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Heads hope for lean team

It takes 10 minutes to drive from one side of Darlington to the other. A tightly-knit, bustling, red-brick town at the intersection of rural County Durham and industrial Teesside, it displays fierce civic pride. Voters look forward to 1997 when it will become a unitary authority.

People there felt badly done by when education was hived off in 1974 and Darlington borough became a second-tier authority to Durham County Council, a largely rural region.

Although canvassing councillors are met with concerns about educational standards and discipline, many voters look forward to greater autonomy.

People are generally unaware of the anxieties of those working in the town's schools - particularly how one of the smallest unitary authorities will budget to maintain services in a radically different educational climate to that of more than 20 years ago.

Gloriana Morehead, headteacher of Mount Pleasant primary school, Darlington, and local secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "Local people look back to when Darlington managed its own affairs before 1974, and see no problem in going back to that. But the whole education scene has changed. Durham is a large authority which provides inspectors for every curriculum subject, behaviour support teachers, a whole gamut of services. Darlington schools want to know where they are going to get this kind of help from."

In anticipation, the Labour-led council set up an education working party of heads, parents and governors a year ago, which produced 30 pages of recommendations for the new authority in February. While primary heads want to maintain the level of support they receive from the county council, secondary heads are anxious to increase their autonomy.

David Henderson, the headteacher of Hummersknott School, an 11-16 comprehensive, said: "We don't want any empire-building. We want the authority to provide services which we need and can buy into. We are looking for a lean team. Darlington is one-sixth the size of Durham County Council, and anything centrally-run is going to cost Darlington schools six times as much."

Although there are no grant-maintained schools in the town, Hummersknott is one of two schools locally which went as far as a vote.

Mr Henderson, a Labour party member, was concerned that popular inner-city schools were suffering under the county council funding formula, which he believed favoured rural schools.

Hurworth is a village comprehensive in Tony Blair's neighbouring Sedgefield constituency, which will come under the new unitary authority. The school led a celebrated opting-out campaign - now subject to investigation - under a Conservative chair of governors, on the grounds that the Labour powers in Darlington would find it expedient to close a village secondary school with surplus places.

Both cases indicate the high level of local feeling over what kind of infrastructure the new authority will devise. Richard Appleton, headteacher of Eastbourne School in Darlington, has recently moved from Hertfordshire, where schools are allowed maximum autonomy. He hopes the unitary authority will give heads greater freedom to choose the services they need than exists under the county council.

He said: "Headteachers want the structure to be focused on schools. They don't want, for example, large numbers of advisers on roll, who are then away doing OFSTED inspections to earn money."

How Darlington will provide for the whole gamut of special needs, pupil referral units, and transport to outside-authority places has also been a major issue. The authority's ability to maintain nursery provision with the introduction of vouchers is also being questioned.

With six nursery schools and three nursery units attached to primary schools, Darlington has an unusually high level of nursery places. However, there is concern that the advent of nursery vouchers will threaten these. The fact that Michael Fallon, the former Conservative MP for Darlington, is involved with one of three private nurseries presently being established in the town has fuelled these fears.

Brenda Frame, the head of Heathfield nursery, which caters for 130 three to four-year-olds, has been a member of Darlington's education working party. She said that the council's Labour group had reassured her that it would "actively seek to maintain" state nursery provision. She said she had been impressed by the council's desire to consult with all parties, and felt the unitary authority would be able to communicate better with local people. She said: "I think they see it as a real partnership."

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