Headteachers, LEAs and accountability
The delegation of budgets to schools and reductions in and limits upon local government funding and expenditures, together with the requirements of Compulsory Competitive Tendering, have greatly curtailed the size and scope of LEA activities and have largely driven the replacement of bureaucratic forms of organisation with more devolved forms of local management.
Some LEAs find the new forms of local governance advantageous and these authorities are exploring possibilities to extend and develop the existing framework. Others, that are unsympathetic to many aspects of these new forms, interpret their role, to an extent, as an obstacle to devolution to the local school level. A third group sees its role in more pragmatic terms as that of maintaining and servicing a local system of education and responding to national policy by accommodation and compromise.
Most headteachers are highly conscious of the advantages to them arising from changes in the nature of this relationship. I suspect that very few would express any wish to return wholesale to the previous, somewhat bureaucratic, arrangements which militated against real local control.
Primary school headteachers, research suggests, however are less comfortable with the changing relationship than secondary headteachers. A significant number still look to LEA officers to provide guidance and support across a broad range of financial, management and curriculum issues. However, some primary heads are also unsure whether their LEA wish to or are able to ‘be supportive’ given the diminishing resources both human and financial at the ‘centre’. Within the secondary sector headteachers are significantly more positive about the advantages to them and their schools of the devolution of budgetary control and the direct input into the employment of staff etc. Secondary heads increasingly view and evaluate their LEA almost entirely in terms of the extent it serves the immediate needs of their school.AHDS professional advice experience over recent years strongly suggests that primary heads need more universally to embrace the overwhelming view of our secondary colleagues in this matter, and to embrace it wholeheartedly.
Given these changes in the balance of power between headteachers and local authorities, continuing relationships are dependent both on the development of good personal and professional relationships between headteachers and LEA officers and the establishment of satisfactory exchange relationships for example; commitment/support from schools is exchanged for good efficient services from the LEA; their formal relationships, of course, are contractual and financial. It is important to recognize, particularly for primary headteachers given the research alluded to above, that this is a mutual relationship and a relationship of professional equals! It is almost certainly no longer the case, if indeed it ever was true, that LA Officers have a monopoly on wisdom, knowledge of your school or financial prowess and you do not. The status, leadership qualities and sheer managerial ability of contemporary primary school headteachers needs to be robustly defended in the face of pressure from some of our LEA colleagues and the view of yet others that the professional judgments of primary heads merit less serious consideration than do those of secondary heads.
Many LEAs are presently operating in a kind of organisational and political twilight world where little is certain and this is not necessarily of their own making. Many responses and working practices are ad hoc and temporary, even on occasion ramshackle. Issues of accountability are often elusive and obscure. There can be an overriding sense of uncertainty and attendant frustrations in many aspects of LEA activity.
As a bi-product of the present situation much of the rhetoric of accountability for local education now focuses upon the headteachers of individual schools. Headteachers ought therefore to carefully and robustly police the boundary between governance of policy – still the province of LEAs – and management – their concern with the day-to-day running of the school. They ought indeed to keenly debate with their local LEA how the sometimes unreasonable expectations of the LEA can be squared with the realms of the possible in certain circumstances. Whilst LEA impact on individual school policies and management is often limited and indirect as a result of the confusion outlined above they are not at all slow, when constructing pre inspection reports on schools, to point to the accountability and leadership, or lack thereof, of the headteacher. Again, recent professional advice experience points to the ever present danger that headteachers may fall into the gap between the LEA and its view of headteacher responsibility and that of HMIe with their National perspective. The danger is even greater if the debate with the LEA has not already taken place.
A very serious assessment of the situation in which contemporary primary school headteachers find themselves is certainly called for. It is up to each and every one of us to ‘risk assess’ the situation for ourselves and to ensure that we are ‘up for’ each and every debate with our LEA and beyond.
Wm.Milligan (AHDS Professional Advice)