Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

Education Bill uniformly fails to meet objectives

Will the Education and Skills Authority deliver savings to frontline schools or merely become an administrative monolith, asks Mark Langhammer

That our education system is over-administered is a view shared by most - even those with sharply divergent educational philosophies.

As a trade union, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL)'s support for the Education and Skills Authority (ESA) was predicated on a number of objectives.

Firstly, that savings from administrative duplication could be invested in direct, or 'frontline', education services.

Secondly, that a single education authority could reconfigure the schools's estate more rationally and work towards a more shared and communally de-segregated schooling system.

Thirdly, a single employer could achieve workforce planning gains. A good example is the system-wide redundancy trawl piloted in 2011-12, which included voluntary grammars, grant-maintained integrated schools and Irish-medium schools for the first time. This could be seen as a forerunner to similar, system-wide gains.

Equally, the redeployment of staff, based on educational and social need, could improve flexible working practices, such as part-time working, career breaks and job-sharing. Teacher exchanges, and professional development placements in other schools could be promoted more effectively across the system.

Fourthly, that uniformity of practice would allow teachers and staff to be treated the same, with the same levels of protection, without the need to negotiate a multiplicity of management.

Has the Education Bill met these aims? Not in my book. In fact, the reverse could be argued.

In attempts to assuage a grammar school lobby seeking to retain not simply academic selection, but also the voluntary principle, every school will now be burdened with preparing its own employment and management schemes.

Our experience is that 'schemes of management' can be treated as internal, confidential documents.

It is conceivable that all schools could prepare individualised schemes. The result could be a patchwork quilt of school provision, with uniformity undermined in favour of postcode lottery.

The principle of accountable school autonomy underlying the Bill will increase inter-school competition.

The Bill proposes a judge-led tribunal, aimed at defending schools against unwarranted interference from the central authority.

While both ESA and schools can invoke challenge to the tribunal, it can be taken for granted that grammar schools will tightly and legally encase nothing less than their current responsibilities and freedoms within their schemes of management.

Administratively, every school can opt to operate its own payroll. Instead of administrative savings, the door is now open to more than 1,000 payroll centres across Northern Ireland. More likely, over time, it could lead to payroll privatisation.

Notwithstanding that the Bill is skewed towards the perceived needs of grammar schools, the voluntary grammars would rather just opt out.

My guess is that they would pay to do so, through reduced capital support and by accepting a much smaller sector in return for the 'voluntary' principle.

The Bill is also silent on the size of the proposed authority. Will an administrative empire be built? Or will more resources find their way to the classroom?

In straightened times, it can hardly be both.

There is good in the Bill, of course: a legal duty on governors in respect of education achievement is welcome, as is the duty on ESA to formulate area plans.

Of less value is the financing of sectoral bodies who, like trade unions, should be financed by voluntary subscription.

The Education Bill has set out significant challenges and all remains to play for.

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