Wales's directors of education are overworked and underpaid compared with their English equivalents, a top academic has claimed.
A fierce debate surrounding the salaries of top local government officials took a twist this week when David Reynolds, professor of education at Plymouth University, spoke out in their defence - even saying they were due a pay rise.
He also claimed education directors, and their departments, were barely coping with the paperwork and edicts thrown at them by the Assembly government.
Responding to the findings of a TES Cymru investigation into the directors' salaries, Professor Reynolds, who lives in South Wales, said: "This pay does not strike me as unreasonable - about two-thirds fall into the band pound;70-90,000. Most English directors would be paid six figures."
The academic is among many calling for local government in Wales to be streamlined, along with proposals to reduce the number of health boards from 22 to eight.
Slipping standards in the education services offered by some local authorities - as well as huge variations - has strengthened campaigners' calls.
One-third of education services were described as poor, and two-thirds likely to improve, in the 2006-7 report by Dr Bill Maxwell, chief inspector in Wales.
But Professor Reynolds said directors of education were struggling to keep up with the paperwork.
"We have a culture of consultation in Wales and they're up against very short deadlines, with a lot to respond to," said Professor Reynolds.
"The volume of stuff is a problem. I think they're close to being overwhelmed. If anything, it's an argument for more pay, not less."
He also said the burdens of an education director could be bigger in a smaller authority.
Dr Phil Dixon, director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers Cymru, said: "What we should be looking at here is not what the directors are paid, but what they are doing.
"Directors in small authorities often don't have the resources of larger ones, and get bogged down in things they shouldn't have to do. It means they cannot always look at the bigger picture."
Local authorities increased from eight to 22 following reorganisation in 1996. Good education services are viewed by Assembly government policy-makers as vital in improving schools, and identifying those that need help early on.
Last month the Welsh Local Government Authority defended the pay of some senior council staff after it emerged that 40 in Wales were earning more than pound;100,000. In the Vale of Glamorgan, seven staff earn more than pound;100,000, including two teachers. Education minister Jane Hutt earns pound;91.000 per year, according to Freedom of Information requests.
NUT Cymru spokesman Rhys Williams feels that where directors' roles are combined with other responsibilities, education has been downgraded. "Having 22 means you have the opposite of economies of scale," he said. "As for whether directors are worth the salaries, you have to look at the responsibilities."
The NUT has long called for more co-operation and pooling of resources among local authorities.
Steve Thomas, WLGA chief executive, said directors' roles were "vital to community life".
"Some education portfolios are integrated with children's and youth services, leisure, social services and even economic development," said Mr Thomas.
"If you compare average education director salaries with the private sector, then their annual earnings often amount to less than a city stockbroker's annual bonus."
In a press release last month, the WLGA called for scrutiny across the public sector on senior salaries.
"Many senior local government salaries are lower than many other senior public service posts in Wales," said a spokesperson.
On average, directors of children's services, whose remit covers education, receive pound;128,057 in London boroughs; pound;125,106 in the counties; pound;106,983 in metroplitan districts and pound;106,960 in other unitary authorities;
An Assembly government spokesperson said: "Our approach remains one of working in partnership with local government."
Leader, page 32.