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Boards won't 'magic up' a better deal

Wresting control of schools out of the hands of local authorities is far from offering a cure-all, warns finance expert

Wresting control of schools out of the hands of local authorities is far from offering a cure-all, warns finance expert

Headteacher and teacher leaders are "naive" if they think education would be better served if it was removed from local authority control and put in the hands of a dozen or so education boards, believes one of Scotland's foremost experts in public sector finance.

Both School Leaders Scotland and the EIS teacher union argue that a small number of education boards could be more effective at running schools than Scotland's 32 councils.

It would lead to greater consistency of delivery across the country and freedom from political fashion and competing funding interests, they say.

But Irvine Lapsley, chair of the Institute of Public Sector Accounting Research at Edinburgh University, believes both bodies are guilty of "wishful thinking".

Before an election, when political parties will be trawling for ideas to put in their manifestos, they should be careful what they wish for, warns Professor Lapsley.

Former education minister and soon-to-retire Labour MSP Peter Peacock is a strong supporter of area boards and could well have influenced Scottish Labour Party policy. And only last month, Education Secretary Michael Russell warned the local government umbrella body Cosla to make the case for retaining power over schools or risk losing the argument (TESS, 25 February).

But funding education directly from the Scottish Government would not make it free from politics, points out Professor Lapsley. Health boards are always looking over their shoulders to see what central government is saying and what the next direction will be, he says. Education boards could hope for no better.

Budgets will continue to be tight, regardless of the structure, he warns.

"No one is going to say, `Let's give education boards a big injection of cash.' Where is it going to come from?"

Then there are the set-up costs to consider, including IT, staffing and premises. Local authorities would also have to bear the cost of laying off education staff. And when a growing number of teachers are unemployed, is this where the money should go, he asks.

He also questions the idea that under boards, delivery of education would be more consistent across the country.

"Are health boards the same? Absolutely not. There is an element of naivety about these proposals."

There is also a tendency to focus on structures when people are looking to change things, because they are "easy to talk about" and "people can make sense of them", he continues.

Processes, however, are sometimes more important - such as the process by which a child is taught. What matters, then, is the quality of the teacher; the structure of education could be almost irrelevant. Whether Curriculum for Excellence is working is a more valid question than whether Scotland needs a new mechanism for delivering education, he feels. "The idea that this is going to magic up a better quality of education is challengeable. It seems to be a lot of wishful thinking, a lot of hoping for a better arrangement - but unfortunately, the world we are living in is one of tough public service cuts and that's not going to go away for the next four or five years. That's the harsh, harsh reality."

Peter Peacock, however, disagrees with Professor Lapsley's assessment. The main drivers of improvement in education are good leadership, investment in teachers and Curriculum for Excellence, says the Labour MSP. But the structures of education contribute to school improvement and have to change, he argues.

"The current structure we have of 32 units of administration of education services is significantly too many."

The model is unsustainable and in the long term there are savings to be made, although there would be short-term costs, he says. Money is not the principal motivator for changing the structure of school management, he insists.

Fewer units would allow the top education directors to have influence over a wider territory and would provide the economies of scale needed for psychological and outdoor education services, for example.

Education would, naturally, still have to compete for resources with other services under a board model, but cash intended for education would not "leak away" as it has done since the concordat removed ring-fencing from council spending, he says.

"There is, unquestionably, a debate going on about the future management of education and it is not insignificant to note that headteachers and the EIS have asked for change."

As to whether education boards will be a Labour election promise, Mr Peacock will not be drawn, but later this month all will be revealed when the party publishes its manifesto, he says.

East Lothian's argument for trusts

- The reality and complexity of 21st-century society means that single institutions have to work together to achieve the outcomes we require;

- current funding, management and governance systems work against developing a coherent three-to-18 education system connected to the community;

- unprecedented social, cultural and financial challenges mean we must go beyond simply tweaking services;

- the OECD criticised the lack of innovation and diversity in Scottish education;

- separating education in schools from education outside schools defeats the purpose of education;

- parents and stakeholders are not fully engaged in school improvement or evaluation;

- public service cuts mean councils cannot continue to deliver education in the same way;

- people want to see a greater delegation of responsibility for running schools to local level.

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