Do headteachers really know best when it comes to school budgeting?

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERADO headteachers really know best? I’m not talking about the named person plans that have generated so much hysterical media coverage in the past week, but a policy announcement by Nicola Sturgeon that generated almost none: the SNP’s plan to divert more funding directly to school heads, bypassing local education authorities.

This might sound like the principle of subsidiarity in action – that is, a problem (in this case poor attainment) being solved at the lowest possible level, with only a subsidiary role for central authorities. So far, so consistent with the kind of power-to-the-people decentralisation the SNP like to talk about. But if you ask senior education staff in England how they feel about schools being taken out of local authority control, they’ll tell you David Cameron’s plan to force “academy” status on them all is about as popular as a fart in a gym hall.

Headteachers, unsurprisingly, are not daft. They see Cameron’s grand plan for what it is – an attempt to force schools to compete rather than cooperate with each other and chase league-table glory in a context of decreased resources and increased pressure on teachers. In others words, to introduce market forces to the all-important “business” of education. The implicit suggestion here is that headteachers would try a bit harder if they were handed the purse strings and told: “Improve”.

The implicit suggestion here is that headteachers would try a bit harder if they were handed the purse strings and told: “Improve”

No-one is suggesting headteachers want anything but the best for all their pupils, but performance-related pay creates perverse incentives. If I were paid per click by The National I might be less inclined to write about education policy and more inclined to tell readers that named persons will be ninja-style stealth snoopers, ready to break into their homes and read their children’s diaries in search of damning evidence they were deprived of pudding because they didn’t finish their dinner.

Back in reality, Sturgeon’s plan to direct cash straight to headteachers goes hand-in-hand with her promise to publish more information than ever before on what is misleadingly called “school performance” but is actually, of course, the performance of pupils. Will this data dump capture the efforts of teaching staff to engage and encourage the lowest-achieving pupils, or to ensure the brightest of the academic bunch get the best grades possible? Perhaps, but likely the focus will still be on blunt statistics showing how many A-C passes were achieved. Not a problem, you might think, since the more qualifications the better, but in reality this may not quite be the case. Should a pupil who needs AABB at Higher for his university course be encouraged to sit five Highers, even if he risks spreading himself too thinly? Perhaps, but every pupil is different and none should have to worry that teachers have one eye on their futures and the other on the rankings.

Every pupil is different and none should have to worry that teachers have one eye on their futures and the other on the rankings

Once the attainment figures are in, what will happen to those headteachers who have failed to improve standards by judicious allocation of the school budget? They can’t be voted off, like bumbling marketing managers who’ve stuffed up a task on The Apprentice, because they are not elected. Guess who can be voted out though? The local politicians currently sitting on education committees and sub-committees, whose work supporting schools to boost attainment is assessed by HM Inspectorate of Education. Perhaps the oddest thing about Sturgeon’s ambition to strip councillors of their responsibilities for education is that many of these are SNP councillors, and many more are likely to be so by May of next year. It hardly seems a vote of confidence for their party leader to implicitly declare their input on schools funding ill-informed and unwelcome. Education policy, and in particular the challenge of closing the attainment gap, cannot and should not be considered in isolation, since everyone knows that what happens in school is just one of many factors that affects pupils’ performance.

Our local authorities may not be perfect, but there’s little evidence to suggest anyone else has magic solutions that can be implemented with just a few spending tweaks. In fact, some evidence from England suggests apparent improvements in results for academies are due to such “solutions” as selecting the most able pupils, excluding more of the struggling ones, and obliging teachers to work extra hours. What Sturgeon hasn’t explained so far is her theory of change; that is, the actual mechanism through which she believes giving money to headteachers will improve attainment. She has said she wants to give them the power to employ more staff or “take whatever step they think is important to get attainment up”. This vague, uncoordinated, try-it-and-see approach simply isn’t good enough, especially when the evidence from south of the Border has been so hotly debated. Today’s pupils should not be used as guinea pigs for “innovative” projects that may have already been discounted by local education authorities for good reasons.

That Sturgeon seems happy to pinch the odd idea from the Prime Minister is perhaps a sign of her confidence that her party has entirely shaken off the “Tartan Tories” label, despite never quite delivering on its left-wing promises. She certainly should not be afraid of south-to-north policy transfer in situations where the evidence clearly shows the UK Government has done something that works. But this is not one of those situations, so she may face a challenge to persuade her own party’s councillors, let alone her opponents, that copying Cameron makes sense.

 A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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