Plans to force every Scottish council to employ a chief education officer will ensure that there is always someone who understands learning and teaching at the heart of Scottish local authorities, according to education directors' body ADES.
In recent years there had been "a diminution in the status and role of education directors", ADES general secretary John Stodter said. But he added that new Scottish government proposals to legally oblige councils to employ a chief education officer would act as "a guarantee for the future".
"It's a symbolic thing, it will ensure there is always somebody running the service who understands teaching and learning and knows about children," he said.
John Fyffe, ADES president and director of education and children's services in Perth and Kinross, said it was "bizarre" that education - the single largest area of council expenditure - was often managed by someone with no background in the sector. The introduction of the chief education officer role would put the sector back in the spotlight, he said.
"If you go around the country, apart from a few noble places like Glasgow, you struggle to find a director of education," Mr Fyffe said. "They are directors of children's services, education and community services, education and leisure, or some amalgam of them all.
"It seems to me bizarre that in some cases the person responsible for education, the biggest budget in Scottish local authorities, has no educational background. This role should put the spotlight back on education."
Still to be convinced
Councils, however, are "sceptical" about the proposals, according to a spokesman for local authorities' body Cosla.
"Cosla remains to be convinced about the need for a chief education officer," the spokesman said. "We know that most, if not all, local authorities already employ dedicated, senior education officials with education qualifications and experience.
"The Scottish government has still to publish what qualifications and experience will be necessary for a chief education officer, so at this stage we cannot say with any certainty whether the post will lead to changes in management structures or deliver benefits to local education delivery. As it stands, we are therefore sceptical about the merits of the proposal."
A Scottish government spokesperson said the change would "ensure that all authorities have an appointed education officer within their senior management team with appropriate qualifications and experience".
The spokesperson added: "Each chief education officer will have a strong education background, to ensure that specialised knowledge around key education services such as local schooling is demonstrated at leadership level, even as the delivery of services by local authorities continues to evolve.
"As the legislative passage of the Education (Scotland) Bill progresses, we will consult with local authorities on the levels of qualifications and experience needed for the role."
Local authorities were previously obliged to employ a director of education, but this requirement was removed in 1996. Since then, the financial crisis has led to deep cuts in education staffing, particularly in education departments at local authority level. The number of quality improvement officer posts fell by 22 per cent between 2010 and 2013, according to an Audit Scotland report on school education published in June last year. The EIS teaching union has argued that such cuts threaten the role of councils in promoting change and supporting teachers.
The Scottish government predicts that filling the chief education officer posts will not have financial implications for councils because they will "be able to determine that an existing officer meets the statutory requirements".
Education is the single largest area of council expenditure, accounting for almost 31 per cent of total revenue expenditure in 2012-13.
The Bill in brief
The creation of chief education officer posts will ensure that senior managers within councils have the necessary qualifications and experience, the Scottish government says.
According to the government, the Education (Scotland) Bill will also:
l Require councils to report on their progress in closing the attainment gap
l Allow parents to request that their council provides Gaelic medium education
l Require all teaching staff to be registered with the General Teaching Council for Scotland.