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Anybody's bet in council race;Election '99;Holyrood

Neil Munro looks at Scotland's 'forgotten elections'and bids farewell to two long-serving education leaders

THE HOLYROOD elections may be obscuring the local government contests but, arguably, the outcome for the education service will be just as crucial.

Labour starts out from a mighty power base given its virtual clean sweep of 1995. Then, the party took control of 26 local authorities (the balance of power in East Renfrewshire being held by an Independent who sides with Labour).

The three SNP councils of Moray, Perth and Kinross and Angus were joined by three maverick councils in denying Labour total dominance. Dumfries and Galloway is run by Independents and Liberal Democrats, Aberdeenshire is in the hands of a minority administration of Independents and the Liberal Democrats, and Scottish Borders has a "rainbow coalition" of all parties except a rump of Independents and the Conservative group.

The only certainty is that Labour will inevitably lose seats, although whether it will lose control in any council is another matter. Independent councillors will continue to be pivotal in the maverick authorities, and probably the dominant group in Highland, Argyll, the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland.

The SNP will expect to hold on to its three councils and hopes the backwash from holding the elections on the same day as the Holyrood vote will boost its chances of taking others. The loudest Nationalist voices are usually heard in Renfrewshire, West Lothian, Falkirk and East Ayrshire.

"It's pure speculation at the moment and nobody is betting on the results," said Professor Alan Alexander of the Scottish Local Authorities' Management Centre at Strathclyde University.

There is an "uncertain effect" from what is expected (at least by Government ministers) to be an increased turnout because of combining the local and national polls. This could take the vote from the typical 30 per cent in council elections to nearer 70 per cent.

If the SNP benefits from the "Scottish factor", the party could add to its tally at Labour's expense. But whether this will be enough to change control in any council remains to be seen.

Boundary Commission changes have added further uncertainly. Scottish Borders, for example, will have 34 councillors after May 6 instead of 58, while Aberdeenshire seats will leap from 47 to 68.

The question now is whether changing party political fortunes at local level will make the slightest difference to local education. Arguably, the major impact on schools has taken place in the past four years. The 32 unitary councils which replaced the previous 65 regional and district bodies, Professor Alexander says, have slimmer managements, more integrated services and a stronger emphasis on customer care.

Policies such as Higher Still and target-setting have been shaped from on high, while "excellence fund" monies are ring-fenced for specific initiatives. What matters, and will continue to matter, are the parliament's policies rather than those of local authorities.

Education conveners as diverse as Charlie Gray (North Lanarkshire), Malcolm Green (Glasgow) and Janet Law (Perth and Kinross) believe local management of education will remain essential. Significantly, however, all believe councils will have to change and win allies if they are to fend off centralising tendencies.

Professor Alexander suggests a more crucial factor will be scrutiny from Westminster and the Treasury. "If there is pressure on the Scottish spending block, the 40 per cent which flows into local government is something no politician can ignore," he says.

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