Helping school leaders find the right fit in their next role

Whatever we can do to support school leaders, we should. School leaders make a significant and positive difference in schools – just ask Professor John Hattie – and a poor fit (even of a highly skilled and highly experienced leader who is just in a place which needs something different) is enormously costly, both financially and emotionally, for all concerned. The tragedy of a poor fit in leadership is that it can result in outstanding leaders deciding to leave school leadership… and in a world which is crying out for great educators to help the next generation do a better job than current and previous generations, then this is absolutely not what any of us want.

So when research comes along which helps school leaders – and boards – to make wise choices in their next step, then we should share it. Last year, the team at LSC Education questioned over 200 leaders in international schools around the world about what had worked (and what hadn’t) in recruitment processes for roles which they had since found to be a good (or poor) cultural fit for them, and the results of this research provide fascinating – and very practical – insights that can be of real use to aspiring and current leaders in international schools (although I would venture to suggest that leaders in almost any school would find that these findings resonate). Insights into personal priorities in choosing a role include the high level of importance attached to shared values… and also the difficulty in identifying these values unless there is significant exposure to school life during the recruitment process; unsurprisingly, perhaps, salary figures are fairly low amongst the main priorities that school leaders have in choosing a role – and what this should flag up to boards is that school leaders will not necessarily behave in the same way as employees in other lines of work with which board members may be familiar (and they certainly can’t just be bought and sold, despite being a much-in-demand commodity).

Above all, the importance emerges of self-awareness – on the part of boards about what their school actually stands for and does, and how they represent themselves and their plans for the future; and on the part of candidates, who need to work out what they really, really want, and what they are best suited for, and then look for the clues and signs that the role for which they are considering applying is actually the right one for them. It has been heartening seeing more candidates seeking out and benefiting from LSC’s career coaching service, and some boards are already very reflective and thoughtful about their recruitment processes, which is extremely encouraging. There is significant work to be done on all fronts, however.

If you were at the IPSEF conference in Dubai in September, or at the FOBISIA Leadership conference in Bangkok last week, then you would have heard me talking about the key findings, and if you are part of the Wellington and Huili Education family in Shanghai, then you will have an opportunity to hear some of the insights during the weekend of 25-26 November. Please do feel free to get in touch directly, however, and certainly download the research report here.

And good luck! Together we can help ensure that the right leaders are in the right schools, making a positive impact. When they are, they will make the difference for young people who the world needs.

Stretching the bounds of the possible – it’s Edinburgh Fringe time…

I have lost count of the number of years I have been coming to the Edinburgh Fringe, let alone of the number of performances I have attended; what I have not lost, however, is the joy and wonder I feel every year when I immerse myself in much of what the Fringe has to offer. Literally thousands of performances, at hundreds of venues, over a 4 week period every August… it is no surprise that the city and surrounding areas almost visibly explode with creativity. Uplifting and energising, the Edinburgh Fringe is where to be at this time of year.

One of the highlights for me this year was the Universoul Circus – an astonishingly vibrant, energetic and daring collection of diverse acts from across the globe, who at times, appeared to challenge the laws of gravity. From audacious tightrope walking to high octane limbo dancing, and with acrobatics, hip hop and edgy clown antics thrown into the mix, this show was one long OMG moment. Think Notting Hill carnival on steroids… the joy of it all was palpable. A sign of greatness in the arts – books, plays, art, music… anything – is that they change you, and that your encounter with them makes you just that bit more of a different (and hopefully better) human being. If we are to make the most of our time on this planet, then we need constantly to grow and evolve, and the inspiration that the arts sparks in us is one of the most sure-fire ways for us to achieve this.

A wise friend of mine once told me that everyone should take some extended time every year to become still, calm the mind and rebuild a sense of self; I am absolutely certain that this is true – equally, I believe that we each need to take some extended time each year to stretch our imaginations way beyond the limits we thought they might have, to gasp in awe at the capabilities of the human body, to see and experience things we would never otherwise see and experience, and to free our minds to soar.

Suitably rejuvenated, we can return to the task of growing, stretching and empowering the young people of today, whose imaginations often already far exceed those of their adult peers. Educators of the world – enjoy!!

Why everyone deserves a coach (and not just football teams in the World Cup)

Behind every sporting triumph lies a great coach, who has helped the successful sportsperson or team grow, develop and excel. We take this almost for granted now – just as we take for granted in the world of business that for CEOs to flourish as leaders, they need someone else to challenge them, support them and help them become the very best they can be.

Coaching is about unlocking potential – it is about asking the right questions, at the right time, so as to enable people to recognise (and release) their own capacity to solve the issues they are facing. And – given that each of us, whatever we do in life, has issues we face – everyone absolutely deserves a coach. In fact, arguably, we owe it to ourselves and others to work with a coach – can you imagine how much more useful we will each be in the world if we are working to our full potential?

The careful observer will have seen that national teams in the 2018 Football World Cup have had an army of specialist coaches for different tactical situations – and for different types of players; when you are looking for a coach, find the coach who works for you. Each coach has different experience and skills to bring, so start by asking what you think will work for you:

  • Does the coach have experience in the field in which you are seeking to develop? If so, they are likely to bring wisdom and an understanding which enables them to ask you questions which you may not have considered – a skill which may be especially of interest if you are seeking a change or advancement in your professional career.
  • Do you relate to the coach? Coaching is built on trust, and you need to feel that the coach has your absolute best interests at heart. Take time to get to know any potential coach.
  • Does the coach offer you the flexibility you need? Busy people need coaches who will adapt to their schedules, and who will keep in contact with you. Once a relationship is established, coaching can take many forms, including Skype, phone and email – think about what will work for you.

 

Above all, do not delay. If you are in any doubt about the benefit of coaching, start asking around. You may be surprised at how many people already recognise the value of investing in becoming the best of themselves.

And you can guarantee that everyone who is in any way exceptional has not done it alone. Together, after all, we are so much stronger and better…

Dr Helen Wright is an International Education Advisor and Executive Coach, whose coaching is principally with leaders and aspiring leaders around the world. She believes that each person has it within them to make a positive difference in their lives and in the lives of others, and she is committed to challenging people to become the best they can. Her particular skills lie in engaging people who are unsure of their next steps and helping them clarify where they want to go, and how.

Photo credit – © Anatoly Tiplyashin ID 805422 | Dreamstime Stock Photos

 

Celebrating the student experience in UK independent schools

Schools only exist because of the children who attend them. They exist to support these children, develop them and educate them as they navigate their childhood and young adult years. This can be very easy to forget in amongst all the many demands made of schools, not least all the reporting they have to do on targets and all the data they have to collect, as well as all the curriculum planning, meeting of regulations and the myriad other activities that comprise the day-day-life of professionals in schools.

Schools are absolutely there for students, however: to help them grow into the people they can be, and to ensure that they are given every ounce of support possible en route. Time in school should be a journey of exploration, discovery and stretching of boundaries; the experiences that a student has during his or her formative years form the foundation of their life as an adult, and set them up for success – in the lives of these whose paths they cross and influence, as much as in their own. A young person’s experience of school really, really matters – and it is absolutely right that we should explore these experiences, highlight them and celebrate amazing practice in schools, as we seek to spread excellence further and further afield in the schools’ sector.

Having spent a career teaching in and leading some phenomenal schools, I am acutely aware of the quality that exists in the U.K. independent schools’ sector, and I was therefore delighted to be asked to Chair the inaugural Independent Schools of the Year awards, run in association with Independent School Parent magazine. These awards seek to highlight and celebrate the student experience in independent schools, in areas from community outreach to careers programmes, and from music to sport, with almost every other area of school covered in between. These awards are a wonderful opportunity for schools to tell their stories of what they do to help their students flourish as decent and well-rounded human beings; for people outside schools, who see schools as examination preparation machines, it will be eye-opening – these awards will provide definitive evidence of what schools can and should be for.

Independent schools are embedded into the U.K. education system and educate over half a million students each year, spending almost a £1bn in 2017 alone on financial assistance to offer a high quality education to children whose parents could not otherwise afford this education. British independent schools have provided (and continue to provide) the model for education systems across the world, and were the framework on which the British state system was based; they persist in flying the flag for a focus on student individuality, character development and all round education, and the fact that this focus leads in turn to higher academic results should provide food for thought: children really do thrive in every respect, including academically, when their school experience is positive, stretching, challenging and uplifting. Independent schools continue to have much to offer as role models for a highly successful education.

Every child deserves an outstanding education; it is my hope that by illuminating real-life examples of an amazing student experience, these awards will contribute to a renewed and widespread understanding of the quality of the whole education that all schools can and should be empowered to offer.

So – let us celebrate and hear these stories!

Information and an application form for these awards can be found at http://www.independentschoolsoftheyear.co.uk/.  Entries close on 18 July – apply soon!

Ethnic diversity – starting young really does make a difference

An interesting report published by the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration at the University of London caught my eye this week. This study of inter-ethnic relations between teenagers surveyed around 4000 Year 10 students in state schools in England, to explore the role that school and neighbourhood ethnic composition play in the level of ‘warmth of feeling’ that young people have towards different ethnic groups, and the results were very interesting. Not surprisingly, the study found that pupils have greater warmth of feeling for those from their own ethnic group, but what is particularly interesting is that the researchers found clear evidence that these young people feel more positive towards another ethnic group if they encounter more pupils from that group in school (more so than in their neighbourhood – something about the environment of school appears to facilitate this growth in warmth of feeling).

Globe in hands

 

In fact, the study showed that the warmth of feeling of a black student for white students increases by 1.04 points for each 10 percentage point increase in the share of white pupils in the school, while the warmth of feeling of a white student for black students increases by 1.74 points for each ten percentage point increase in the share of black pupils in the school. Put together, this has a cumulative effect: this means that the increase in warmth of feeling equates to a reduction of over 10 per cent in the gap between the warmth of feeling that students felt for their own ethnic group, compared to the other group.

The value of this research lies in the fact that it confirms what should be – if we take time to reflect on it – common sense about human relationships. In stronger terms, it is an essential human truth: when we spend time with people who see the world slightly differently to us, we learn to appreciate both them, and humanity in a broader sense, more fully. It should be obvious to us by now that walking in the shoes of others makes a difference, and that diversity is to be valued … sometimes, however, it takes a growing body of definitive research to make the clamouring voices so loud that they cannot be ignored.

This research is particularly heartening, of course, because it was done with young people, showing the shift that can occur with those who are the future leaders of, and contributors to, society. Although it would require further longitudinal research to see how this warmth of feeling persisted into adulthood, it would be reasonable to make the assumption that it had some positive lasting effect; teenage years, after all, are where so many values are cemented.

What to do with this understanding though? Although some may rush to insist on some kind of artificial social engineering in schools, we should be wary of rushing to close down schools rooted in their communities in favour of bigger, super schools, even though these by definition are likely to have more of an ethnic mix, and greater diversity, simply because they will draw children together from a wider geographical and/or socio-economic demographic. No credible evidence exists to support the value (other than financial cost-saving value) of larger schools.

What it does suggest is that schools need to be hyper-alert to the creation of opportunities for their pupils to build meaningful relationships with their peers from different cultures. This may be at a local level, building partnerships with schools in other parts of the town, city or region, enabling students to work together on projects and share purposeful experiences; importantly, it can – and arguably should – also include opportunities to work together and spend time with their peers who live abroad, and who have even more different backgrounds. Technology brings us many options in this respect; the most powerful opportunities will come, however, when creative educator minds focus on solutions, powered by a vision and driving sense of the importance of helping children connect with, and experience the lives of, people who are a bit different to them.

Internationalism, global outlook, and warmth of feeling towards others are all different aspects of the same fundamental issue that should be at the heart of our education systems and schools. We know what we have to do: let’s reach out and help our children experience and value the diversity in the world.

 

Read more: Powerful Schools: How schools can be drivers of social and global mobility

The Power of Quiet: focus and extraordinary personal development in a school in Forestville

This week I had the good fortune to visit Forestville Montessori School in the northern suburbs of Sydney, and it was an immense privilege to do so. I found a warm, calm, thoughtful environment where children up to the age of 12 were working independently and purposefully, guided by teachers who are clearly highly experienced masters of their craft. The classrooms were replete with all the carefully designed resources that each individual child might need, for them to be able to move to the next stage in their learning, yet the overall effect was of order, balance and beauty, and the rooms were free of the discordant and garish clutter which so often overstimulates children in many primary schools.

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Most remarkable was the focus and attention span of the children, who were clearly working on material that in some cases far exceeded the level that children might be expected in many schools, in which a tacit understanding can exist that the purpose of an education is simply to meet standardised curriculum requirements – an understanding that underpins the reductive industrial model of education which pervades our society, and which emphasises the cohort average over individual uniqueness. I hasten to add that the vast majority of school teachers and leaders recognise this reductive approach as inadequate, but they have their hands tied by political and/or financial imperatives; no-one may ever actually want a system in which the individual is not specifically encouraged to flourish … but unfortunately, this is where we have found ourselves in education.

Not, though, in Montessori schools. Dr Maria Montessori was a pioneer of the progressive education movement in the early 20th century, and her detailed methods have stood the test of time. The Association Montessori Internationale summarises the difference between traditional and Montessori schools as follows: “In traditional education adults decide what children need to learn and the ability to retain and reproduce information is used as a measure of academic success. The teacher is the active giver of information and children are passive receivers. In the Montessori approach it is all about the activity of the child. The teacher takes on a different role, that is, to provide the right kind of circumstances so that children can be guided to find what they need from what is on offer. Children then become active learners and are able to reach their own unique potential because they are learning at their own pace and rhythm focussing on their own particular developmental needs at that moment.”

As an observer, I noticed above all the power of quiet, which was palpable in the learning environments. To see young children reflecting, engaging and learning in a calm, relaxed but focused manner was uplifting. It was a reminder of the paramount importance of investing in teachers and teaching, of taking time to build on (and share) the experience and wisdom of teachers, and of working to create spaces in schools which are places where individuals can genuinely be constantly but unobtrusively monitored, supported and challenged. When children benefit from this kind of investment, they thrive; they grow into interesting, inquisitive human beings who have the skills to navigate their path through their future learning – and through life.

To see this already in 3-6 year olds, let alone 12 year olds, was truly a genuine privilege. Progress in education IS possible, and this should fire up educators and parents to demand a re-evaluation of what schools are doing with children. And if they want to see at first hand the breadth, depth and wisdom that Montessori offers, I am sure that they need only reach out and ask.

 

Three Billboards and an urgent lesson

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri – an unprepossessing name, perhaps, but the acclaim this film has received is well-deserved. Uncomfortably funny, desperately sad and painfully shocking (often all at the same time), it takes hold of the reader in a way that it logically shouldn’t, with a combination of languor and pressing need that build together to make for compulsive viewing. If you can handle the profanities, I predict that despite your best efforts, you will be gripped.

Whereas the action in many great films ranges across cities and continents, Three Billboards keeps us locked in a single place, beyond which the world barely seems to exist, where outside perspectives seem both exotic and somehow discordant, and yet where the immense depth of human existence is explored and laid bare. Three Billboards is about human imbalance, out of which emerges indomitability, amongst other things; it is in many ways a resounding call for human beings to break free of the shackles that bind them, and see how the world can be different, but it is also a stark reminder that humanity is not to be found in superficial glimpses of two-dimensional characters who have straightforwardly simple moral choices. Humanity, we are reminded, has to be lived and experienced in the raw, relentlessly delving deeper, taking time to understand people and their worlds before we judge them.

And this is the urgent lesson – it is when people feel misunderstood or dismissed that they will find a way to strike out and make themselves heard. The groundswells of dissatisfaction with established politics seen in the last couple of years in countries like the US and the UK have shown us this in practice. These groundswells may have been prompted by complex motivations, and it now seems very possible that people have been manipulated in ways that we do not yet quite appreciate – but when we take time to understand people and their lives, their actions can seem explicable and justified, even if we do not agree with them. If we take time genuinely to empathise and to walk in people’s shoes, we gain a deeper, closer understanding of their humanity.

Understanding people does not cause us to be like them; we can (and I would strongly argue should) simultaneously seek to transcend these same experiences and understandings, in the quest for a shared, more balanced, kinder, more considerate, more loving humanity. But understand them we must. There is no doubt that travel broadens the mind, exposing people to different ideas and ways to see the world, but we should not kid ourselves into thinking that a superficial glimpse into places, cosseted in familiar-looking hotels, gives us the right to say that we understand – culture or people.

We need to walk in other people’s shoes; we need to take time to listen, to hear and to understand. We need to feel their pain as well as their joy, and we need to connect to their souls, sharing in their humanity, if we are to have any chance of working together to be better than we are.

Watch Three Billboards and reflect … because the world really can’t wait much longer for us to get our act together and understand one another.

5 things YOU can do on International Women’s Day

Sometimes it can feel that the gender parity gap is too large for any one of us to make a difference, but in truth every single step we take towards a fairer, more equal world is worth the effort. Today is International Women’s Day – a day where we focus, together, across the entire world, on a concerted drive towards respecting and honouring women, and ensuring that all human beings have equal opportunities, whatever their gender.

InternationalWomensDay-portrait

So today – act. Take five simple steps. And if you are short of something to do, do these five things:

  1. Be inspired by the IWD site and read about the #PressforProgress campaign – “whether through a global conference, community gathering, classroom lesson or dinner table conversation – everyone can play a purposeful part in pressing for gender parity.”
  2. Enjoy the Google Doodle for the day, which highlights artwork from 12 female artists, especially commissioned for today.
  3. Seek out the equality and diversity policy of one or more of the organisations with which you are aligned – a charity, a company, a school, perhaps – and read it. Think about how these values are lived in practice … and how they could better be achieved.
  4. Reach out to a(nother) woman in your life, and lift her up: thank her, recognise her, stand in solidarity with her.
  5. Commit to action – write a list of three things that you will do this year that will make a difference – in your local community, in a national organisation, and through contributing to global change.

Every step matters. Celebrate womankind today.

Democracy and the power of music … and of people’s voices

My fingers are sore from typing thank you emails, and I still have dozens to write; the swift campaign to save the City of Edinburgh Music School this past fortnight has garnered enormous support, and we are all immensely grateful to everyone who was prepared to stand up and recognise that Edinburgh City Council’s proposal to close the Music School was wrong by any standard (not least financially – the money for the School originates from the Scottish Government).

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It was enormously heartening to see and hear such passion being expressed by students, parents, former students, former parents and people who had just simply encountered the Music School and understood what it is achieving in musical excellence (a phrase I do not use glibly) for children and young people from all walks of life across Scotland. The campaign was successful: the voices of these people were heard, and Councillors across party borders listened and worked together to make sure that an amendment to the original proposal was proposed, voted upon and passed, saving the Music School.

Reflecting on the last fortnight, there are countless observations to be made, and dozens of lessons to be drawn; here are just three of them:

In a democracy, people’s voices can be heard – but only if you speak up. This is one of the most powerful lessons of the past two weeks. From the moment we had first sight of the internal briefing document which underpinned an apparently innocuous line in a set of budget proposals due to go out to public consultation, people started speaking out to express their views, and things started to happen. People wrote to their Councillors and started approaching politicians on Twitter; they told their families and friends, and they did the same. Councillors listened – they really listened – and started asking questions, subjecting the proposal to a scrutiny that was impressive. Especially considering how much a Councillor is paid (not much), the level of direct engagement and the swiftness of response was astonishing. The same was true of MSPs, some of whom stood up at an early stage in support, and very prominently enabled the truth to emerge, helping the balance of arguments to sway towards maintaining the Music School. Andy Wightman MSP’s question to the First Minister in First Minister’s Questions last Thursday was masterful in illuminating the situation; equally elucidatory was Nicola Sturgeon’s reply. They knew about the issue because it was on everyone’s lips; it was on everyone’s lips because people were speaking out about it and using the democratic channels open to them to do so.

Being a public servant is really, really hard – but ultimately so very important. Having spent the past two weeks engaging frequently with public servants, from elected representatives (Councillors, MSPs, MPs and  members of the House of Lords) to Council officials and the lovely, helpful and impressively well-informed clerks who work in Edinburgh Council Committee Services, I can say with confidence that it is not at all easy to meet all the needs of all the people and groups for which they have responsibility; in fact, this would be an understatement. Balancing budgets in straitened times is – excuse the language – damned hard, and there are only a certain number of ways to cut the cookie. Officials and Councillors know that cuts will not make people happy; in fact, the opposite is true. This does not excuse the lack of transparency in the budgeting process, but it makes it easier to understand why people felt it necessary to obfuscate (and the scale of the endeavour makes it entirely conceivable that the origin of the money to fund the Music School has been lost in the mists of time). It is really hard to be honest and open when dealing with really complex issues in a society which operates by communicating via simple sound bites, but we have to work together to find a way to do this.

Music has the power to make a difference in the world. Music really does make spirits soar. It speaks to our souls, and the language of Music unites us across every possible boundary or barrier you can think of. In the words of the great violinist Nicola Benedetti, who spoke out strongly in support of the Music School,

“We all need a little bit of magic and beauty in our lives – great musicians, people who have dedicated their lives to doing the seemingly impossible, can provide this. 
These students, excelling in this field, have the potential to deliver uplift and beauty to their societies. Continued support for the arts in general is an investment in the health of the country.”

At its heart, this is what was driving us.

So – a busy fortnight draws to a close, and the right decision has been taken on the Music School, but there are many more causes to be highlighted and addressed – causes that affect us all – and the key lesson of the past two weeks is that we do all really need to become engaged and involved in these.

One final observation for now – communities who are passionate and energised make a difference. One of the most wonderful outcomes of the intensity of the past fortnight has been the strengthening and broadening of what was already a community with a shared interest and shared gratitude for the work of the dedicated educators and specialists at the Music School. People have come together and forged friendships in the heat of the fight. My new ‘Best Friends Forever’ are too numerous to mention. Communities with a cause – and the courage to use their voices – can and should work together to make a difference.

Together, after all, humanity is stronger and better.

 

Democracy in action in Edinburgh, challenging autocracy, and the fight to save the City of Edinburgh Music School

Sub-text: the vital importance of teaching young people how to engage effectively with politics …

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Are you sitting comfortably?

If you have a spare 2 hours (I know, I know … who does? But this will be worth it!), then watch this hot-off-the-press webcast of the Edinburgh City Council Finance and Resources Committee meeting on Friday 27 October 2017. It is a classic and absolutely fascinating example of how citizens can work with their elected politicians; and how if they don’t, then autocracy and officialdom rule. If you are a teacher of politics, general studies or media, this is your next week’s lessons sorted; even if you aren’t, you will find this fascinating, if horrifying in places. And it should absolutely be a salutary reminder to us all that if we don’t get involved in politics, then democracy fails.

 

Some background: uncovering a “deception”

You need a bit of background to understand the context – on Wednesday 25 October 2017, an anonymous tipoff to parents and staff at Broughton High School in Edinburgh, home to the internationally renowned City of Edinburgh Music School, uncovered an internal Council document which under the guise of ‘creating’ a ‘citywide equity and excellence music service’ actually proposed nothing of the sort, but rather listed a series of potentially devastating cuts which would result in the closure of the National Centre of Excellence at Broughton and one of its associated primary schools, Flora Stevenson’s, and a dumbing down of musical tuition across the city through more large group instrumental tuition (which, as anyone with any knowledge of music knows, simply does not respond to individual need).

Realising that this was to be discussed at a Council Finance and Resources Committee meeting on the Friday at 10am (less than 48 hours’ time), parents and students at the Music School and at Broughton and Flora’s swung into action, contacting their local Councillors and the press. They wrote and spoke about their personal stories, their fears for the wider school community, the music education provision in the city, and also drew attention to various issues which were emerging that suggested that this was an extremely misguided move on the part of the Council. This meant that the Councillors on the Finance and Resources Committee had at least some more information in preparation for the meeting. The response of a number of Councillors was exceptional – swift, interactive and open to listening. (A big shout out here to Councillor Whyte, Councillor Miller, Councillor Hutchison, Councillor Ross and Councillor Johnston, as well as other local councillors, including Councillor Osler, Councillor Barrie, Councillor Gloyer and more.)

 

The plot thickens …

As the hours ticked away towards the meeting, a number of interesting issues started to emerge …

  • Funding of the school. The Music School is actually funded, indirectly, by the Scottish Government, and not by the Council. The existence of National Centres of Excellence is recognised as part of the needs-based grants to local councils; this amount was determined by central government and has been fixed for a number of years, even though it is rolled up into the overall settlement. In 2011, Labour MSP Peter Peacock asked a parliamentary question about this:

 24 February 2011. Index Heading: Education and Lifelong Learning

 Peter Peacock: To ask the Scottish Executive what its position is regarding a local authority no longer providing funding for a national centre of excellence in education for which its annual funding had been specifically increased. (S3W-39439)

 Mr Michael Russell:

The previously ring-fenced funding for national centres of excellence was rolled-up into the local government finance settlement with effect from 1 April 2008. Although the provision for national centres of excellence is still recognised in the needs-based distribution formula there is no separately identifiable funding. If a council were to withdraw this service, this could impact on the future funding allocations for that council. The Scottish Government view is that it would not be appropriate for a council to benefit at the expense of other councils, within the distribution formula, in relation to a facility or service that it no longer provides.

Over recent years, the Music School has been asked to cut its budget along with other Council departments. This obviously has had a direct impact on pupils of the Music School, despite claims from the Children and Families Department that frontline services have been protected. This includes a reduction in the number of instruments that can be studied by each pupil, and an increase in funding required from parents for certain activities undertaken by the Music School that are a key part of their studies and essential for their musical education – for example, paying for Grade exams. The Music School has also been required to fund pipes and drums tuition for children across the city from its budget. This means that in fact the Music School actually costs less than the amount originally intended for its costs from the Scottish Government.

Given that the amount included in the settlement to the Council is in the region of £500k a year, and the Council actually spends only around £400k on the Music School, with the closure of the National Centre for Excellence the Council would actually lose significantly more from the Scottish Government than they would propose to save. The closure of the School would be financially counterproductive and would seem to be – in simple, layman’s terms – utterly daft.

  • Councillors being kept in the dark. The Councillors who were members of the Committee (with the exception, it appeared, of those in the prevailing administration – Edinburgh Council is run by an SNP/Labour coalition) did not have access to the internal document which clearly provided the bones of the proposal to close the Music School. (By this time, the internal document was available online, published by a Green Party MSP who was disgusted with the proposal and the process.) No mention of this or other internal documents appeared in the extensive Committee papers. At the meeting, Councillors repeatedly asked for information, which was not given to them … they were told that more information would be available on Monday 30 October, when the proposals went out to consultation, but that it was not available to them at the meeting. This somewhat stretched the bounds of credibility, as it was by then Friday lunchtime, and there was no sense that officials would be working feverishly over the weekend to flesh out proposals which had already been published in summary.
  • Manipulation of democracy: In the meeting, the Councillors were being asked to vote to put out items for public consultation whereby the public voice could be heard about where cuts should fall. However, the amount of savings on the list of proposed areas for consultation added up exactly to the amount the Council was seeking to save, meaning that in fact there was no choice for the public, giving rise to the suspicion that this was purely a (costly) formulaic, PR initiative. Democracy isn’t democracy if there is no choice…

 

The meeting – the good, the bad, and the ugly

Watch the webcast and spot the following:

  • Councillors asking astute and searching questions, challenging officials and the Convenor of the meeting; asking for more information but being told it wasn’t available. Councillors persisting, uncovering, illuminating. A hooray for democracy, and inspiring to watch.
  • Disturbingly, officials, obfuscating and ‘spinning’ the truth – the Head of Schools ‘reassuring’ Councillors that the Music School would not be closed, but relying on a different definition of what ‘to close’ means. (Shades of Bill Clinton and his definition of ‘is’ …). Similarly, there is an attempt to describe the National Centre of Excellence as continuing to exist while being neither a Centre nor enabling Excellence (and not being National, either). A thumbs down for democracy.
  • Equally disturbingly, obfuscation on the part of the Convenor about the process that has led to this particular list of proposals (adding up the exact amount of budget savings required). Watch as it is gradually revealed that in fact there were other proposals, but that the decision was taken not to submit these to the Committee, leaving the Councillors on the Committee no choices about which proposals should go out to public consultation. Another thumbs down for democracy.
  • A vote, narrowly won in the face of hurdles, to postpone the decision to approve items for public consultation until 7 November.
  • A realisation of the dangers inherent in our system, when officials are not held to account and required to be transparent; if the Councillors had not been alerted to the existence of information developed and retained by officials and the administration, it would have been quite understandable if they had thought that they were doing the right thing by agreeing that the proposals should go to public consultation.

 

What next?

What does all this mean? Well, on a practical note concerning the City of Edinburgh Music School there is work to be done (at the time of writing) by Councillors, parents, supporters and community members to illuminate the facts of the situation, in preparation for the meeting on 7 November. Parents believe that this proposal should be stopped in its tracks. Watch this space.

For educators – and actually, for all citizens – there is a deep lesson to be learned here about teaching young people the importance of engaging in politics, holding officials to account, thinking critically, and not taking ‘truth’ at face value. In an age where young people are often disengaged from politics, this message is more important than ever before.

Plato said: “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” Don’t let us let that happen.

 

Background on the City of Edinburgh Music School

The City of Edinburgh Music School is unique: nowhere else in Europe is there a school in the maintained sector which offers a complete specialist music programme from primary to secondary level in two neighbouring centres, completely integrated into a mainstream comprehensive school. It is a National Centre of Excellence. Musical talent – real, amazing talent – is developed through intensive training, involving regular practice, various ensembles and individual expert tuition, and it paves the way for students to secure positions in some of the most prestigious colleges, universities, ensembles, orchestras and media organisations in the world. It has equity at its core, through equality of access to musical tuition regardless of financial means.

Its successes are well-documented in the public domain, as former students have gone on to many great things in the world of music; its overwhelming success, however, lies in how it changes the lives of children with particular needs, stretching and channelling them, and enabling them to become truly themselves, able to develop into adults who will play an important role in society. It is vital for the personal development and growth of all its students. The continuity and stability provided by a community of children and young people, integrated into a wider school community, is a significant part of why the Music School works so well, and why, too, the Music School is able to impact the lives of so many in the school and wider community.

 

Background on Edinburgh City Council

The City of Edinburgh Council is made up of 63 elected councillors. They represent 17 wards within the city.

The 63 Councillors currently represent the following groups

  • 19 SNP Group
  • 18 Conservative Group
  • 12 Labour Group
  • 8 Green Group
  • 6 Liberal Democrat Group.

The full Council meets once a month and takes decisions on important issues such as the Council budget. The Council also delegates decisions to committees.