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Charged with disturbing the pieces of Britain

The Government's plans to establish unitary authorities in Wales, Scotland and some English counties are seen as a massive gamble. But how long are the odds against education winning this time? The TES reports.

Staff who work for huge institutions that are forever restructuring their operating systems and rationalising their workforce have an expression for the affliction that English county halls have been suffering from since the local government review got under way in 1992. It is "analysis paralysis".

We will never know how many hours local education authority staff and members have spent preparing dossiers explaining why their county should not be divided up into unitary bodies that would combine the functions of district and county councils. But it is said that some education officers have for the past year been devoting three or four days a week to the cause.

The financial cost has been huge too. The Local Government Commission has spent Pounds 250,000 per county on consultations, and many LEAs have also hired market researchers and consultants at great expense to help them build their case. One firm of consultants allegedly charged a county and six districts Pounds 500,000 for its services.

For some authorities, the investment has paid off because Sir John Banham, who is in charge of the review, has recommended that they should remain intact. But the unlucky LEAs singled out for what is euphemistically known as "disaggregation" are now more transfixed by the review than ever. They know that if they lose their fight for survival, their counties' education services will face years of upheaval.

The only areas where it is possible for the Government to get unitary authorities in place for April 1996 are Avon, Cleveland, Humberside, North Yorkshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Hampshire. But the deadline is tight. Environment Secretary John Gummer must first approve the plans. Then Orders specifying the proposed changes will have to be approved by both Houses of Parliament by mid-March of next year in order to clear the way for May elections for the shadow authorities that will start work 11 months later. Those counties left behind in the gallop will probably have to stagger on until March 31, 1997.

It is a bleak prospect, particularly as Banham himself has said: "There is not a single shred of evidence that unitary local government is better than two-tier local government. It is a massive gamble which I am only prepared to recommend where there is strong local support."

That comment will have antagonised the Scots and Welsh who are having unitary authorities forced upon them (see below and opposite), but county councils which are challenging the Banham recommendations see this statement as a vindication of their stance.

They are convinced that this reorganisation will merely spawn yet another in 10 or 20 years time because, as Cheshire's chief executive Michael Pitt has said, it will satisfy neither the rationalists nor the romantics who see the medieval county system as one of England's quintessential features.

The counties also predict that the new system will prove cripplingly expensive and pose serious problems for education. It will, they say, threaten services for children with special needs and non-statutory areas such as adult education and the youth service, add to transport and in-service training costs, and trigger an exodus of able education officers who want to continue working for big authorities. "And the irony is that it is all so unnecessary," said one county council spokesman. "People invariably do not care whether they have a district, unitary or county authority. They just want their children educated and their bins emptied."

The Society of Education Officers has much the same misgivings. Dr John Williams, chief education officer for the Isle of Wight and chairman of the SEO group that has been monitoring the review, said:"This will mean more turbulence just at a time when education is being promised a period of consolidation by Sir Ron Dearing."

Finance is another of the SEO's worries. Each new unitary authority will have its own new standard spending assessment and will consequently have to draw up a new funding scheme for schools. "In some respects this is the most hairy aspect of the reforms," Dr Williams said. "It will all have to be done very quickly and adequate bridging finance will be needed for rural unitary authorities that may find it difficult to run a lot of small schools."

The SEO is open to comments of "they would say that, wouldn't they" variety - some CEOs may find themselves applying for their own jobs or accepting lower-paid positions elsewhere. But its fears for specialist SEN services, for example, do appear justified. It is hard to believe that three or four unitary authorities with different political complexions and budgetary priorities will be happy to share such services. History suggests otherwise. Gavin Graveson, who produced a paper for the SEO on the break-up of the Inner London Education Authority, concluded: "Joint working arrangements are not a means of delivering basic and essential provision - they are invariably fragile, requiring immense effort of principle and will . . . the inner London boroughs have had to become self-sufficient."

The Association of District Councils, which has been advocating unitary authorities since the 1980s, does not accept such gloomy prognostications. It believes services can be shared successfully and points out that although the ACC and SEO assert that some unitary authorities will be too small, LEAs such as Kingston upon Thames (population: 133,000) and St Helens (186,000) have proved very efficient.

It is also convinced there will be less dislocation than is feared because the officers running the unitary services will often be the same ones who were in county hall. "We feel that the new authorities will become much more responsive to schools' needs," an ADC spokesman said this week. "After all a local education authority is not all that 'local' if it is 100 miles long."

Nevertheless, in districts where there is a high proportion of grant-maintained schools the net result of the reorganisation will be to hand education over to the even more remote Funding Agency for Schools. And there is a danger that this trend will become more pronounced if schools are dissatisfied with their new authorities.

The ADC has tried to damp down that speculation too by saying that districts will protectthe funding of schools "as far as possible". But teachers will no doubt remain sceptical. They know that without Government backing such promises count for very little.

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