Why we need state-funded autonomous schools in Scotland

Why we need state-funded autonomous schools in Scotland

by Bill Nicol
article from Monday 13, February, 2017

THE Scottish Government’s current review of governance, “Empowering Teachers, Parents and Communities,” assumed from the outset that it “must empower teachers to make the best decisions for children and young people”. The consultation went on to say “decisions about children's learning and school life should be taken within schools themselves, supported by parents and local communities.” It emphasised that evidence shows co-operation and collaboration drives improvement. But, above all the review has indicated the Government’s “willingness to consider and question how each part of the education system supports the vision for excellence and equity”.

The Hometown Foundation, a Scottish registered charity with a strong focus on education, welcomes and fully supports the fundamental review and reform of education in Scotland, on the basis that some urgency is applied with practical action on the ground.

For some time, the charity has recognised that there is significant scope to improve the education system, by clarifying accountability and responsibility, introducing greater innovation and diversity and, by empowering schools to drive up attainment levels.

In recognition of Scotland’s slipping standards, the Foundation began to consult with concerned parents and teacher groups over three years ago, developing solutions to address some basic failings of the present system. Detailed business plans for pilot  autonomous schools were developed and submitted to the Scottish Government and discussions have been ongoing for nearly two years.

To date, five detailed and costed business plans for new autonomous schools have been prepared, with others in train. They introduce new and progressive educational models, which will assist with education reform and allow comparisons to be drawn with schools in the prevailing state system.

The Foundation has been working with the Parent Group of St Joseph’s Primary School in Milngavie since the early part of 2015. Its proposition integrates academic, health and social services, youth and community development and community engagement. The intention is to establish the school as the anchor for a community hub, which will lead to improved student learning, stronger families and a healthier community. The school, which will be open to the whole community, will be a centre for improved attainment and a model for innovative learning.

The charity is also working closely with Al-Qalam Academy, to advance a proposal for a Community led “all through” school in Glasgow for the Muslim and non-Muslim community alike. This low cost private primary school has been running successfully since 2010 so it provides a solid foundation to build a community led, state-funded, primary and secondary school in the Glasgow area.

The vision is to achieve high pupil attainment levels, linking talent with the relevant industry sectors in high school. A variety of bespoke methods will be deployed at the new school, such as extending and enhancing the Scottish Curriculum Framework using methodologies that can advance pupils learning experiences and pupil tracking. Through the development of a Quality Indicator Grid (QUIG), school progress and performance can be measured, maintained and improved.

A business plan has also been prepared in partnership with the Aberdeen Green School in Marycoulter, now in its third year of operation. The school adopts a holistic approach with its students and places a priority on the social and emotional wellbeing of each pupil. Innovations at the school include flexible, personalised project based learning, self-management and the promotion of strong interpersonal skills. 

Others include a Steiner Community school proposition and what is currently a confidential proposal for a secondary school in an area of multiple-deprivation, sharing similar principles with Jim McColl’s Newlands Junior School in Glasgow, assisting 14-19 year olds with top up education and vocational training. The school provides an exemplar of how the Scottish education system could cater better for young people who are disengaged from their current secondary school education. It will become a centre of excellence, ensuring pupils reach their potential in learning, work and life, enriching their local and wider communities.

In order to advance and share good practice across the emerging autonomous schools, a support framework has been developed to facilitate collaboration and innovation. This low cost platform will also take on shared functions, such as employer responsibility, finance, commissioning and IT, allowing teachers and heads to focus on what they do best – teach.

The aspiration is to deliver better outcomes for pupils, parents, local communities and taxpayers alike. The day to day running of schools will be in the hands of professional teachers, with parents encouraged to become more involved.  So far, the Hometown Foundation's experience shows clearly that schools routinely achieve better outcomes where parents engage and the students are more receptive. Having collaborated with a number of schools to prepare fully-costed business plans for the Scottish Government, it is clear that the autonomous model offers significant financial savings - in the region of 15-20% - as well as turbo-charging scholarly performance.  

We remain encouraged that the Scottish Government ‘has an open mind’ on autonomous schools and look forward to some traction on the submitted business plans, as the governance review findings emerge.

Bill Nicol, Director, Hometown Foundation, Mechanics Workshop, New Lanark.

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