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Paint your wagon - once again;The Sweeney;School Management

Somewhere in my loft is a glossy leaflet entitled Teach in Today's Lanarkshire. It was designed to attract secondary teaching staff from the United States during the acute shortages of the early Seventies. It features a Lanarkshire of rolling hills and meandering streams, with sturdy cattle grazing on lush pasture. It must have been a shock to the sons and daughters of the Alamo, attracted by this idyll, when they finally landed at Motherwell Station.

I encountered Lanarkshire County Council as an education authority only once during my time there. Having been invited for interview for a guidance post, I was positioned on one side of the longest table I had ever seen, with a huge number of councillors on the other. I was offered a pre-interview pep-talk by a teacher colleague who presented his advice entirely in horse-racing parlance. "Take it at a steady canter over the first furlong. Be careful not to throw a shoe." I failed to land the post, but only by a short head.

By the time I reached West Lothian, it had just become a division of the new Lothian Region. A strong sense of local identity remained, fuelled by an abiding uncertainty about the "wise men from the east", who now controlled their affairs. The technical and vocational education initiative of the Eighties provided resources and opportunities for secondary teachers to collaborate across the region, and Lothian had begun to gel and excel as a pioneering education authority when it disappeared in the reforms of 1995.

Over the decades, schools and education authorities have existed for the most part in symbiotic harmony. Schools have found security in numbers and have benefited from the economies of scale available to authorities. Quality assurance has tended to operate only in one direction, and it is interesting to note that East Renfrewshire has opened up its services to a level of scrutiny by HM inspectors previously enjoyed exclusively by schools.

Education authorities have enormous potential to shape Scottish education, and schools will be keen to use their services as long as they remain the best available.

The relationship between schools and authorities has changed radically in recent times. Devolved management has given schools a high level of autonomy, both in employment of staff and in buying services. Increasingly, education authorities are turning their attention to corporate planning and quality assurance, and are less inclined to stipulate which plumber will fix the tap washers or who will be tomorrow's supply teacher in the science department.

While schools have, in the process, accepted increased administrative burdens, the freedom to make sensible decisions at local level has been welcomed by headteachers, and has liberated the shrinking core of officers at the centre to concentrate on more strategic issues.

Local government reorganisation produced a patchwork of education authorities of different sizes. The chopping and realigning of the municipal map cut across long-standing boundaries and left successful working arrangements in tatters. It did not help that some councils destined for the chop left their successors with no financial back-side in their trousers. The thrusting new councils have made an ambitious start, trumpeting their arrival with brightly-coloured signs at every orifice and devising suitably inspiring slogans.

It will surely not be long before the Scottish parliament considers whether the current arrangement of 32 education authorities will meet the needs of Scottish education in the next millennium. A reduction in the number of authorities will have to be considered if they are expected to maintain a strategic overview.

As schools work more closely with the health service and other agencies, it might help to have health boards and education authorities with shared boundaries. This could mean painting the wagons once again and commissioning new logos.

Edinburgh is perfectly viable as a strategic unit, but a new geographical entity could emerge, including some of the areas beyond the city boundary which have traditionally depended on Edinburgh for transport and other services. We could call it Lothian.

* Pat Sweeney is headteacher of Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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