Meeting the needs of our customers

I recently had the pleasure of spending some time with a chief executive of a major UK service company.  In terms of the bottom line there can be few people I’ve ever encountered who adopt a more concentrated and determined focus on making the business ‘hit it’s numbers’. However, as we spoke it became obvious that in order to ‘hit the numbers’ the organisation places service quality and customer experience at the heart of making the business work.

What fascinated – and surprised me – was that I had more in common with this leader of British industry than I might have expected.  There is a tendency amongst those of us who work in the public sector to imagine that we somehow inhabit the higher moral ground than those who are simply motivated by filthy lucre.  Yet time after time, this person challenged my perceptions by continually reflecting upon how the managers and staff in the organisation place the needs of customers at the forefront of their practice.  So much so that the chief executive often ‘cold calls’ on outlets and tests the customer orientation of the team.

The logic behind such practice is very clear – if customers don’t enjoy or appreciate the service they are given then the chances of them spending their money again with that particular service company is very unlikely. In turn the chief executive then asked me whether or not I thought schools were accountable the same manner.  Of course, private schools have a paying relationship with the customer – where custom can be withdrawn – but no such transactional relationship exists in the state sector.

It made me think again about the nature of the relationship between schools and parents in the state sector.  If a parent can’t pay for private education, and cannot move their child to another school due to lack of transport, or the fact that another school is unavailable how does the customer influence the quality of the provision?  Quite simply the only route open to them is to complain if the quality is not to their satisfaction.  Yet in terms of my friend’s company such a limited form of customer feedback would be far too late based upon the fact that many people don’t complain they just take their business elsewhere.

So one could argue that state schools are relatively closed environments in terms of customer accountability. Where else in a citizen’s life – other in than the health service – are a customer’s options so limited? Think of our internet providers; supermarkets; car manufacturers; restaurants; banks; etc. – the common feature is that we  – where, if so inclined, can take our business elsewhere.

But surely a school is accountable through its local education authority and through that to the local council with locally elected members, and finally through inspection bodies such as Education Scotland and the Care Inspectorate? Surely that is enough? Once again its worthwhile thinking of private sector examples – most of which have similar accountabilities through shareholders, boards, and audit processes – in addition to the accountability to the customer.  Yet none of them would think that such ‘outward facing’ accountability takes precedence over the needs and preferences of the customer.

It’s at this point in this line of logic that most of us involved in Scottish education come to an abrupt halt – because the next step takes us into unthinkable territory – i.e. some form of direct accountability to the customer. Our first problem lies in the notion of education having ‘customers’ –  it’s an area I’ve explored on numerous occasions and without fail it stimulates intense antagonism from educationalists who see any notion of education being ‘productised’ as a step too far.

However, my fear in the current financial environment is that a local authority’s capacity to act as the prime agency to which schools are accountable is under huge pressure.  Yet we know that headteachers would prefer to retain the status quo in terms of line management accountability – and that there is no certainly appetite for parental governance. So here we are at an impasse – which may not become completely obvious for another couple of years.

On hearing this the chief executive asked whether or not there was any opportunity for the management to opt out – in commercial terms the concept would be akin to a ‘management buy out’ I explained that we have explored such models before but that there had been no appetite from parents for self-management.  But that wasn’t what the chief executive had in mind –  “customers don’t opt out – but managers can” was the response.  And so we explored the notion of how a management team in a school might negotiate a  ‘management buy-out’ from the local authority. The biggest shift in such a model would be that the school would have to set up a board of governance – with a very clear and unambiguous focus on meeting the needs of its customers.

I tried to explain that there were huge obstacles in even contemplating such an idea but the chief executive warmed to the challenge and put it to me that surely the system must provide space for its best managers to operate in a more directly accountable manner with their customers.

We decided to leave it there but the idea has remained with me ever since – gnawing away at my imagination at how such a seemingly crazy idea might actually work.

Schools leading schools

I’ve just returned from the Association of Directors Education Scotland (ADES) annual conference. This year’s theme was “Leaders Advancing Learning” and the conference proved to be one of the best events I’ve ever had the privilege to attend.

The highlight for me was Steve Munby, from the National College of School Leadership. Steve is directly accountable to the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, and as such has no locus within Scotland. Nevertheless, there is much to admire from philosophy and approach adopted by the college – and Steve in particular.

Steve’s central point (at least for me) was around the question of how to improve a school facing challenging circumstances. He identified three possibilities 1. Close and reopen the school 2. Insert a “Hero” Headteacher 3. Build the capacity of the school from within.

Steve pointed out that evidence would suggest that the most effective solution is linked to option 3 but that it needs a particular form of support if that to be achieved.

Taking teachers’s out and putting them on courses – doesn’t work

External “experts” coming into the school – doesn’t work

Expecting leaders within the school to change their practice, when they don’t really know what good leadership looks like – doesn’t work.

Linking such a school in partnership with a successful school – does work. I didn’t quite catch the rate of improvement this approach leads to but it was of a very significant order compared to any other model of school improvement. But what was particularly interesting was that the improvement was also measurable in the supporting school – wow!

What an incentive for developing such an approach in Scotland.

Here’s a lift from their website:

The National Leaders of Education (NLEs) and National Support Schools Programme (NSSs) draws upon the skills and experience of our very best school leaders, as well as their schools, to provide additional leadership capacity to, and raise standards within, schools facing challenging circumstances. The programme is underpinned by the powerful notion of schools leading schools.

The National College oversees the quality assurance of NLEs, provides ongoing support to NLEs and their schools and helps to broker the support of NLEs and their NSSs to maximise the impact of the programme.

Since the first group of NLEs and NSSs were designated in 2006, the programme has gathered momentum quickly and has been one of the most successful levers of sustainable school improvement. Crucially the schools and academies supported by NLEs are improving at a significantly faster rate than other schools nationally, and the results of the schools providing support continue to rise.

The programme also helps to utilise the powerful contributions that NLEs are able to make at a strategic level, to education policy and the future of the school system.

Steve pointed out that the bar is set very high for schools to become National Leaders of Education.

So could such a system work in Scotland? I believe it could but I’ll explore some of the barriers which may have to be overcome in a future post.

Lastly, in response to one of my questions, Steve identified the importance of the Parent body, in England they are governors, but I think it can translate to our Parent Councils in Scotland where they are supported by the local authority to promote local accountability. This links back to recent evidence from the OECD which clearly shows that improved student performance directly correlates with increased levels of school autonomy with associated public accountability.

Such evidence suggests that our direction of travel towards Community Partnership Schools is, at the very least, on the right lines.

Aspiring to be “good” – would this provide space for improvement?

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.

Uniformity or diversity of schooling?


One of the key findings of the OECD report on Quality and Equity of Scottish Education was that our system does not promote innovation and that there is very little diversity of schooling in Scotland. They identified the cause of this rigidity as a lack of autonomy – and what I would describe as an acceptance by all of a “command and control” model of education.  This is captured in a paper from the OECD which described various educational models extant in the world where we seemed to fit within a bureaucratic system of education.

Yet this notion of diversity causes shivers down the back of many in Scottish education who have come to accept the doctrine that there must be “equality of opportunity” in all schools. This is often translated into what is termed an “entitlement model” of education, i.e. what is on offer in one school must be on offer in another.  Any divergence from this orthodoxy is immediately labelled a “postcode lottery”. Now that seems fine to me in relation to some fundamental rights such a health treatment such a cancer care – but not for something as subjective as to what constitutes a quality education.

It interests me that people will call out for equality of opportunity, common entitlement, uniformity, (rigidity) within one local authority – yet in the neighbouring authority there exists another similar system – set in stone – but with it’s own unique differences – albeit at the periphery.

Even a cursory reflection upon the OECD report leads one to conclude the need to promote greater innovation and diversity in our system and that the fundamental levers for change should be an integrated approach to Funding and Governance.

I would argue that any improvement in outcomes for children in Scotland will only come about through providing schools with greater autonomy – and at the same time linking this with greater accountability. The key point to be borne in mind here is that there is a risk that greater autonomy can result in greater inequality. This would certainly be the case if funding was simply handed over to to schools with no regard to how that funding is used to tackle inequalities. I reckon that accountability in Scottish education is primarily motivated by compliance, e.g “we will do it so as not to get slapped”, whereas accountability should really be seen as a formative process, which should shape what we set out to achieve. Such a shift to a formative form of accountability would have to link funding with the achievement of clearly stated outcomes and objectives, without dictating how these outcomes must be achieved – and certainly no reference to the input requirements.

It’s at this point that the question of uniformity or diversity really comes into its own. For if I you gave two schools a common set of outcomes – and then stripped away any obligations as to how these outcomes should be achieved (whilst ensuring that they complied with health and safety and legislative requirements) I’d bet that we would end up with remarkably different schools over a period of time. Of course, one would have to expect that the divergence between the two schools would not happen immediately, the ingrained cultures and expectations would take some to to break down. Yet over a few years we would begin to see the two schools creating their own solutions to similar problems – yet in a way which suited their own context and community.

“But what if a child has to move from one school to another – how will they manage?” – I thought I’d get that in now as it’s the common question which arises about this time anyone attempts to promote a diversity model. I’m afraid such a question just leaves me cold for I’ve seen far too many children from other countries successfully join schools where I’ve been a teacher or manager to see it as an obstacle – what matters is the quality of the school – not the uniformity of the curriculum or the structure of the school.

But how could schools operate without the support and direction of Local Authorities? Surely they don’t have the expertise or sophistication to make the myriad of judgements that are currently made on their behalf? Obviously we couldn’t give control of our schools to our local communities as they couldn’t be trusted in the way we can trust local authorities – could they? And how could schools possibly ensure that they maintained a high quality of education for every child – regardless of ability – surely that can only be achieved through a bureaucratic system which checked that the needs of disadvantaged children?

Categories of English Schools

As part of my on-going research into international school governance models I’ve copied the following from School Autonomy in England. It sets out the the main distinguishing features of the different legal categories of schools in England as follows:

Community Schools
· do not own land and buildings (these are owned by the local authority)
· receive recurrent funding through the LA
· receive funding for capital projects at 100 per cent
· have a governing body in which no group has an overall majority
· are not the legal employers of their staff (staff are employed by the LA)
· do not have primary responsibility for admissions (the LA has responsibility)
· must provide the National Curriculum
· may not have a religious character and must follow the locally agreed religious
education syllabus.

Foundation Schools
· may or may not be supported by a charitable foundation
· may own their land and buildings (if not, these are owned by a charitable foundation)
· receive recurrent funding through the local authority
· receive funding for capital projects at 100 per cent
· have a governing body in which no group has an overall majority, although different
arrangements may apply to foundation schools which are also Trust Schools
· are the legal employers of their staff, but teachers’ pay and conditions are bound by a
national framework
· have primary responsibility for admissions but must follow the School Admissions
· must provide the National Curriculum
· may or may not have a religious character; if not, must follow the locally agreed
religious education syllabus for the area.

Trust Schools (from September 2007)
· are foundation schools (as above) supported by a charitable foundation or trust
· have a governing body in which the trust appoints either a minority or a majority of
the governors; the decision as to which model to follow rests with the existing
governing body of the school seeking trust status
· will form the majority of new schools according to current government expectations.

Voluntary Controlled (VC) Schools
· do not own their land and buildings (these are normally owned by a charitable
· receive their recurrent funding through the LA
· are funded for capital projects at 100 per cent
· have a governing body in which the foundation governors form one group on the
governing body, but no group has a majority
· are not the legal employers of their staff (staff are employed by the LA)
· do not have primary responsibility for admissions (the LA has responsibility)
· must provide the National Curriculum
· have, in most cases, a religious character; if not, religious education must follow the
locally agreed syllabus for the area.

Voluntary Aided (VA) Schools
· do not own their land and buildings (these are owned by a charitable foundation)
· receive their recurrent funding through the LA
· are funded for capital projects but not at 100 per cent; must contribute a minimum of
10 per cent of costs
· have a governing body in which the foundation governors, that is those representing
the church, faith group or other trust, have an absolute majority over all other groups
of governor
· are the legal employers of their staff but teachers’ pay and conditions are bound by a
national framework
· have primary responsibility for admissions but must follow the School Admissions
· must provide the National Curriculum
· have, in most cases, a religious character; if not, religious education must follow the
locally agreed syllabus for the area.

City Technology Colleges (CTCs)
· are legally independent schools
· are supported by sponsors which constitute an educational trust and own or lease the
· receive recurrent funding through a funding agreement with the Secretary of State20
· receive funding for capital projects but not at 100 per cent; 20 per cent of the initial
capital cost was paid by private sector sponsors who continue to contribute 20 per cent
towards all capital projects
· are legal employers of their staff and set their own pay and conditions for teachers
· have primary responsibility for admissions and may select those applicants who are
most likely to benefit from the emphasis on science and technology; although they are
not bound by the School Admissions Code they are prohibited by their funding
agreements from selecting by general academic ability
· are not bound by the National Curriculum programmes of study, but are required to
provide a broad and balanced curriculum with an emphasis on science and technology,
and to teach the subjects of the National Curriculum
· are now being encouraged by the Government to convert to Academies.

· are legally independent schools, usually established as a charitable company limited
by guarantee; this charitable company, often referred to as the Academy Trust, is
incorporated with the sole intent of running one or more Academies
· are usually secondary schools but some Academies are all-through schools for threeto
· own their own land and buildings
· are supported by sponsors who provide around 10 per cent of the initial capital costs,
up to a cap of around £2 million
· receive recurrent funding from the DCSF on a comparable basis to other schools
within the same area; there is no requirement for a sponsor to contribute
· are, as a charitable company, the legal employer of their staff and responsible for
establishing teachers’ pay and conditions
· have a governing body whose members are the directors of the company constituted
under the Memorandum and Articles of the Academy Trust
· have a subject specialism
· are not bound by the National Curriculum
· have primary responsibility for admissions but are bound by the School Admissions
· are prohibited by their funding agreement from selecting by high academic ability
· may or may not have a religious character; the funding agreement specifies
requirements for religious education that parallel the requirements for maintained
· are increasing in number towards the Government’s target of 400; there were 83 in
operation in October 2007.

Some particular types of maintained school, based on categorisations that cut across the legal categories of maintained school, are listed below.

Specialist schools
· are secondary schools belonging to any legal category
· may or may not have a religious character
· must raise £50,000 in sponsorship (£20,000 for the smallest schools) and receive
additional government funding
· have a special focus on their chosen specialist subject area: arts, business and
enterprise, engineering, humanities, language, mathematics & computing, music,
science, sports and technology, or they may combine any two specialisms
· are expected to establish a distinct identity through their chosen specialism while still
providing the National Curriculum
· may select up to 10 per cent of their intake by aptitude for the specialist area, but not
by general academic ability (unless a designated grammar school).

Faith schools
· are designated by the Secretary of State as having a religious character
· may be either a foundation or a voluntary (aided or controlled) school, but not a
community school
· are most commonly associated with the Church of England or the Roman Catholic
Church, although there are now a small but increasing number of publicly funded
Muslim, Sikh and Jewish schools
· if oversubscribed, may give priority for admissions to children who are members of,
or who practise, their faith or denomination
· are exempt from the locally agreed syllabus for religious education – religious
education is provided in accordance with the school’s trust deed or in accordance with
the beliefs of the designated religion or denomination.

Grammar schools
· are secondary schools belonging to any legal category
· may or may not be a faith school
· may or may not have a subject specialism
· may select pupils for general academic ability and may leave places unfilled if there
are insufficient applicants of the required ability. Ability is usually assessed

School Choice, Kiwi-Style

THE NEW ZEALAND EDUCATION REFORMS link  (my highlights in bold)

More than a decade ago, New Zealand faced problems similar to those in Canadian public schools, rapidly expanding costs and declining performance. The Kiwis made bold, across-the-board reforms, with positive results.

New Zealand’s government had created a massive, unresponsive educational system where parents had little or no influence. The system was failing to meet acceptable achievement levels. There was outright bureaucratic capture, and little or no performance accountability. The system consumed 70 cents of every education dollar, with only 30 cents spent in the classroom. As in Canada, budget figures underestimated these overheads; what were officially described as “administration costs” represented a convenient fiction.

The New Zealand government administered education through a highly bureaucratic structure. The Ministry of Education, the central body that answered to the federal government, made all of the rules and controlled expenditures with prescriptive regulations. It determined the curriculum, how it would be taught, and how performance would be measured. In every region, the ministry established Boards of Education to whom it delegated limited power.

Since reforms were implemented, about 67 cents of each education dollar is now spent in the classroom, more than double the previous amount. Parents play the dominant role in the educational choices for their children. Learning has improved, and classroom size is down.

Education continues to be fully funded by the central government from general income and consumption tax revenues. Every child is still entitled by law to a tax-supported education until completing secondary school. Little else remains the same.


Comprehensive reform in New Zealand reversed the top-down style of governance. All Boards of Education have been eliminated. Boards of Trustees have been established for each school. Parents of the children at that school run for election to boards, which are unpaid positions. The Trustees deliver accountability directly into the hands of the parents. The Board of Trustees makes all spending decisions, and has full responsibility for what happens at their school.

The Board of Trustees writes the Charter for their school, and is bound by and accountable for achieving its goals. The Charter can only be changed after a consultative process with the parents.

The role of the Ministry has been changed to that of the body that passes to the Board of Trustees a block of money determined by a formula based on the number of students at the school. It is also responsible for auditing school performance against its Charter requirements. Reflecting its new role, the Ministry was reduced to about half its former size.

Because education is the most important influence on a child’s future, next to parenting, New Zealanders participated in a significant debate over parental rights regarding education. They decided that parents have an absolute right to choose the school at which their children will be educated. The consequence: good schools with good teachers get more students, less capable schools with less capable teachers get fewer students, which means that less money and fewer teachers are employed at that school.

Private schools may get state funding equivalent to public schools. To do so they must make an application to the Minister of Education to integrate. This process requires them to prove their buildings, grounds and facilities meet code standards. About 15 percent of all schools are private, and to date about 90 percent of these schools have integrated.

Once integrated, private schools have the right to maintain their special character (normally religious education and ethics), though they must teach the core curriculum and be open and actively teaching the students for a prescribed number of days each school year. For this they get identical funding to public schools, including capital funding. They may compete to educate any children. This process started in the 1970’s, and is now non-controversial.

The elimination of bureaucracy freed up large quantities of money, and the national government decided that all of it would remain a part of education spending. This decision allowed major investments in classroom technology, a significant investment in teaching aides and bringing all maintenance projects up to date.


The Third International Mathematics and Science Examination gave international achievement tests to samples of students in multiple countries. Students were tested in the 4th, 8th and 12th grades. The figures below present 1995 mathematics achievement scores for the United States and New Zealand compared to the international average.

Achievement scores are influenced by a variety of factors other than the quality of schools. For instance, New Zealand introduces mathematics and science into the curriculum at later grades than is commonly the case. Although this curriculum severely handicaps the performance of New Zealand’s 4th grade students on international exams, it is ultimately of no real consequence.

The influence of school quality, however, increases as a student spends more time in the school system. Idiosyncratic factors have largely played themselves out by the graduating year. The 12th Grade tests are ultimately more important than earlier ones, reflecting the quality of skills held by students entering college and the workforce.

The 1995 Mathematics TIMSS exams reveal that New Zealand 4th graders start 30 points below the international average, but they quickly catch up, with 8th graders being only 5 points below the international average, and 12th graders scoring 22 points above the international average. Obviously, once mathematics has been introduced, the lessons are learned well in New Zealand.


Ironically, the cautionary lesson to be drawn from the New Zealand experience is to avoid school choice programs that include only public schools. The key problem with the New Zealand program lies in the fact that the government retained ownership over school facilities, and has been reluctant both to spend money expanding popular schools and to close unpopular schools. This is a problem for those who argue for keeping choice within the realm of public schools, not for those advocating full school choice. Such political considerations interfere with the functioning of the education market in New Zealand, but would be less of a problem under a full choice program. Private and charter schools in the North America can and do open, expand and close their doors, free of considerations about government capital support.

The “cautionary tale” for competition models is the fact that some schools will gain students while others will lose them under competition. The authors, however, acknowledge that many of the schools having difficulty under the reforms are the same schools that had trouble under the previous centralized regime. The authors have therefore mistaken a real gain of the reforms for a problem. New Zealand schools esteemed by parents have grown, while unpopular schools have shrunk. What this means is that fewer Kiwi children today attend schools which parents regard as being of relatively low quality than was the case beforethe reforms. This is a victory to be celebrated rather than a failure of the reforms.


Although not without its imperfections, school reform in New Zealand has, as stated earlier, been quite successful, and is supported by a substantial majority of the population. Individual schools have much more control over the style and content of their offerings, and budget decisions reflect the values of educators and parents instead of the needs of politicians, bureaucrats and teachers’ unions.

Post-reform, the proportion of resources dedicated to front-line educating in New Zealand has doubled, while administrative layers have been peeled away. This change in priorities is reflected in New Zealand’s improved ranking in international test scores.

Boston Pilot Schools Network

I came across a very interesting project from Boston, USA, which sets out to give schools more autonomy and accountability.  Known as the Boston Schools Project its has been running since 1994.  The results are impressive and include:

·         Pilot Schools are attractive to Boston families, as evidenced by high waiting lists;
·         Pilot Schools have high holding power, as evidenced by high student attendance and low transfer rates
·         Pilots Schools are safe, as evidenced by low suspension rates
·         Pilot Schools are successful in educating students, as evidenced by low grade retention rates; standardized test scores (in MCAS and Stanford 9) that are comparable or higher than the BPS district averages for most Pilot Schools; and high graduation rates
·         Pilot Schools provide students with expanded life opportunities, as evidenced by high college-going rates.  

I was very interested in what they describe as their Conditions of Autonomy:

Five Pilot School Areas of Autonomy, plus Accountability

1. Staffing: Pilot schools have the freedom to hire and excess their staff in order to create a unified school community. This includes:

Deciding on staffing patterns which best meet the academic, social, and emotional needs of students
Hiring staff that best fit the needs of the school, regardless of their current status (member of the district or not, although every teacher hired becomes a member of the local teachers union)
Excessing staff (into the district pool) that do not fulfill the needs of the school

2. Budget: Pilot schools have a lump sum per pupil budget in which the school has total discretion to spend in the manner that provides the best programs and services to students and their families. This includes:

A lump sum per pupil budget, the sum of which is equal to other BPS schools within that grade span
The district has moved toward itemizing all central office costs, and allows Pilot schools to choose to purchase identified discretionary district services or to not purchase them and include them in the school’s lump sum per pupil budget

3. Curriculum and Assessment: Pilot schools have the freedom to structure their curriculum and assessment practices to best meet students’ learning needs. While acknowledging that all Pilot schools are expected to administer any state- and district-required test, these schools are given the flexibility to best determine the school-based curriculum and assessment practices that will prepare students for state and district assessments. This includes:

Schools are freed from local district curriculum requirements
Graduation requirements are set by the school, not by the district, with an emphasis on competency-based, performance-based assessment.

4. Governance and Policies: Pilot schools have the freedom to create their own governance structure that has increased decision making powers over budget approval, principal selection and firing, and programs and policies, while being mindful of state requirements on school councils. This includes:

The school’s site council takes on increased governing responsibilities, including the following: principal selection, supervision, and firing, with final approval by the superintendent in all cases; budget approval; and setting of school policies

The school has flexibility to be freed from all district policies, and set its own policies that the school community feels will best help students to be successful. This includes policies such as promotion, graduation, attendance, and discipline

5. School Calendar: Pilot schools have the freedom to set longer school days and calendar years for both students and faculty. In particular, research supports a correlation between faculty planning time spent on teaching and learning and increased student achievement. Scheduling which allows for summer and school year faculty planning time contributes to a more unified school community and educational program. This includes:

Increasing planning and professional development time for faculty
Increasing learning time for students
Organizing the school schedule in ways that maximize learning time for students and planning time for faculty (e.g., longer days Monday through Thursday in order to have half-days for students on Fridays, enabling faculty to have a significant planning and professional development block every Friday afternoon).

Accountability: Pilot Schools Network Statement

(Adopted 4/2000) The Pilot Schools believe that having in place a strong system of assessing student progress is vital to creating excellent schools in which all students learn and achieve at high levels. We believe in standards that lead to excellent schools, not standardization. We support the development of network-wide competencies and assessments that, while providing common information on how schools are doing, also allow for and encourage uniqueness in approaches to instruction and assessment among schools. Ultimately, good assessment systems should open doors for all students rather than shut them, and help students graduate with a range of options.

Community Ownership of Schools: some questions

Over the coming year we are going to be exploring and considering the benefits of moving our schools in East Lothian to some form of local ownership and management.

To that end we are in the final phases of organising a conference to be held late March/early April 2010.

A key part of our approach towards the development of this concept is to engage with some of the difficulties which have been thrown up in other international attempts to devolve responsibility for education to a local level.

The following questions have been derived from research and discussion.  We hope to have found answers to all of these by our deadline of December 2010.  Please note this list of question is not intended to be exhaustive – but will form the initial building blocks for the development of the concept.

Our concept is based upon a cluster of schools made up of the local primary schools and associated secondary school.  The authority would commission the local community – in the form of a Board of Governors (or the like) – to deliver an agreed set of outcomes. As much of the budget as possible would be devolved to the Board (with an associated slimming down of the centre). The management model is based upon the current system for managing further education colleges in Scotland – with the exception being that funding in their case comes direct from the Scottish Government through a funding council. It is possible that these Community Boards could eventually become Educational Trusts, and benefit from the advantages that such charitable status would bring about.

I will be returning to these questions – hopefully with answers – throughout the coming year.  If you have any other questions (or answers) which would help to shape our concept please feel free to leave them as a comment.

  1. How would such schools be managed?

  2. How would children with Additional Learning Needs be supported?

  3. Who would manage placing requests from outwith a cluster?

  4. What happens if outcomes set by the authority are not met?

  5. What happens if a Trust did not manage its finances properly?

  6. Who employs the staff?

  7. What happens to Parent Councils?

  8. How would the authority know how Trusts are performing?

  9. Who would provide support for payroll; ICT; Finance; HR; legal advice, etc?

  10. How would small units benefit from large-scale procurement contracts?

  11. How would Trusts engage with other services such as social work?

  12. Who is responsible for repairs and maintenance, cleaning, etc?

  13. Would Trusts have to follow all Council policies?

  14. How would Trusts access the Psychology Service?

  15. How would schools ensure that the quality of education they provide has been quality assured?

  16. Who deals with complaints about a school?

  17. What if the authority disagreed with some of the decisions being taken by a Trust?

  18. Who would be responsible for Health and Safety?

  19. Could Trusts vary the pay of school leaders?

  20. Who would arbitrate in the event of dispute between schools in a Trust?

  21. How much power would the Trust have in setting the curriculum?

  22. What do Headteachers manage and what do Trusts manage?

  23. How can the authority ensure that the make up of Trusts are representative of a true cross-section of each community, i.e. inclusive?

  24. How do we ensure that one particular school does not dominate the Board?

  25. What is the role of a Trust Board member?

  26. Would we need some paid members of a Trust?

  27. What if one school wanted to join another Trust?

  28. How would Trusts support the needs of children with severe and complex needs?

  29. Would Trusts be able to generate income?

  30. What happens if a child is excluded from a school on a permanent basis?

  31. Is there equity in terms of the quality of potential Board members across all of our communities?

  32. How do we minimise potential conflict between Trusts and the local authority?

  33. How would Trusts manage performance issues with members of staff?

  34. Could an authority pull a Trust back into local authority control?

  35. Would Trusts be able to choose to buy services from other local authorities or companies?

  36. What would happen if a Trust were perceived not to be “inclusive” for certain groups of children?

  37. Could Trusts extend to take control of another Trust?

  38. Who would be responsible for home to school transport?

  39. Would schools be able to work with schools from other Trusts?

  40. Would the authority still seek to develop authority wide policies?

  41. What would be the role of elected members at a local and authority wide level?

  42. How would Trust schools engage with the Scottish Government?

  43. Who would be responsible for requests for information?

  44. Would there be a business manager for each Trust?

  45. Would one Headteacher take on the role of Chief Executive/Principal?

  46. Who would appoint Trust members?

  47. Would any cluster be able to apply to become a Trust?

  48. Would there be certain criteria that a cluster must satisfy before it can become a Trust?

  49. Would a school be able to opt out of a Trust and return to local authority direct line management?

  50. How would budgets be devolved to Trusts?

  51. Would Nursery Schools belong to the Trusts?

  52. Who would liaise with unions?

  53. Would parents be able to make an appeal to direct to the Council about a matter of concern?

  54. How would issues relating to accessibility be resolved?

  55. Who would be responsible for recruitment of Headteachers and staff?

  56. What kind of support would the authority provide to support /train Trust members/

  57. Who would be responsible for liaising with major external partners such as Health; Police; Voluntary sector?

  58. What would happen to authority wide initiatives?

  59. Who would provide support to Headteachers?

  60. Who would organise Continuous Professional development for all members of staff?

System Leadership and Governance: Leadership beyond institutional boundaries

This is a direct lift from a thought piece from the Innovation Unit’s reflections on mobilising schools and communities.  I think you might be able to imagine my surprise at the degree of concordance between what they are arguing for and East Lothian’s ideas about Community Ownership of schools.

System Leadership and Governance

Leadership beyond institutional boundaries


The aim of this think piece is to stimulate thinking about leadership and governance that operates across local systems rather than within institutions.

This implies the need for some fresh thinking. Contexts are changing. The old models of leadership aren’t able to meet next practice challenges. They have not delivered and cannot deliver the achievement levels that we know to be possible for students, nor can they achieve socially just outcomes, for all young people.

A good example of the inadequacy of the current models is seen as we move towards collective, locality-wide provision of 14-19 education. The implementation of local 14-19 entitlement provision for young people has commitment from both government and the profession. However, despite the best efforts and aspirations of localities across the country, the necessary moves towards collective planning and provision remain in tension with institutional autonomies. The gap between leader’s espoused and enacted commitment to an entitlement 14-19 provision remains huge in most cases. This at least in part explains why recent statistics show school sixth form provision currently to be more socially exclusive than universities.

Similar locality leadership and governance challenges apply where a group of schools, a network or 0-19 cluster, seeks to work together in the interests of all children. Or when a range of public services, including schools, try to work collaboratively to implement the Every Child Matters agenda, crossing traditional service lines.

The problem is that all these examples run against the grain of institutional self-interest – which is either incentivised by other aspects of current policy, or by institutional accountabilities. To be successful, institutional governance may need in each case to take a back seat to locality or collective governance, but there have been few models of practice upon which to build.

In the same way, these same desired outcomes are unachievable without leadership that acts out its roles and authority beyond the boundaries of the individual institutions. Leadership in such contexts will inevitably be stretched across localities and services and will need to inter-relate with the existing leadership and governance arrangements of schools and other services. It will probably have new sets of roles and relationships and be more about connection than separation. It may be collective rather than individual. It is likely to have lateral and enabling characteristics as well as (or instead of) hierarchical ones. It may need to achieve its strength not from position but through collective agreement, influence and the brokerage of relationships and alliances.

In truth, we don’t yet have definitive models; the examples are emerging.

System governance, however configured, will probably need to set policy, define strategy and decide resource allocation and accountability strategies across several institutions. It may impact on service providers other than education. It might be much less committee-bound, more active than ceremonial. And it might involve new and different actors in new and different relationships.

Again, we just don’t yet know with any authority. In the case of both leadership and governance, next practice models are still few and far between.

Because they are interdependent, you can read the next two sections in either order. We have chosen here to start with leadership, but could just as easily have started with governance.

System Leadership

What is it?

As has already been said, much attention is currently being paid to the concept of ‘system leadership’. At the same time, interpretations vary and definition is elusive, but this is hardly surprising. System leadership is an emergent concept – it will, in the end, be defined by practice, as the education system evolves and reshapes itself to meet broader twenty-first century challenges and aspirations.

This section does not seek to achieve definition. Instead, it is intended to provoke thought and to stimulate dialogue about new and, perhaps, better designs to meet the aspirations of particular local contexts.

Firstly, it is values driven. In a recent Demos paper, written for NCSL1, Tom Bentley and John Craig set out a powerful underpinning values dimension:

System leadership involves a shift in mindset for school leaders, emphasising what they share with others over how they differ. Where they can, system leaders eschew ‘us and them’ relationships – with their community, with other schools and professionals and with the DCSF – and model a commitment to the learning of every child.

This moral dimension is an important component of professional leadership in the public sector. It could be argued that since the days of the Education Reform Act schools have become increasingly autonomous, not only from DCSF or Local Authority control, but also in many cases from one another and from their communities. What is implied in the concept of ‘system leadership’ is a move towards a more deliberately collaborative and interdependent system, and probably one more orientated towards the locality. This is also a move away ‘institutional leadership’ and towards ‘educational leadership’ – responsibility for leadership of public services that benefit all young people. As such:

System leadership maximises the influence and effect of leadership across a system. It represents both a shift in the practice of leaders to ensure wider influence and in the system itself to make this possible. (Demos/NCSL)

This analysis fits well with Michael Fullan’s description of system leadership activity as a ‘very different model of leadership from the traditional single school model – one that is extended beyond the school, highly interactive both horizontally and vertically, and engaged in communication and critique of policies and strategies’.

A capacity for ‘system thinking’ self-evidently becomes a key competence required of system leaders. This means both knowing how to exercise leadership within a connected system, and knowing how the system can be damaged (in its aspiration to succeed with and for all pupils) if you don’t. For tomorrow’s leaders this means the ability to understand one’s own responsibilities and the range of relationships, resources and activities which one’s leadership can influence. Crucially, it also means that not applying systemic thinking – not seeing one’s role within that wider moral and practical canvas – can have restricting and even harmful effects on the whole of the local system.

In other words, the stakes are high: how each head teacher behaves has consequences for other schools and the life chances of the young people within them. It is just no longer sufficient to see the work of leadership as limited to one’s position in a single organisation.

What does system leadership do?

In a sentence, system leadership sees, and acts on, the system as a whole. It recognizes the interdependence between schools, and between schools, other public institutions and communities. It recognizes, too, that the relationships between them can have profound effects on the outcomes for young people.

If we accept that this is the basic territory for what system leadership will do, then it is clearly a different set of skills and behaviours that are required by those exercising locality leadership. There is no blueprint, but both writing and practice in this field suggest some common elements.

The first feature is in the area of vision and purpose. All effective leadership requires the generation of collective vision and shared purpose. Across localities system leaders have the double challenge of making this both a more broadly-based and a more compelling one – a living vision capable of enrolling diverse groups. Radical change across organisations has to take everyone with it, and do so without the authority of institutional position.

The second relates to leadership capacity-building. System leadership is both an individual and a collective role. It expands its scope and influence through the collective. System leaders create opportunities for joint work and analysis of past practices – activities that can liberate creative energies by challenging historical assumptions. In so doing they also distribute leadership opportunities – creating space for new system leaders to grow. Put another way, this capacity-building part is about system leadership more than system leaders.

The third feature involves creating a climate of professional generosity and exchange. System leaders open up professional practices to external scrutiny and for wider adoption. They make professional learning public and shared (as has long been the case in law and medicine). A system will only thrive through the collective and cumulative contributions of multiple participants and stakeholders.

In addition to ‘what’ leaders do in leading across systems, ‘how’ that leadership enacts itself is also important. Recognising the importance of, and potential in, these interconnections, system leaders seek not only to do different things but also to do things differently in the interest of the wider system. According to Demos, system leaders build structures, processes and cultures which:

 1. Recognise that in systems made up of people there will be multiple perspectives on a problem or situation. This means that change is most likely to be achieved through drawing on those diverse perspectives.

 2. Build the autonomy of those in the system by setting a few simple rules, but maintaining high minimum standards. To marry flexibility with quality assurance, this needs to be done within a clear overall framework.

 3. Support autonomy with connecting individuals to one another. Allowing people autonomy within systems does not mean leaving them in isolation – systems can help them to solve problems together and to share learning.

 4. Support learning and continuous improvement by creating feedback loops. This means giving people access to information that can help them understand the factors affecting the performance of the system.

5. Maintain an open and vibrant learning culture. Learning cultures need leaders to recognise and model the importance of learning.

The National College for School Leadership has recognised some practical aspects of what system leaders need to do. This involves:

1. Building sustainable capacity in their own institutions – thereby allowing system interest to supersede self-interest.

2. Developing sustainable capacity beyond their institution – reaching out beyond the school to forge new alliances around shared purposes, so establishing local confidence.

3. Contributing to the wider system – to open up local work in order also to contribute to national strategic development or the learning of other localities.

However, as we suggested earlier, you don’t have to travel far down this road of leadership across localities, or between schools and services, to see that it requires a new source of authority and legitimacy – and a capacity to hold it to account and to ensure sustainability. System leadership and system governance are inextricably interconnected constructs.


What is governance?

When first considering what we are here calling ‘locality change’, you are likely to be drawn initially towards the evident need for some form of system leadership. However, leaders only have to take the first steps outside their institutional roles (across localities, across services, across schools) and issues of accountability, authority and legitimacy make us quickly aware that new forms of governance are the inevitable flip-side of the system leadership coin. It is obvious that we need next practice models of governance as much as we need next practice models of leadership.

The term ‘governance’ is not just about governors or governing bodies. For schools, the experience of governance may often be lived out as a ‘governing body’ and its ‘committees’, but in this paper we are talking about a much wider concept.

Governance provides the ground rules for activity; it sets the direction; it defines the boundaries; it provides resources; it allocates permissions; and it holds to account. And, in doing these things, where system leadership might be engaged in ‘locality place shaping’, governance has the responsibility to be a guardian of what is termed ‘public value’.

Historical models of governance in education have always had an institutional flavour. School governors may well be drawn from wider stakeholder groups and be perceived in part as custodians of community and system expectations, but their primary orientation is the school and its performance. They set school policy, manage its resources, appoint and performance manage the head, and hold the individual school to account.

Within the context of this think piece about system leadership, ‘system governance’ describes the agreed processes and principles that shape how decisions are made and how authority and leadership are created, legitimised and distributed across a locality or a distributed organisational form of some kind. The net effect should be to help the people in the ‘collaboration’ create new ways of working together better to achieve their common purpose.

What does governance do?

Governance is a universal phenomenon and governance arrangements cross time and span geography and culture. The most primitive tribes had governance strategies (‘elders’) and so do the most formal of contemporary organisations (‘boards’). This is because governance is partly about getting things done together without re-inventing the wheel every time. It’s about tried, tested and trusted patterns of interaction that help us to decide on the most efficient and legitimate way of achieving a common purpose.

Three features of governance are particularly important:

  1. how it is constituted (who governs and how are they chosen)
  2. how it operates (how governors fulfil their functions)
  3. its defining features or spheres of operation (what governance does and in what domains).

 The first and second of these will be key areas of debate for localities exploring new sets of arrangements. In this section, though, we are considering in particular the third, what governance does.

As suggested above, governance is exercised in five domains; there are five things that we expect governance to do:

Direction pointing

Governance defines purpose. It determines the reasons for the existence of the ‘organisation’ and lays out what is being attempted. So, for example, governance decides that schools are places for learning, hospitals are places for healing. Or it might go further and decide which form of learning or which healing specialisation. In consortia or collaboratives, or local systems, it is the governance that overarches and underpins the collective; that defines and continues to define the terms and extent and core purpose of the union. The italics are important, for it is also governance that offers the potential for, or which protects, continuity and sustainability beyond leadership tenure. System leaders come and go, but governance is for the long haul.


Governance also defines what can’t be done, what is not acceptable, and so puts boundaries around the scope and sphere of influence of system leadership.

In this way governance establishes the frame for leadership and its legitimate sphere of application. The authority and freedom to act lie within these boundaries, as do the accountabilities. Once leadership steps outside the relatively contained boundaries of individual institutions, once it becomes leadership across a local system, the significance of the boundary-setting role of governance becomes obvious.


For those wishing to work across organisational boundaries, access to shared or collective resourcing strategies is enabling – the opposite can be debilitating. Although financial resources will be one part of the resource capacity in mind here, it is far from being the only one. The lateral deployment of people, professional development, time and influence are equally important – as are the collaborative and collective utilisation of existing resources and expertise.

This last point is important. Public sector collaborative efforts are always likely to take place within a climate of financial constraint. And anyway, history tells us that extra funding tends to lead to bolt-on and ultimately unsustainable approaches. Disaggregating institutional ‘pots’ to create collective capacities and capabilities offers new and sustainable possibilities – but the governance challenges to such a strategy are obvious.


Permission, the authority to act, especially actions that are different from historical ways of working, lies within the realm of governance. This might mean a heavy emphasis on central control, or it might mean very few restrictions upon actions in order to encourage creativity pursuit of innovative solutions. Context and purpose will dictate which.

As the public sector reinvents itself to become more user focused, more personalised, more flexible, connected and collaborative, so new models of governance – new permissions – become evident, increasingly designed to stimulate creativity and innovation. The health service example below is illuminating:

The science of complex adaptive systems brings new concepts that can provide fresh understandings of troubling issues in the organisation and management of delivery of health care. We have argued that effective organisation and delivery of health care does not need detailed targets and specifications, nor should it focus primarily on “controlling the process” or “overcoming resistance”.

Rather, those who seek change should harness the natural creativity and organising ability of staff and stakeholders through such principles as generative relationships, minimum specification, the positive use of attractors for change and a constructive approach to variation in areas of practice where there is only moderate certainty and agreement.

Determining the level of control required and the degree of permission given to those who lead across and within local systems is a function of governance.

Holding to Account

In all institutional forms this function is the flipside of the freedoms and scope that leadership enjoys. The more space for leaders to lead, the more important it is that everyone knows that there is a framework of accountability. In system leadership the scope and flexibility are by definition expanded across localities or services. The spheres of influence and responsibility are increased. Governance defines and exercises the nature and form of the accountabilities that are a part of the necessary checks, balances and celebrations.

These five things are what public sector governance does. In doing them well it also protects public value.

Why leadership and governance?

These new ways of working involve an expansion of boundaries for leadership and, as John Craig and Tom Bentley argue, effective system leaders are also able to understand the ‘hidden wiring of governance relationships’. Yet often, new purposes and activities are occurring in contexts where the governance framework was designed for individual and separately functioning in Next practices in system leadership require new frameworks of governance to be fashioned (new governance models) if leadership and governance are to be aligned and if higher order purposes are to be sustained as key people come and go. Once leadership begins to function beyond the boundaries of a single school, new variables emerge which raise questions about legitimacy and accountability. Even more vexing is the question of how the authority of system leaders butts up against the institutional autonomy of other schools and the role of each school and new arrangements, and also to show the dynamic interdependence of the two elements.