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New councils throw up new problems

Clare Dean reports on local government re-organisation while Daniel Rosenthal visits one of the unitary authorities just created.

Monday - All Fools' Day - sees the creation of 13 new councils in England, 22 in Wales and 29 in Scotland. The massive shake-up of local government, despite the date in which it swings into action, is no joke for heads and governors.

For some new authorities have a population of 150,000 or less and while the Government claims they will be cost-effective and have better co-ordination of local services, schools have serious doubts.

They fear skills of officers will be spread thinner and already tight budgets will be stretched further as economies of scale disappear.

Some fledgling authorities have delivered education before - but pre-1974 when the last major re-organisation of local government took place. And as Sue Nicholson, assistant secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "The whole world has changed enormously since then."

England's new councils are being created out of the abolition of Avon, Cleveland and Humberside. York City is also being taken out of North Yorkshire county.

In Wales 22 LEAs will replace the eight county-based councils and in Scotland there will be 29 new authorities.

Key among the areas of concern for heads is the fate of special needs. Will the new authorities run their own services, or share expertise? What will happen to education psychologists, education welfare officers? And what of the music service, youth orchestras, instrumental tuition, curriculum advice and support for schools?

Are people going to be employed by single authorities or are salaries to be shared between two, or even three? Joint arrangements are fraught with difficulty. Sue Nicholson said there was no evidence of them working in the past. "Certainly with the break-up in inner London they didn't."

Simon Goodenough, chair of the National Governors Council, added: "The feedback we're getting is that many new authorities haven't had time to consider how they are going to share services."

That is hardly surprising, considering the last of the education directors for the new English authorities was only appointed in December. Many senior officers have also been working almost solo for months, with staff they have recruited still in post with authorities being disbanded.

Relations between the new authorities and the councils they are replacing have often been hostile, with words barely being exchanged in parts of England.

In Wales, the counties were required by law to work with the new authorities to ensure as smooth a handover as possible.

Gavin Graveson, an education consultant who has been studying the new authorities, said: "The way in which Welsh re-organisation was set up was much more effective. Co-operation is working."

Re-organisation has an inevitable cost. The Assembly of Welsh Counties estimates it will cost Pounds 200 million in the principality, the Welsh Office reckons Pounds 80 million. In Gwent a single education director is replaced by five - pushing the salary bill up from Pounds 52,000 to Pounds 258,000 a year.

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