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Onus on councils to make their case;Opinion

NOW THAT the season of glitter and glad rags, parties and pester power has been safely negotiated, parents and teachers can look forward to an interesting and high-profile year for education on the political front. As the carol goes: "We wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year."

For 1999 such happiness may well require a certain fortitude and resilience as education finds itself - more even than usual in an election year - the front runner in all political parties' spotlights in the run-up to That Election.

Whichever party or coalition dominates the new parliament after May 1999 there is no doubt that central governmentlocal authority tensions and position-jostling, simmering gently since the last reorganisation in 1995, are set to come to the boil. There is a growing awareness that 32 education directorates for a population of five million may be a little over the top. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities could well find its corporate back to the wall as the hounds of Holyrood sniff the air and stake out their territory.

One hundred and twenty-nine MSPs, earning salaries from a different planet to the paltry remuneration of those councillors currently making the big decisions, would be at fault if they did not instigate a no-holds-barred review of the future role of local authorities in education. Indeed, in view of the current threat to Scottish education spending, as convergence and equalisation between England and Scotland become the reality and price of devolution, the new parliament will not lack pragmatic reasons for such a review.

It would not be my intention to embarrass the well-known individual who formerly chaired the Scottish Parent Teacher Council by reminding readers of the letter she wrote to your columns some years back. In it she extolled the virtues of administrative size, and in particular the size of Strathclyde Region. She praised its ability to vire between massive budgets covering half the landmarks of Scotland.

Taking that argument to its logical conclusion I would suggest giving both Strathclyde's territory and the rest to Strathclyde's successor at Holyrood. Why not create an education board (as in Northern Ireland) with 32 divisions?

The tenor of public opinion probably now leans in this direction. The most recent ScotsmanICM poll suggested that most people would like to see education policy set by a Scottish parliament. Only a quarter would have it remain with councils. Perhaps the smoke-filled rooms of yesteryear should have produced less arrogance and more market-awareness.

If you add the high proportion of folk, including Labour voters, who would send their children to independent schools if they had the cash, it appears clear that distrust of councils stalks the land - their ability, their cost-effectiveness and the patchwork nature of the way they interpret government policies (for example universal nursery places for four-year-olds). Not much comfort for the Cosla old guard here.

It is doubtful either whether the teaching profession or parent body would be averse to the demise of local bureaucratic mediation. Creating educational divisions at Scottish Office level could, with political will, open the way to genuine empowerment of headteachers and local schools.

Devolved school management, for example, remains unfinished business. Despite all the ethos-promoting schemes going, headteachers will never be fully accountable until they hold responsibility for staff choice and the selection of their team. Scottish schools will never be transformed until local executive power and total budgetary control including staffing, are a reality at school level.

The onus will increasingly be on local authorities to make their case.

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