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Directors bid for Holyrood role

Directors of education have agreed to mount a second major battle in four years to stop a takeover of their service. Success in preserving posts during local government reform has strengthened their belief in a continued role under a Scottish parliament.

Michael O'Neill, director in North Lanarkshire and president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, insists the parliament will have to accept a tier of education between itself and schools.

"The association is more relaxed about a parliament than it was about local government reorganisation," Mr O'Neill said. Indeed, it believes it would be well placed to advise on policy formation in the new Holyrood structures.

Mr O'Neill said: "If we agree the answer is not total decentralisation to schools, because schools cannot cope, and not total centralisation from Edinburgh, there is a need for what we have referred to as the irreducible core."

Directors were the "crucial hub in a web of partnerships which have built the current traditions of consensus and support", he told the Association of Directors of Education in Dunblane.

Mr O'Neill saw a continued role for directors, providing strategic vision and direction, accountability and quality assurance, and equality of access and resources.

But he accepted there could be changes to the relationship with central government. "What is the format? Is it a local education authority? A school board Northern Ireland style? A school board Canadian style with elected members and officers? Let's have a debate. Are 32 authorities too many? I am sure there will be a review. Is that number appropriate? Are the boundaries appropriate?" he asked.

Mr O'Neill said: "International comparisons show that countries which lack an intermediate level of local management such as Germany and Hungary are experiencing significant problems compared with those such as Canada and Scotland which have. Perhaps most interestingly, New Zealand with its system of total decentralisation to schools, which so attracted a former minister (Michael Forsyth), is said to have failed because schools and boards can't cope and don't want to."

Mr O'Neill said it was difficult to translate policy into practice without a tier of administration. The current emphasis on "joined-up" government, highlighted by the new community schools, underlined the need for a continuing role for some sort of local authority.

Colin Mair, director of the Scottish Local Authorities Management Centre at Strathclyde University, said a "centralist scenario" for education was unlikely under a Scottish parliament, although Donald Dewar, the Scottish Secretary, had already questioned whether eight police forces were too many for a country of Scotland's size.

Mr Mair said it was inevitable the parliament would investigate education structures and best value since a fifth of the Scottish Office spending block was spent by directors of education. But any changes were unlikely in the first term. MSPs would not want immediately to take powers away from the biggest and most important service.

Education, he warned, would be a target. "You could imagine nine education boards being established reporting directly to the Scottish parliament itself and, among others, it's a very serious option professionals should have a view about," Mr Mair said.

The first few years of local government reform had exposed an "awesome parochialism", with councils refusing to share resources and services. The parliament would want to probe that.

Teachers were often the biggest culprits in refusing to accept that they were part of a council with other service departments, Mr Mair said.

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