New councils 'not up to job'

Emma Burstall

Headteachers in towns likely to become unitary authorities in the latest local government review fear the new councils will not be up to the job of running schools.

The Local Government Commission announced this week that it was recommending the formation of 10 new unitary authorities in England: Thurrock, Essex; Peterborough; Warrington and Halton, Cheshire; The Wrekin, Shropshire; Northampton, Blackpool and Blackburn. Two new authorities in Kent are also proposed, through mergers of Dartford with Gravesham and Rochester upon Medway with Gillingham.

Councils likely to gain unitary status believe their new powers will enable them to gear education decisions more towards the needs of the local community.

But Thurrock head Mike Davies, president of the National Association of Head Teachers in Essex, says members doubt whether local councils are experienced enough to do the job properly.

"Most Thurrock heads are quite happy with the services provided by Essex County Council and hope Thurrock will buy them in. The borough council can perhaps manage cleaning, ground maintenance and school meals but has no expertise in educational development.

"We're also concerned that the council will be able to decide how to allocate funds. We have our fair share of unemployment and social services will have a great claim as well as education. Whether Thurrock will be able to maintain those expensive services remains to be seen. There are so many unanswered questions," he adds.

But Thurrock Borough Council spokesman Martin Creswell says unitary status will allow the council to tackle specific local problems.

"How can a service that is built and run from Chelmsford to cover a rural shire county possibly meet the needs of a deprived area in the extreme corner that is completely different from, say, affluent Epping or Brentwood?" he comments.

The borough council hopes to work closely with heads and teachers, he maintains.

"We don't plan any massive changes because there has been a lot of change in education recently, but we want to hear from all the education service providers to find out what needs to be done."

Denis Cooper, assistant chief executive of Warrington Borough Council, adds: "Becoming a unitary authority will mean decisions about the shape of education in the area will be taken by people with a detailed knowledge of the community rather than distant figures.

"The cornerstone of our plans will be a forum for locally based education officers, heads and teachers to discuss education service delivery. The council is also planning to set up a new teacher centre as a training resource.

"Not surprisingly, heads are a little suspicious of more change, but they are beginning to see the advantages of having matters determined locally."

Like Thurrock, Northampton borough council is not planning any major alterations. Spokeswoman Bridget Peet says schools will continue to be run in the same way. "We are very much looking forward to being a stand-alone education authority as we were until 1974, but in certain areas we will look to work closely with the county council so as not to duplicate services and to keep costs down," she explains.

The commission will now hold a six-week consultation period and make final recommendations to Environment Secretary John Gummer by the end of the year. If the latest proposals to convert to unitary status are accepted the decisions will be implemented in April 1997.

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