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The cry is diversity must bloom;Scottish Election

As the polls closed last night in Scotland's historic election, Neil Munro looks to the educational challenges ahead.

THE MOST fundamental reform suggested for Scottish schools in the election campaign was the Tories' plan to abolish education authorities and replace them with widely-based education boards directly funded by the parliament.

It was, and remains, a minority view. Even Iain Drysdale, Tory leader in East Renfrewshire and a member of the party's national executive, has dissented.

But local education bosses are not counting their chickens. Malcolm Green, chairman in Glasgow before the elections, says: "We will have to gird up our loins to deliver services effectively, and be seen by the public to be doing so. Otherwise we will not have allies to help us argue our case."

Charles Gray, education chair in North Lanarkshire, believes councils will retain education but they must be ready to make changes. "Diversity must bloom," he said.

These Labour observations were endorsed from the opposing political camp by Janet Law, education convener in the previous SNP administration in Perth and Kinross, who said local government "has to rise to the challenge of delivering services effectively and of making people more confident that it is reflecting the community's aspirations".

Such comments reflect the fact that Labour has been, and is likely to remain, as stringent a taskmaster for local government as the Tories were in their Westminster incarnation.

Indeed, Labour has arguably become tougher and not just over the well-publicised financial catastrophes that hit the direct labour organisations in North Lanarkshire and East Ayrshire.

The new "best value" regime is more all-embracing than the system of putting services out to competitive tender which it replaced. Market testing applied only to a small number of areas such as cleaning, catering and repairs whereas best value principles must be adopted for all services.

These principles are accountability, transparency, continuous improvement and ownership. It is not difficult to see how they can be translated into school policies on target-setting, performance pay, teacher appraisal and the general standards-raising agenda - although many a staffroom observer might wonder whether "ownership" will ever make an appearance.

But Keir Bloomer, chairman of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland's best value working group, said one of the urgent necessities after the election is to sort out the "huge audit overload" burdening authorities.

The "deluge" included HMI's How Good Is Our School? indicators, the Accounts Commission's performance indicators and its management audits, the best value service reviews required every five years, standards and quality reports, community learning plans, local childcare plans and pre-school plans.

"We don't want to ditch accountability altogether," Mr Bloomer commented, "but we desperately need to bring all these things together." He believes there is sympathy for this view from Scottish Office officials and HMI, and a meeting is planned for June.

None the less the sense that councils are increasingly expected to toe the Government line has been heightened by ministers' insistence on ring-fencing the millions winging their way to schools from the excellence fund. Councils have no discretion; they have some leeway in how but not where they spend the cash.

In addition, Labour is committed to unleashing HMI on education authorities as well as schools, bringing even more auditing. To their further chagrin, the authorities could find themselves sharing some of their managerial powers with a strengthened General Teaching Council.

And if Labour's promised consultation removes or dilutes rights on national pay bargaining, the authorities' collective influence in that field may be undercut as well.

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