Changes prepared for a conservative country

Clare Maclure

The salaries bill for Welsh directors of education will almost treble next April when the eight county councils are replaced by 22 unitary authorities.

Critics of the reorganisation have pointed out that the unitaries are paying their education directors Pounds 50,000 to Pounds 55,000 a year - almost as much as the counties' chief education officers earn.

But the Council of Welsh Districts (CWD) argues that the new authorities are keeping within nationally-agreed salary scales and are asking their education directors to take responsibility for culture services or leisure, thereby reducing the need for other directors. All the 22 education directors have been appointed; they include four of Wales's eight CEOs and two former headteachers.

At present, teachers and parents have only a sketchy idea of how the education service will operate from next April, but the picture should begin to get clearer within the next month. By October 31 the unitary authorities must publish service-delivery plans. For education these are likely to be general explanations of how they will provide support systems for schools.

In November they must provide their proposals for the transfer of staff. For school-based staff this will be straightforward and involve block transfers from the outgoing counties, but allocating support staff is likely to be far more complex. November 15 is the deadline for proposals on the transfer of property from the county councils. Again schools should be easy to handle, but other buildings, which are shared by more than one authority may cause problems.

The next big hurdle will be preparation of the budget. To date, the Welsh Office has given only tentative indications of standard spending assessments and hard information will not be available before the end of November.

Although the reorganisation has pitted districts and counties against each other and relationships have at times been acrimonious the CWD's assistant secretary, Paul Griffiths, sees hopeful signs for collaboration. "The breakthrough came when elected members took office and former county officers were appointed to new authorities. They quickly became determined to make it work," he said.

The level of consultation between the fledgling education departments and schools is still in its earliest stages, however. In some authorities the new educational centre may still only consist of one person.

Kevin Mullins, headteacher of Hawthorne High, Pontypridd, and president of the Secondary Heads Association for Wales, says there is concern about budgets and the time-scale for change. But headteachers expect the innate conservatism of Welsh local government and its tradition of "wanting the best for its young people" to protect education services, he said.

"Wales tends to be conservative with a small 'c'. I don't expect any immediate change. If things go disastrously wrong people may re-evaluate grant-maintained status, but I don't see that as a big threat. Education, I think, will be a high priority for politicians," he said.

Headteachers' experience of the shadow authorities are mixed, he says. The best-off are probably those in Powys where the new unitary authority is based largely on the existing county boundaries.

Schools in the Cardiff and Vale of Glamorgan unitary authority areas are also likely to enjoy continuity of service because their senior education staff will be transferring from South Glamorgan County Council.

In North Wales, Huw Roberts, head of Ysgol Gyfun Llangefini in Anglesey, is satisfied with the way the process is being handled in Gwynedd where three new unitaries are set to replace the county. "The reorganisation has not been planned with education as a centre point, but I am pleased with how things are going in north-west Wales," he said.

Headteachers in the region have made clear to the new authorities their expectations in terms of finance, support service and representation on education committees. The heads want a semi- autonomous company to provide services such as curriculum support and computing back-up for Anglesey, Caernarfonshire and Merionethshire.

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