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Prepared to stand by their Beds

The Government's plans to establish unitary authorities in Wales, Scotland and some English counties are seen as a massive gamble. But how long are the odds against education winning this time? The TES reports.

BEDFORDSHIRE. The treatment of the 1,237 children in Bedfordshire's 15 special schools will be the acid test of district councillors' promises to consult and co-operate over the running of the three new unitary authorities that are expected to take charge of the county education service.

The county council looks set to be replaced by unitary authorities based on the Luton and Bedford borough boundaries and a third created from the mid and south Bedfordshire districts. Voting traditions suggest Luton will be Labour run, Central Bedfordshire, Conservative, while Bedford will be hung.

All three schools which take visually-impaired children are in Luton, but the town has no schools for children with severe learning difficulties. Schools for children with physical difficulties are based in what will be Bedford and Luton. There are none in Central Bedfordshire. There is just one school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties in Central Bedfordshire, one junior unit in Luton, but five in Bedford.

David Wadsworth, Bedfordshire's chief education officer, is unsure whether the new authorities will pass the special needs test.

"With that divergency of political philosophy how can it be hoped that joint arrangements will hold? The scenario is, frankly, horrific," he said.

Bedfordshire is the third smallest English county. Any one of its 539,000 residents who owns a car could reach county hall within 45 minutes. If the Government approves the changes, the new Luton authority will have a population of 178,600, Bedford 137,000, and central Bedfordshire 223,500. They will be surrounded by Hertfordshire with its population of 999,700 and Cambridgeshire with 682,600 residents. In other words they will be dwarves among giants.

Brian Farman, head of Sandy Upper School, said: "The system has got the seeds of destruction within it. Small authorities, with less resources and little experience of running education."

The new authorities will cost up to Pounds 10 million to set up, with a payback period of seven years to never, on the Local Government Commission's own admission. They could save Pounds 1 million annually, but the reforms may cost Pounds 2 million more.

David Wadsworth points out that the extra costs that the county council foresees are the equivalent of 600 teachers' salaries: "How could the commission have reached its conclusions in cognisance of those stark facts?" Luton, which was a county borough for 10 years, is the only one of the proposed authorities that has ever run an education service. It has six of the county's 14 opted-out schools and is close to handing control of secondary education to the Funding Agency for Schools.

Peter Lewis, head of Southfield junior, Luton, said: "How is a primary school authority going to be able to fund us . . . short of us holding lots of raffles?" David Wadsworth believes that approval of the unitary authorities will mean that many of the quality support services will fragment to the point of being unviable. At risk, he says, will be not just advisory support, but nationally and internationally renowned work on the curriculum and schoolyouth music.

Each week more than 8,000 Bedfordshire pupils have music lessons, more than 1,200 attend five Saturday morning music schools and more than 1,500 belong to one of the 16 bands or choirs.

There is also uncertainty over the future of the adult education and youth services and the county's outdoor education centres. Every year 30,000 people take part in adult education classes and more than 100,000 youngsters attend 49 youth clubs.

The county's advisory team made 7,264 school visits last year. Nearly 500 in-service training courses were held for more than 9,000 people. The county also advises the Cyprus government on science and technology. The question of who would take on such a contract has not been resolved as the districts and the county are not talking to each other.

David Wadsworth and other county hall staff are angry that the status quo was not seen as the preferable option in Bedfordshire. Support from Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, for the campaign to keep Norfolk County Council after warnings of the "grave disadvantages" to education has added to their rage.

The five teacher unions are also mounting petitions against the break-up of the authority. Their slogan : Stand by your Beds.

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