Closing the gap via self-directed schools

In 2007 the OECD conducted a review of Scottish education and concluded:

Although local authorities are the employers of teachers and builders of schools their influence is limited by wider arrangements that have a centralising and conforming effect.

Such a conclusion aligned with my own experience, both as a secondary school head teacher and as a Director of Education in two local authorities where I experienced the unexpected phenomenon of a ‘regression towards the mean’: an expectation from schools that the local authority would provide ‘comfort zone’ policies that generated a uniformity of practice.

Lack of Reliable Evidence

Any discussion regarding a shift towards autonomy in Scottish state schools immediately runs into the problem of a complete lack of any locally generated evidence about the impact of change.

Informed debate is undermined by a reluctance to take account of evidence about system change in England, or other countries for that matter. Such a situation allows the debate to become polarised and characterised by simplistic assertions that change would or wouldn’t work – without any reference to a reliable source of evidence, save the status quo.

The Capacity of Local Authorities

The existing system of school improvement and raising standards evolved during a time of plenty. In the past all local authorities would have an array of staff dedicated to the improvement agenda, e.g. staff tutors; education officers, quality improvement officers, quality improvement managers, advisors, heads of service, depute directors and directors of education themselves.

Over the last ten years that host of staff has been hugely diminished – without any corresponding change to the model of school improvement.

Steps are being taken to a consider amalgamating and regionally grouping local authority quality improvement functions but these seem more like an attempt to recreate the past than to generate an alternative more suited to modern leadership practice.

Decentralising responsibility for improvement

A common theme among businesses I know is a strong commitment to decentralise the responsibility for meeting the needs of clients, customers and service users.

Almost all successful companies have moved away from the old model of holding the control and management of improvement at the centre.

This contrasts quite starkly with the Scottish model of improving education and raising standards.

Scottish education legislation is peculiar in that no direct responsibility is placed upon schools to raise standards and improve the quality of education.

Any such responsibility is held by ministers and local authorities as set out in the Standards in Scotland’s Schools, etc., Act 2000.

Nowhere in the 2000 Act are schools given direct responsibility for raising standards or improving education.  This runs completely counter to all known educational research that confirms the importance of the teaching process and the excellence of school leadership as the key determinants of ‘quality education’.

It is local authorities, then, that hold the vicarious responsibility (secondhand accountability) for raising standards and education – despite never being involved in the direct delivery of the service.

One might expect that the Scottish Schools (Parental Involvement) Act 2006 would place raising standards and improving the quality of education at front and centre, and indeed it does identify their p[rimary function to be “to support the endeavours of those managing the school to raise standards of education in the school”, and “to secure improvements in the quality of education which the school provides”.

Yet the Act places no responsibility on the Parent Council to fulfil that role, merely requesting that it support the school managers – who are ultimately accountable to the local authority.

The local community has no stated role to play in this role save the possibility of individuals being co-opted onto the Parent Council.

Set against all of this is the growing international momentum towards the concept of self-improving schools.  A self-improving school has at its heart a very simple, yet defining, principle:

  • “Self improving schools take ownership of problems and reject the notion that the school itself can do little or nothing because it is somebody else’s responsibility to provide a solution.” David Hargreaves 2014.
  • However, the term ‘self-improving school’ has strong associations with the evolution of the education system in England.  Providing a ‘clean sheet of paper’ for the development of an alternative model, more suited to the principles and values of Scottish state education, requires adoping another term – such as “self-directed” – that carries no negative associations. 

In Scotland schools taking on responsibility for the improvement agenda could be referred to as ‘Self-Directed Schools’ – with the emphasis must be on the ‘self’.

  • An added benefit is that the term ‘self-directed’ is well known in Scotland, as it forms the backbone of the government’s approach to social care delivery, with a focus upon empowering people to make decisions that meet their own needs, thereby enabling them to be active citizens in their communities.


Commission on School Reform

In November 2011, the think tank Reform Scotland and the Centre for Scottish Public Policy set up the Commission on School Reform to consider whether the school system in Scotland is meeting the present and future needs of young people and to make specific recommendations as to how things might be improved or areas that would require further enquiry.

Its report argues that the underlying problem with our system of schooling is that it is too uniform and lacks the diversity required to excel. This lack of diversity has led to a very consistent level of education across the board but it has almost certainly levelled down overall achievement levels.

In order to reverse Scotland’s decline and make it become world-beating once again, the Commission argued that we need to promote variety and diversity by increasing the autonomy of individual schools and loosening the grip of central authorities.  It proposed that decisions that can competently be taken at a school level should be so without higher interference – so we can harness all the creativity that exists in Scotland’s schools and embed a culture of excellence in our system from the ground up.

The Commission argued that this approach would raise schools’ performance and crucially would ensure that pupils in schools in the most disadvantaged areas would have an opportunity to experience personal and social development all too difficult to achieve in the current system.

However, the Report has had little impact upon the model of delivery in Scottish education and it could be argued that it called for too many simultaneous radical changes, changes that might destabilise the entire system (an argument taken up by many stakeholders).

However, given the continuing concerns about standards in Scottish education and the gap in attainment between low and high-socio economic groups, now might be the time to carefully experiment with a model that shifts responsibility for raising standards and improving the quality of education.

The Proposal

What it is not: It might seem strange to commence a proposal with an unambiguous statement about what it is not. However, such is the toxicity of the debate regarding school governance that any alternative to the status quo is immediately cast in a stereotypical and extreme light. What follows is:

  1. 1. Not about removing schools from local authorities;
  1. 2. Not about ‘Academisation’ of the Scottish education system;
  1. 3. Not about charitable status for schools;
  1. 4. Not about making schools selective;
  1. 5. Not about saving money.

Purpose: To find out if shifting the responsibility for raising standards and improving education from local authority to the school would have a positive impact upon Scottish education.

What do we mean by improvement?

At the core of the proposed experiment is the impact upon the school’s capacity for continuous improvement.

The improvement would focus upon:

  • Leadership and Management: Does the school’s leadership of improvement get better?
  • Learning Provision: Does the quality of care and education improve?
  • Successes and Achievements: Do the outcomes for all learners show improvement?

The Programme

  1. 1. To establish a 3-year prototype Self-Directed School system involving 50 Scottish schools (primary and secondary schools) which would take full responsibility for raising standards and improving education.
  1. 2. Support the establishment of a ‘Self-Directed School advisory group’ in each participating school which would focus singularly upon raising standards and improving education in that school.

First steps

  1. 1. Undertake a six-month preparation period to consult with key stakeholder groups, refine proposal, application process, support programme and evaluation process and pilot legislative changes.
  1. 2. Seek schools to volunteer to participate in the prototype programme.
  1. 3. In order to provide robust evidence there should be 50 schools involved in the programme
  1. 4. Such schools should all represent the broad range of socio-economic area, size and geographical location.
  1. 5. No schools would be selected that are deemed to have areas of unsatisfactory performance.
  1. 6. No additional funding would be made available to schools  in order to provide a level playing field with non-participating schools (an anonymised comparator group).
  1. 7. Participating schools would have to establish a ‘Self Directed School Advisory Group’, which would exist in conjunction with the Parent Council/Forum but would take responsibility for all matters relating to school improvement.
  1. 8. The ‘Self Directed School Advisory Group’ would support the school leadership team and staff.
  1. 9. Schools would be encouraged to explore different forms of Advisory Group composition but this should include local councillors, parents, students, teachers, and representatives from the local community and business..
  1. 10. During the programme the Scottish Government would provide support, training and assistance to develop the role of these ‘Self-Directed School Advisory Groups’.
  1. 11. The SG may have to pass an amendment to the Standards in Scottish School Act 2000 to enable the establishment of prototype ‘Self-Directed Schools’.

Application and Selection Process

  1. 1. All Scottish schools would be invited by the SG to submit an application to participate.
  1. 2. Head teachers, school staff, parent council members, and students should be involved in the deliberations about whether or not to participate in the prototype programme
  1. 3. The head teacher and chair of the Parents’ Council should submit an application setting out why they believe their school has the capacity to be a ‘Self-Directed School’.
  1. 4. The SG would establish a ‘Self-Directed School’ national advisory panel that would consider applications and recommend schools. The panel would have representation from a full range of stakeholders.
  1. 5. 50 schools would be selected to participate with 10 others on stand by.
  1. 6. Participating schools would be named as exceptions to the current legislation on raising standards and improving schools and would conform to alternative guidance set out in a modified version of current legislation.

Role of Local Authorities

  1. 1. Participating Schools would continue to appear in Local Authority attainment and performance data.
  1. 2. Local Authorities would continue to provide all current services to schools with the exception of any matters relating to raising standards or improving the quality of education.
  1. 3. Teachers in participating schools would continue to be employees of the Local Authority and be subject to their existing terms and conditions.
  1. 4. Schools would be required to have their school improvement plan approved by the Self-Directed School Advisory Group – not the local authority.
  1. 5. Schools would have the option to vary from local authority policies as they relate to raising standards or improving education for the programme’s duration.

The Role of National Teachers’ Unions

  1. 1. Early engagement would take place with national teaching unions to assist in the shaping and design of the emerging programme.
  1. 2. Union representatives should be sought to join the National Advisory Panel.


  1. 1. A budget would be required to establish, support and evaluate the programme – it is anticipated that a budget of £400,000 per year would cover all costs.
  1. 2. No additional funding would be made directly to participating schools but a support budget would be identified to enable training for and support of self-improving school advisory groups.
  1. 3. Philanthropic funding could be sought to facilitate the establishment, support and evaluation of the programme.
  1. 4. As is now the case, schools may wish to raise funds specifically to support the raising of standards although these could not be used to pay for additional teaching staff or variation in pay scales.

What would Self-Directed Schools be free to do?

There is a danger that any proposal simply replaces one set of controls and limitations for another. So the proposal adopts a ‘loose-tight’ approach towards innovation whereby we set out to enable space and freedom for creativity (loose) within a set of clearly defined parameters and priorities that must be honoured (tight). The current Curriculum for Excellence guidance and Education Scotland’s How Good is our School provide those parameters and priorities.

The over-riding idea would be that ‘Self-Directed Schools’ could vary from any local authority policy (other than formally agreed employee terms and conditions agreements) where the intention is to raise standards and improve the quality of education. It will be for the school to decide which policies it wishes to vary.

The proposal is deliberately limited to outlining the broad principles (loose) and leaves space for others to generate the details and parameters for implementation (tight). However, it is strongly recommended that sufficient freedom be permitted to enable the concept of ‘Self-Directed Schools’ in Scotland to evolve and develop over the duration of the three-year programme.

Partnership Working

  1. 1. Participating schools would continue to work in partnership with other local schools and have the opportunity to engage voluntarily in local authority delivered training  and meetings as they relate to raising standards and improving schools.
  1. 2. Participating schools would have the opportunity to learn from each other’s practice throughout the programme.
  1. 3. A local community of primary schools and their associated secondary school could apply to join the programme, although the proposal is not dependent upon cluster participation.

Role of Education Scotland

  1. 1. Education Scotland would support and advise the work of the ‘Self Directed Schools National Advisory Group’.
  1. 2. All participating schools would be subject to a preliminary Education Scotland evaluation based upon agreed criteria relating to raising standards and improving the quality of education.
  1. 3. Education Scotland would not formally inspect any of the participating schools during the programme unless specifically invited to do so by the School’s Self Directed Advisory Group or local authority.
  1. 4. All schools would be subject to an exit evaluation at the programme’s conclusion and Education Scotland would submit a final report to the Self Directed School National Advisory Group based upon observed changes and impact.
  1. 5. An overall report would be drawn up comparing the progress of the Self-Directed Schools against the previously selected comparator group.

Exit Strategy

  1. 1. This proposal is designed to allow a safe exit strategy, whereby participating schools can return the responsibility for school improvement and raising standards to their local authority.

Evaluation and Conclusion

  1. 1. A full report would be submitted to Scottish Government ministers on the outcome of the programme.
  1. 2. Depending upon its impact consideration would be given to extending the Self Directed Schools programme.

This is an edited version of a paper presented at the David Hume Institute on May 25 2016

Imagery under creative commons by alljengi


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