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Is small beautiful?;Opinion

This week saw the creation of the latest, and for the time being at least, the last of those bijou unitary authorities. Still to come are the even smaller education action zones, and the setting up of new mini-bureaucracies: school organisation committees and admissions adjudications, which will link autonomous schools. But it is already clear that we are heading towards a multifarious array of accountabilities and local discretions in place of a once coherent education service.

Are we witnessing, then, a vigorous and vibrant new flowering of local democracy in a thousand varieties? Or is it a dog's breakfast?

Will local needs and wishes be more sensitively understood and attended to? Or have choices and sensibilities been destroyed, along with economies of scale and long-established lines of consultation and communication?

The cathartic upheaval of a new start can give rise to visionary thinking and enthusiasm. But when viewed from the all-important pupil's eye-view, are bonsai councils promoting better teaching and providing more equipment and materials in schools, or simply creating a distracting hiatus in the all-important task of raising standards?

As Nicolas Barnard's reports on pages 10 and 11 show, answers to these questions tend to vary according to whether you win or lose power - or cash - in the process. Clearly there are some potential benefits in shortening lines of communication, even if it involves short-term disruption. And it may be easier to target priority funding in authorities which are more homogeneous. In the larger heterogenous mixtures of town and country, cash aimed at combatting urban disadvantage can too easily get redirected to sustain otherwise unviable rural services.

But there are signs that small can be parochial rather than beautiful. One indication might be the current tendency in The TES's own pages for advertisements offering headteacher appointments in unitary authorities to be placed by the authority rather than the school; the Government's White Paper, though, clearly identified this as the business of governors.

The proof of the pudding, as always, will be in the eating. But it is already clear that in some of the first wave of unitary authorities the worst fears of sceptics are being realised: cuts to school budgets and uneconomic - but impoverished - central services are the order of the day.

The new "bids culture" - the growing tendency of central government to share out limited funding by means of competitive applications - puts smaller and less experienced authorities and their schools at a severe disadvantage.

The fundamental question is not what interest is being served by restructuring local government in this way. It is, rather, what possible question the present colourful collection of authorities is supposed to be the answer to? Or indeed, whether it was ever meant to be the solution to anything at all. After all, the Conservative government which created it was famously sceptical - if not downright hostile - to the existence of local education authorities. The commission which carried out the review in the 1980s was initially advised to ignore local councils' education responsibilities, on the grounds that all schools were about to become grant-maintained.

There are individuals in the present Government just as hostile to what is seen as an unnecessary and expensive level of local bureaucracy, and ministers from Tony Blair down have warned local government to shape up or else. But the climate into which the latest unitaries have been born is different to that in which they were conceived. On paper at least, they are to be given a more interventionist role where school standards are not rising. However, they risk having their legs slapped by ministers if they overstep the mark and by the Office for Standards in Education and the Audit Commission if they are too laid back.

The dilemma this poses for all authorities is how to maintain the capability to make policy, to monitor and to intervene and at the same time devolve even more money to schools as ministers are demanding. All authorities will need to learn how to have an impact disproportionate to their size - like a microchip. Otherwise they may rue the day the Labour Government acknowledged their role in raising standards.

One strategy local authorities used in the past to play off competing demands was to pay lip-service to non-statutory services, while ruthlessly cutting them back in order to protect higher profile elements such as school budgets. Adult and youth services have been severely neglected as a result.

This may prove embarrassing when the local authority inspector calls. OFSTED inspections are based on both the authority's statutory obligations and upon its performance measured against its mission statement: what it aims or claims to be doing. So be warned: warm words will no longer come cheap.

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