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Last roar of 'monster' empire

SCOTLAND The Government's plans to establish unitary authorities in Wales, Scotland and some English counties are seen as a massive gamble. But how long are the odds against education winning this time? The TES reports.

Strathclyde's Frank Pignatelli could be forgiven for feeling that fate has stopped dealing him a lucky hand. His relentless rise as director of education of the largest education authority in Western Europe has come to a grinding halt with the reform of Scottish local government.

His giant billion-pound empire - dubbed a "monster" by the Prime Minister - will be broken up into 12 single-tier councils from April 1996 when he will be just 49, a year short of the normal premature retirement age. "If there's one thing worse than working for Strathclyde, it is not working for Strathclyde, " he was heard to say wistfully.

Pignatelli, who currently earns Pounds 90,000 a year, will find no financial attraction even in the most senior chief executive post in the largest of the new authorities - the city of Glasgow council - which will pay Pounds 75, 000.

Pignatelli's senior depute, and his five deputes will be similarly disadvantaged, although special pay-offs have been promised by the Scottish Secretary's Staff Commission - set up to protect the interests of local government employees. The Association of Directors of Education in Scotland is extremely concerned at the ability of the new councils to attract high-calibre staff when headteachers will often be earning more than their directors.

These careers are the most direct casualties of the reform of Scotland's council, pushed through by Scottish Office ministers in a storm of political controversy. The regional, district and island councils will be reduced from 65 to 32, all of whom will have responsibility for education instead of the current 12.

But, as Graham Harcus, one of Mr Pignatelli's deputes, points out, other staff face uncertainty too. "Forget about Strathclyde and its senior staff for the moment and think of the office staff in our Dunbarton division which is to be split four ways. They face the uncertainty of not knowing whether they are to be posted to Lochgilphead or Dunoon or Kirkintilloch or Motherwell." These uncertainties are immediate.

The Local Government Bill is now on the Statute Book and new "shadow" authorities will be elected next April to work with the outgoing councils - a difficult timetable, as is acknowledged even in the Scottish Office.

The Staff Commission has further quickened the pace by recommending that advertisements for the new chief executives should be placed in February; the commission will then post the applications to the new councils. The expectation is that other senior staff could be appointed by June.

These appointments are not guaranteed to include directors of education. For one of the most contentious consequences of the Act is the removal of the statutory requirement to have directors of education and education committees. Ian Lang, the Scottish Secretary, and his ministers have repeatedly assured the education community that almost all councils will do so in practice. But the non-party-political Shetland council has already started alarm bells ringing by proposing to scrap existing heads of departments.

Against that background and with its successful record of resistance to government policies such as opting-out and primary school testing, Scotland is now bracing itself for a frontal assault on council services - and so in turn is the voluntary sector which depends on them. With a larger number of much smaller education authorities, specialist provision such as special education, community education and advisory services is seen as particularly vulnerable.

There will be a major gap in curricular innovation, too. The pioneering work by Strathclyde, Lothian, Tayside, Central and Grampian will disappear in April 1996 along with these regions. Another major headache is how their information technology systems are to be broken up, which is of passing interest since 1996 is also the year when most schools are due to take full control of their budgets under devolved management.

As for the schools themselves, they may be relatively unaffected by the changes. Indeed, Alan Gilchrist, director of education in Highland, one of the few regional councils to survive, says the prime job of management over the next few years is to protect schools and ensure that the upheaval passes almost unnoticed.

But others doubt the chances of that. Scottish education authorities have always been more generous in staffing schools than central government has allowed: Tayside, for example, employs 250 more primary and secondary teachers than the Government's funding formula provides.

The pressures on inadequately resourced authorities to shed these posts will be considerable, Sandy Watson, the region's director of education, believes. He frequently cites the example of a 1,200-pupil secondary school in the West of Scotland entitled to 92 staff, whose exact counterpart in England was recently facing an LMS-inspired cut from 67 to 64 teacher posts.

While Labour has bitterly fought what it calls the "Balkanisation" of local government, the Left-dominated Convention of Scottish Local Authorities decided last week to bow to the inevitable and end its policy of non-co-operation with the Government in preparing for the new councils.

The race is now on to ensure that not only local authority staff but the public as well get the best deal on jobs and services. The Scottish Secretary sees exciting times ahead as a rich mosaic of differing systems of service delivery and council structures envelops the land, in a veritable bazaar of enabling, purchasing and jointly managed authorities. It is the kind of excitement Scottish local government would be happy to do without.

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