Heading to Court?

According to The Herald, “New powers for headteachers ‘makes them target for legal action'” – this conclusion being based on submissions made by COSLA in their response to the Empowering Schools consultation by the Scottish Government. Such a move would be condemned by some, and welcomed by others, but is it true?

Possibly, but probably not.

I’ll explain. The consultation is proposing that headteachers take on a raft of new powers, currently exercised by the education authority in relation to the curriculum, staffing and budgets. These new powers would be set out in a “Headteachers’ Charter”. These changes are part of a raft of changes proposed to the governance arrangements for schools, which also include the beefing up of parental involvement and engagement and new bodies called Regional Improvement Collaboratives.

Now, it is true that the idea of devolving legal powers to headteachers raises issues of where legal accountability lies. I have raised similar concerns in my response to the same consultation (more of which on this site, later). It is also true that the proposals do take us closer to the structures seen in England & Wales, where schools have much more autonomy and where legal actions are indeed often brought against the “Headteacher and Governors of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry” (or wherever).

Without seeing the draft Bill, it is difficult to be clear on this, but it does not seem to me that this is what the Scottish Government has in mind. The consultation document is full of caveats which strongly suggest that the legal powers will in fact remain with the local authority who will (ultimately) also have the final say on all of this, when it comes down to it.

The law already allows the delegation of education authority functions to school level, and the Scottish Government’s main issue seems to be that this is not happening enough. And, of course, most of the education authority’s statutory functions are already carried out in practice by teachers, headteachers and other school based personnel. But that is also true of almost all Council functions. Most roads duties are, in fact, implemented by individual Council employees doing inspections, maintenance, repairs etc. – that doesn’t mean you’ll be taking Jack or Jill Council-Employee to court if you hit a pothole!

With the Pupil Equity Funding distributed to individual schools this year, supposedly for headteachers to spend at their discretion, what we actually found was that the money was subject to conditions imposed by Scottish Government and then further guidance and direction (to a greater or lesser extent from authority to authority) from Council HQ. The reality was subtly different from the rhetoric.

My guess is that the Bill will seek to require education authorities to exercise their statutory functions in such a way that passes decision making to headteachers in specific areas without actually conferring legal rights or duties in any meaningful way. The Headteachers’ Charter will have the status of guidance, but the education authorities will ultimately have the final say – and will also be where the buck stops. Until and unless schools are given an autonomous legal status, this is not likely to change. If headteachers are in court, it will be as witnesses to a case brought against the Council, their employers.

Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevendepolo/4874088075/in/photostream/ (Steven Depolo)

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