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If you're small, think bigger

Ministers are becoming increasingly concerned at the capacity of small education authorities to function effectively following recent HMI reports.

Last week's judgment on Falkirk Council's education service, which highlighted key weaknesses, is likely to add urgency to the issue.

The authority is the latest in a number of smaller councils whose indifferent performance has been exposed by inspectors, including Moray, the Western Isles, Clackmannanshire, Shetland, Scottish Borders and East Dunbartonshire.

They are now taking steps to remedy their shortcomings and ministers will be keeping a particularly close eye on the second round of education authority inspections to find out if improvements have been sustained.

Peter Peacock, Education Minister, confirmed to The TES Scotland that he has reservations about "the strategic capacity of smaller local authorities to deliver education and childcare services" - while emphasising that the Scottish Executive had no intention of undertaking another reorganisation of local government or imposing central controls on education.

Mr Peacock said: "What I am keen to do is to encourage a strengthening of the capacity to deliver education services locally."

He made it clear he was not just thinking of councils joining together to deliver backroom services, but also professional expertise and practice. He believes there is scope for better co-ordination among councils to deliver special needs, psychological and advisory services, and quality assurance.

Following his visits to Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, Mr Peacock commented: "Although their systems are more centralised than we would ever want to be, the span of their best leaders is wider than it is in Scotland.

The quality is fragmented when you have 32 education authorities. The question I am asking is whether we can sustain that in the longer term."

Mr Peacock suggested that a range of measures could be tried out, with smaller authorities linking together or benefiting from the expertise of larger ones. In effect, he is contemplating the resurrection of old regional connections such as Central, Tayside and Grampian - but also sub-Strathclyde co-ordination which would bring together authorities covering areas like Ayrshire and Renfrewshire.

One of the major concerns is over monitoring and improving pupil attainment, and developing mechanisms for ensuring that happens. Of 25 councils inspected so far, only Inverclyde has been rated very good for its record of continuous improvement in school performance.

Falkirk's evaluation systems were judged to be only fair. "Officers rarely observed learning and teaching and were therefore not well placed to judge the impact of policies and procedures on pupils' learning," HMI stated.

A third of headteachers felt the authority did not have an accurate picture of the performance of schools, and only 57 per cent of heads expressed confidence that the authority was helping their establishment to improve the quality of its education.

"Elected members did not always challenge education services sufficiently," HMI said in a conclusion that will not be unique to Falkirk.

Mr Peacock, who also has responsibility for child protection and childcare issues, is anxious to ensure that local authorities improve their performance in these areas as well.

fair to middling 5

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