Wednesday, 11 November 2009

"Time to decide on the future of our schools"

Published in The Scotsman, 10 November 09

When Tony Blair called comprehensive schools bog standard he wasn’t deriding the excellent effort of the many fantastic teachers who ran England’s schools, he was simply making the point that the comprehensive concept was not designed to deliver dull uniformity. David Berry’s call for an open debate on the structure of Scottish schooling asks the very same question but it is unlikely to result in the very same answer – and rightly so.

Scotland starts from an entirely different base with its own educational heritage and, more importantly a stronger communitarian context. The possibilities for radical reform are far greater here than they ever were South of the border.

Scotland has a fine culture of community activism that strangely has not yet found its way into our education system. Now is the time for that public engagement.
For far too long the political and educational establishment in Scotland has thrown a protective, and defensive, cloak around the structure of Scottish education. The world has changed, yet Scottish school management hasn’t. So, how can we best reflect the needs and aspirations of local communities within a wider, comprehensive system? Indeed, is it possible to promote change in a positive way when our current system is so self-protective?

First, we must recognise that our system needs change. Whether the debate is shaped by those that call for a simplistic concentration on exam pass rates or whether we can actually reshape the comprehensive model to suit the needs of the modern world we must at least recognise that a structure built for the last century is not fit for purpose as we reach the end of the first decade of the current one.

And, as the debate on public spending continues to rage it is essential that we do not lose sight of the proper rationale for reducing levels of expenditure or allow the tired old language of "cuts" to dominate the discourse. The central policy purpose of changing the public spending profile must be to better design and deliver higher quality, more responsive services to the public and not simply to spend less public cash, either in the short the medium or indeed the longer term.

Of course, the inefficiency that has naturally developed from the botched re-organisation of local government in the mid-90's must be addressed. The waste that has been allowed to build up through the creation of non-jobs allegedly created to monitor the work of the public sector but that rarely, if ever, result in radical change for the better also has to be swept aside. The quango bonfire is still to see a spark thrown at it in anger and the shared services agenda has yet to be promoted with real rigour.

We must focus on the real gains in service improvement that can be achieved, whilst our politicians, at least most of them, have yet to grasp the real public service thistle that universal provision must be means-tested or even that structural change is needed to increase service efficiency. We will only know that our politicians, at all levels, are serious about delivering sustainable change to public services if they develop programmes to reduce the over-reliance of the Scottish economy on public sector provision.

Dave Berry’s brave step forward to start a root and branch debate about the nature of service design and delivery is therefore to be welcomed and not derided by the dinosaurs who simply seek to protect the status quo; Tony Blair called that the “forces of conservatism”. It is simply not good enough for our politicians to revert to the black-and-white certainties of opposition. Real reform demands real debate of real ideas. It is time for all of our politicians to step up to the plate and take on the challenge of change.

Of course, a host of Scotland’s schools, often supported by their local councils, are doing fantastic, cutting edge work, from driving the enterprise agenda to supporting community bands, from delivering excellent sporting opportunity to creating cultural agendas that provide our young people with opportunities that give them a step up in the wider world. The innovation in Dave Berry’s announcement is that he is willing to look at things from a different perspective.

Sure, we haven’t yet seen the detail of East Lothian’s proposals. We don’t yet know whether the Lib Dems and the SNP both agree on the exact nature of whatever is being proposed. We have no clear steer as to whether the community engagement being proposed is of a social enterprise model, whether it bites into Labour tradition as a co-operative or even whether it is a possible step towards greater involvement of the private sector. All we know is that education is founded on ideas and debate and here, at last, is someone willing to start that discussion.

If we are to reshape our public services, or more accurately our services to the public, in any meaningful manner then that must involve a radical shift towards a mixed economy of provision that recognises and rewards the benefits of the private and social enterprise sectors as well as great quality public sector design and delivery. Scotland's birth and growth rate for SMEs (about the worst in the UK and possibly across western Europe) could receive a massive boost if the public sector was to encourage the 'spin-out' of certain services to its own employee base. This applies equally to the creation and development of our social enterprises in a country where the co-operative movement has such a rich and proud political heritage.

Our schools are the most important social asset for many of our communities and the most costly economic asset for our local authorities. If Dave Berry is asking us to think more carefully about how we, as the community, wish to manage that asset then I for one am willing to take part in that debate. Come on Scotland, can we leave the party politics at the door and have a real debate about our future – Scotland’s schools?

Ross Martin, Policy Director

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