money is spent – which of course means that there would be no guarantee that what previously came to education will necessarily come to them in the future.

On the up side we can have more flexibility to focus on outcomes as opposed to having to “do” things a certain way.  It would seem logical that this model is cascaded out to schools , where the school development plan would form a a Local Outcome Agreement with the authority with schools being much more at liberty to decide how they achieve that outcome. Of course the challenge would remain to try to keep some consistency between schools, although I think I would be happy enough to see consistency between schools wiythin a particular cluster.

The concern for schools will be the ability to becnhmark between authorties will become nigh impossible as they each identify separate agreements with the government based on local needs.

We’ll be getting more information over the next few weeks and I will endeavour to update this log as means of trying to make sense of it for myself.

A brave new world indeed!




Guilt at missing work was compounded this week by having to pull out of an important public meeting scheduled for this Thursday evening in Dunbar to discuss the plans for the new primary school provision.

I’d been e-mailed last week by a parent who’d read that I was off work and I’d assured them that I would have recovered in time to attend the event.  Here I am four days on and it’s obvious that my optimism was misplaced.  Given that I was going to be responsible for 75% of the information I was left with the unfortunate reality of having to cancel the event. 

We will be putting a newsletter together to go out to parents and the public next week and will reschedule the public meeting once we can co-ordinate diaries next week.

Given my commitment to meet the needs of parents and communities I can’t help but feel that I’ve let them down. Sorry.

Children and parents as customers?


I’ve been reading the Demos paper “Journey to the Interface” which I referred to in the recent leadership dilemma.  It’s a long document but a remarkably easy read and very thought provoking.

The paper’s focus is the development of “customer-centred services”. There a huge range of issues emerging from the paper which would be worthy of further extended discussion but the first and over-riding question is whether or not education is a service which has “customers”?

If you are reading this as a parent you might wonder what on earth I’m on about but in my experience, people involved in education have a real problem with being seen as the providers of a service to customers. So here’s my simplistic interpretation of the problem:

Most teachers see themselves as being involved – to a greater or lesser extent – in a moral activity, whereas customers are seen to be consumers of a commodity – and educators are not comfortable with the idea of education being a commodity.

However, the modern conceptualisation of a public service extends far beyond the notion of  service as a commodity but much more about “co-production”:

Many of the new priorities – ‘respect’, an end to ‘binge drinking’, ‘recycling’, ‘improved public health’ – cannot be achieved by a smart government delivery machine; they require changes in behaviour from the public. This means not simply reconsidering how to deliver using public or even private resources, but how to access the ‘free’ resources of public energy, engagement and action. So a child learning is both consuming an education and producing a cohort of lifelong learners. Someone attending a smoking cessation course is both consuming a health service and producing a healthy population. The idea of co-production demands that public servants and politicians focus not only on the internal workings and efficiencies of existing services, but also on how people engage with those services, and how they can be mobilised, coached and encouraged to participate in the ‘common enterprise’ of generating positive outcomes.  (Demos 2006)

It is this form of customer facing service that we need to develop in public service education, where we work to improve the outcomes for children by co-producing the service by engaging with children and parents as customers.

It’s in relation to this question that I came across this paper by Sockett 1997 who set out five key challenges facing education if it were to reconfigure itself as customer oriented service:

First, the notion of service. The traditional sense of the teacher is of a person who is legally in authority, but is also an authority, to some degree, on what he or she teaches. In opposition to that notion is that of the teacher as a caring individual, concerned more for the child than the subject. The notion of the child and the parent as customer subsumes those ideas but places both in a formal position of equality. The child and the parent are not there to be managed, but to be served.

Second the notion of the individual. Thinking of a customer obliterates the notion of a common curriculum and educational pathway as currently understood. Curriculum is customized for the child, with the parent. For the rationale of how children currently progress through education, in terms of grade-levels, of subjects to be covered, of assessment is not, I believe, conducive to either relationships of trust, or more importantly, to the child’s moral and educational welfare.

Third, a challenge to ingenuity. Seeing children and parents as customers tests our pedagogical ingenuity and our moral initiative. No longer can we regard Angela and John as interesting curiosities to be researched, or phenomena to be placed in statistical data on delinquency and dropout. It is just such a sense of the child and parent as customer that is creating such educational excitement.

Finally, relative equality. The fact that children and parents are customers does not mean that control is surrendered, any more than it does in any other customer-service provider relationship. Rather, it puts additional power into a moral partnership of teacher, child and parent which has been too long coming.

Sockett suggests that seeing children and parents as customers can serve to sharpen our relationships with them, and in that new relationship begin to create new and more appropriate ways of interacting all with a view to improving the outcomes of the service.

Perhaps Scotland has real opportunity to tie two separate developments together into a coherent and unifying point of focus through co-production of the service between users and professionals?  I’m referring here to the Parental Involvement Act and A Curriculum for Excellence where both give the users (children and parents) a key role in shaping the service in collaboration with the professionals.

So are children and parents customers?

Leadership Dilemma 3 – Public Service and Web 2.0

In East Lothian we are expanding our edubuzz community at an exponential rate – with the intention of creating a place where people learn from each other by opening up an interface between users and providers and between the professionals at all levels in the organisation.

So at this stage in it’s development it might be worthwhile exploring a hypothetical leadership dilemma arising from the use of social media in the field of public service. 

Here’s the dilemma:

The local authority has set up blogging platform and parents are starting to use it to give an insight into their perspective on education.  A parent writes something about the teacher of their child and describes an incident that happened in class which their child had described over tea. Other parents leave comments about the blog post and share their concerns about the teacher and the fact that the same thing has happened for years and that the headteacher – despite complaints – has never done anything about it. 

You are the controller of the blogging platform. What do you do?

Effective and efficient – is that good enough?


I had a very interesting conversation with someone this week about their perceptions of education in East Lothian. Their perception was that we provide an “effective and efficient” service.

I suppose I should have been delighted with such a description but I couldn’t help feeling it fell some way short of what it is we are trying to do in educational terms in East Lothian.

The notion of Effective and Efficient public services is a permeating theme across the globe, e.g, US, Scotland, Europe, Australia, UK and is perhaps accepted thinking as the mantra of what public services should be about – particularly at a time of economic challenge.

However, I couldn’t help thinking that effective and efficient might be good ways of describing a bus service or a central heating system but surely education must have higher aspirations?  As ever my wife wondered what I was on about as she would be quite happy if a school could be described as effective and efficient. 

Perhaps this is all brought into closer focus with the publication this week of the Best Value Review of East Lothian Council. It’s is interesting to see the statement released by Isabelle Low, the Deputy Chair of the Accounts Commission about the review: “They need to be effective, they need to be efficient” (they being the entire council). As a senior officer in the authority I shoulder some of the responsibility for what is a very critical report – but recent changes give rise for optimism about the future.

But to return to my theme – Effective and Efficient – I thought it might be worthwhile to return to the dictionary and consider their definitions:

ef·fec·tive  adj.

1. a. Having an intended or expected effect. b. Producing a strong impression or response; striking: gave an effective performance as Othello; 2. Operative; in effect: The law is effective immediately; 3. Existing in fact; actual: a decline in the effective demand. ; Prepared for use or action, especially in warfare.

In public service terms 1.a. is closest definition – i.e. we are having an intended or expected effect. For me however, this is too broad and doesn’t provide any qualitative statement about the service being provided – what if your intenions or expectations are too low?

ef·fi·cient  adj.

1. Acting directly to produce an effect: an efficient cause; 2.  a. Acting or producing effectively with a minimum of waste, expense, or unnecessary effort; b. Exhibiting a high ratio of output to input.

In public service terms all of the above would be of relevance i.e. we would be wanting to produce an effect – probably the one we would have identified under effectiveness; we would want to provide that effect with a minimum of waste, etc; and we would want to provide that effect at a high ratio of output to input.

Considering both of the definitions of both of these words I think my problem lies with “effective” i.e. it’s too bland and provides no qualitative judgement – it’s either done or not done. Consider the following:

My car gets me from home to work – it is effective.

Our plumber fixed our toilet – he was effective

The council’s refuse collection service  picks up our rubbish every Tuesday – it is effective.

The question remains about education – what would effective performance look like in education? – would it just be a simple yes or no?

Over the next few days I’d like to explore this further but I’ll conclude this post with mention of Effectiveness

An ordinary way to distinguish among effectiveness, efficacy, and efficiency:

  • efficiency: Getting things done
  • effectiveness: doing the “right” things
  • effectivity: a level of getting things done
  • efficacy: Doing things “right”