Saturday, 22 March 2008

Liberating Education

Who runs our schools?

Here in the UK tinkering by successive governments has left a confused picture. State schools are paid for by Local Education Authorities (LEAs) that are, for the most part, synonymous with County Councils or Unitary Authorities giving these bodies considerable influence over the schools they fund. These councils receive ringfenced funding from the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF)* who also directly fund some school activities giving them the right to dictate some of what schools do.

Attempts by Government to wrest control away from LEAs have resulted in unpaid boards of governors, the majority of whom are parent and community representatives, being responsible for the strategic management of the school, in general acting in a similar way to the board of directors of a PLC.

However, here comes the crunch, the day to day management of the school is vested in the headteacher, who, in secondary schools these days, is a full time manager of the school and very unlikely to actually teach any classes. Partially because of the sheer logistics of getting governors in to schools, though largely because that is how headteachers want it, it is the headteachers themselves, together with their senior leadership/management teams that are in control; most secondary school governing bodies are little more than rubber stamps for the headteacher's decisions, it has been my dubious privilege to hear heads boast about how much control they have over their governing bodies.

When headteachers and senior managers make poor decisions who carries the can? Not themselves nor, usually, the governing bodies nor the DCSF. It is the LEA, and, when the decision has a financial cost, consequently the Council Tax payer. I have personally seen a colleague make a well founded claim for discrimination where the school had gone against the LEA's own rules and policies and was amazed that the LEA had to defend the indefensible whilst having no ability to force the school to behave properly or discipline those who were in the wrong. Once my colleague won the LEA had to pay out adding to my, and every other tax payer's, Council Tax bill.

This situation is obviously not a healthy one; we need properly accountable schools that educate our children to high standards in the manner that we prefer and that are accountable to those that ultimately pay for them.

It should be the function of the State, whether at local or national level, to ensure schools are properly funded and that consistently high educational standards are maintained. The question is, how best structure the schools and provide that education?

Each school must be accountable to the consumers of education, that is the pupils and the communities in which they live. This accountability should, for reasons of practicality, be exercised through boards who hold, in trust, the values of the school made up of parents acting for their children children themselves as they become responsible enough to exercise the trust themselves, teachers who have chosen to work in a particular kind of school because of the values it holds and other members of the community that share those values.

It is plain that no one kind of school can satisfy the aspirations of all sectors of society so this plurality of education systems must be recognised and accommodated. There is a place for the technical, vocational school, for schools based on a particular religious faith, be that Catholic, Anglican, Jewish or Islamic, for the Steiner Waldorf school, for schools that address the individual requirements of pupils whose needs cannot be accommodated elsewhere for home schooling or for any legitimate method of education for which their exists a community.

Such a plurality will liberate children from failed monolithic systems and will provide for them to be educated in a manner which will enable success for all rather than just for the privileged.

*formerly known as the Department for Education and Skills, formerly the Department for Education and Employment, formerly the Department of Education and Science, formerly the Ministry of education.

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