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Local leaders must fight for their corner

Scotland's councils have set their 2010-11 budgets. Schools know their staffing and supplies and services budgets. At best, it's bad news; in some cases, it's a disaster.

The degree of consultation, with the unions, parents and headteachers, will have varied. Such interest groups have a right to be consulted, but the democratically-elected councillors have the duty to make the hard decisions. These are made harder, curiously, by something which most councillors demanded - the concordat.

This gave local councils autonomy to spend without central government constraints or ring-fencing directions. The price, however, was the council tax freeze. It's that, plus the small matter of an international financial crisis, which has created the bleak scenario we face.

Local government, the Scottish Government and the UK Government have different priorities. This sometimes confusing situation is complicated by three consecutive years of elections: Westminster in 2010, the Scottish Parliament in 2011 and the councils in 2012. The worst outlook is fear- induced paralysis. Since action is likely to be unpopular with one section or other of the electorate, many politicians will be tempted to do nothing.

All the warnings are that the situation will get worse. A long-term realignment of public sector priorities and spending reductions is inevitable. The question is whether the decisions will be made from a long-term strategic perspective or electoral jockeying triumphs.

The public sector could operate more efficiently. We remain wedded to a localised but often expensive system, and politicians are usually the first to bow to constituency pressures. The best recent example was the maintenance of a range of local hospital accident and emergency services, even if their functions were often duplicated and were picking up problems, especially at weekends, better addressed at the next day's GP surgery.

Or there is the wastage of countless local authority buildings within short distances of each other. A range of services (library, housing, social work, school) could be delivered from one centralised resource in each. Other services have become historically outdated, and minimal usage no longer justifies their existence.

In education, there are savings to be made by politicians with the courage to think strategically and to argue the long-term needs of their areas as a whole, starting with some key principles. Here are some I would put at the heart of such an exercise:

- One level of quality assurance is enough: councils and the Scottish Government should discuss whether a central inspectorate or a local quality assurance process is better to evaluate school performance - and then eliminate the unnecessary level;

- Central and local government should abstain from the creation of the plethora of regulations which, in their turn, create the need for a massive bureaucracy to police them;

- Comprehensive education must be maintained and any school reorganisation must create a genuine social mix;

- Levels of academic attainment should not be the criterion for determining which schools remain open;

- Powerful vested interests wishing to protect particular sectoral schools at the expense of others must not be entertained;

- Vulnerable youngsters and the poorest communities must be protected.

That'll do for a start.

Alex Wood is head of Wester Hailes Education Centre, Edinburgh.

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