What is Empowerment in Practice?

Empowering schools, and teachers, has become a major policy objective of Scottish Education, referenced also in the recent letter from the Deputy First Minister which set out the pay proposal offer.

In our submission to an earlier Scottish Government Governance Review consultation, the EIS set out its support for the principle of empowering schools and the profession.

Empowered School Diagram

In particular, we articulated support for the concept of a "democratic school" model – which might be summed up as a system predicated on the meaningful participation of teachers and leaders in school decision making and self-evaluation processes.

The EIS conceptualisation of this model of  school organisation is consistent with the principles underpinning the SNCT Collegiality Code of Practice, signed more than a decade ago, though the full ambition of this  remains to be realised. 

What might "empowering schools" mean in practice, however? The following would be some obvious indicators of what the EIS would expect to find in an empowered school community:

  • A DMR (Delegated Management of Resources) or Finance Committee, led by the Headteacher or substitute, would be in place with representation from the school community. PEF spending has seen an approach such as this modelled in many schools but in others financial spend has been decided by either the Headteacher or Senior Management alone.
  • Teacher Learning Communities would be evident.
  • Commitments to "consult" - staff, parents, pupils - would be replaced by commitments to secure "agreement."
  • Curricular planning groups would be in place, or something akin to a Board of Studies.
  • Working Time Agreements would emerge as a result of a genuine consultation / negotiation.
  • School Improvement Planning would be a collaborative process rather than a publication cycle driven exclusively by SMTs.
  • Professional Learning opportunities would be at the heart of school life and be seen as an entitlement.
  • Action research would be commonplace with distribution and discussion of finding a norm; collaborative research would be evident, also.
  • Staff would be enabled to take advantage of out of school collaborations, partnership working projects, and representation.
  • Leadership at all levels would be evidenced by all staff having the opportunity take up such challenges.
  • Collegial practice would be commonplace.
  • Professional voice and agency would be evident.
  • Headteachers and senior management teams would have sufficient resources and authority to devise, in consultation with staff, bespoke promoted post structures, project leadership roles, and pupil support mechanisms.
  • Headteachers would have in place bespoke curricular models shaped by meaningful consultation with staff whose professional voice is valued.
  • Pupil voice would be facilitated in a meaningful and evidenced manner.
  • Parental involvement in the school community would be evident in the everyday life of the school and not limited to parent evenings, with time allocated to support this.

All of these examples exist to varying degrees in schools across the country, of course, as do examples of formal leadership posts being empowered, e.g. Headteachers being directly, although not exclusively, involved in staff appointments.

What you wouldn't expect to see in an empowered school system are central directives from Education Directorates around, for example, areas such as SNSA assessment windows, the number of qualification routes or subject choices in the Senior Phase, or curriculum architecture.

In an empowered system, the need for a local authority to seek agreement from its Headteachers is as critical to empowering schools as the need for Headteachers to seek agreement from school staff. 

Reference to the GTCS Standard for Leadership and Management is instructive.  It articulates many of the hallmarks which might be associated with empowered schools: for example - collegiality; distributive leadership; enabled leadership at all levels; leadership of curriculum and learning; and partnership working. 

Articulating and agreeing such principles, however, is often easier than establishing practice firmly founded upon them. 

In an EIS Health and Wellbeing survey, a few years ago, a positive correlation was established between teachers' sense of better wellbeing and working in a collegiate school.

Fewer than 50% of teachers, however, identified as working in such an environment – why was that? Thankfully, the most recent member survey indicates some progress, suggesting that a sound base has been established for a more collegiate and empowered model in our schools.

Graph on empowered schools

63.7% is a significant improvement in terms of collegial practice, although still clearly short of system wide practice.

The aim of ensuring greater consistency across the country, in this regard, is critical to progress. Similarly, 51% identifying as being in a distributed leadership model is a sound base but with plenty of room for improvement. 

Graph on Leadership model

The graph below indicates that for EIS members, greater professional autonomy would be the single greatest marker of an empowered system. Moving forward, the current discourse on an empowered system coupled with the work of the Empowering Schools working group, on which the EIS is represented, is an opportunity to advance what is a critical agenda for the Institute and its members; one which potentially can provide teachers with more professional control over their working lives.

Graph on empowered system