I notice that Mr Monteith himself adopted a gradualist approach to this same matter in his speech to the annual conference of the Scottish Conservatives. "In time people will ask why do we need local councils . . . but we are not ready for that yet," he said.
Joint boards have the advantages that they already exist for police and fire services, they have critical mass in terms of population base and resources, and they are not seen as a threat to the general status of local government.
As to how the existence of new education joint boards could be consistent with direct funding of schools, the answer lies in a considerable extension of ring-fencing of grant-aided expenditure (GAE). Each board's GAE could contain detailed allocation of funds for the primary and secondary schools in the board's area together with a legally binding formula for the funding of each education institution, based on roll and other factors (social deprivation, etc) identified by the Scottish Executive.
The new boards should be enjoined to manage schools with a light touch, passing the formula funding to headteachers, who would be assisted by bursars appointed at school or cluster levels. Heads would be bound by national agreements on salaries and levels of staffing but would be free to vire funds in accordance with school development planning, provided that the virement and the development plans had been approved in advance by the school board.
With such a new system, and with the rhetoric of school autonomy that would go with it, the kind of operational freedom given to the police and fire services could be extended to education. In time this would lead to more diversity and choice as heads took initiatives and responded to local opinion.
The prospect of local delivery of initiatives which commanded local support would increase the involvement of parents and teachers in educational policy-making. Yet the essential principles of public sector education would survive.
There is growing support, across the political spectrum, for a reform along these lines. The details are open to discussion, which should take place within the framework of the national debate.
Fred Forrester Glenbervie Grove Dunfermline