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Education must make the best of hard times

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times": the quote from A Tale of Two Cities resounded at last week's Cosla conference, which adopted a Dickensian theme for the bicentenary year of the author's birth. The worst reflected the harsh economic climate the councils face, with deprivation and childhood poverty on the rise again; the best was for energetic, creative partnerships to make the most of limited resources across services.

Education is not the worst off. Teachers have been protected by the guarantee, given by Cosla under duress, that their number would not fall below 51,131. In return, the councils were granted concessions that are saving them hundreds of thousands of pounds in the year ahead through changes to teachers' conditions - pound;948,000 here, pound;747,000 there (News Focus, pages 12-15).

But while teachers are protected, our digging into the detail of the budgets councils have set reveals that the most vulnerable staff are taking the hit - supply teachers, classroom assistants, librarians, janitors, cleaners, technicians - as local authorities pare away pound;25,000 here and pound;30,000 there. But it also reveals that money is being invested in vulnerable children, early years and youth employability schemes.

These are "hard times" for local authorities that find themselves having to work more cleverly with central government. Whatever the political divisions, the strong warning from Cosla's chief executive, Rory Mair, was that unless councils work more closely with the government, they risk pulling Cosla apart.

In the depths of a global recession, politicians - local and national - cannot afford party political point-scoring. If they are genuinely to help their communities, they need to build an effective partnership. The government would not provide a blueprint for merging education services or amalgamating local authorities, said the cabinet secretary for finance, John Swinney; it was about collaborating across services.

Success stories ranged from Dundee and Glasgow working with JobcentrePlus and local partners to get people back into work, to life-changing work by children's services in East Ayrshire and Perth and Kinross, to Edinburgh supporting world-class culture which the world comes to visit every year.

That culture comes to the fore in our special edition on Going Places, which includes school visits to the magnificently-refurbished Scottish National Portrait Gallery. From the Jacobites to pioneers of science and contemporary immigrants, Scotland's story is told (pages 18-21).

There is sharp irony in millions of pounds being poured into one building, while councils struggle to provide basic services. But with education so much to the fore, it not only boosts tourism, it nurtures the minds of children from all backgrounds and opens their eyes to opportunities beyond their own backyards, beyond poverty and deprivation.

Gillian Macdonald, Editor of the year (business and professional), gillian.macdonald@tess.co.uk.

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