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Small will be beautiful in Bath

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

Everybody connected with running schools in and around Bath talks of aiming for "a seamless transition" from the old education authority to the new one.

A smooth hand-over from Avon County Council to the unitary Bath and North East Somerset (BANES) Council was made the number one priority by the members of the latter as soon as they were elected last May.

Discussion of longer-term issues took a back seat to what Roy Jones, BANES' director of education, describes as "bread and butter necessity" the need to ensure that when the council takes control of more than 80 schools on April 1, every teacher's salary is still being paid, every school bus still runs as it should.

"I think the transition will be fine, but we're all very conscious that if we get basic things wrong in the early days that's what people will remember most," says Mr Jones, who took up his post last November after 10 years as an assistant county education officer in Hampshire. "The reorganisation timescale means that, for the moment, we have simply adopted the majority of Avon's education policies."

Mr Jones has had an "exhausting" induction, shuttling between offices in Bath, Bristol and Keynsham, his workload boosted by BANES' decision to merge education with community, culture and leisure services and make him responsible for them all. "I look after everything from early years education to parks, the Roman Baths, cemeteries and crematoria - the cradle to grave approach to life-long learning," he says. "That combination will give pupils better opportunities to make the most of Bath's rich culture and heritage."

BANES appointed its senior staff later than the other unitary authorities which are replacing Avon (Bristol City, South Gloucestershire and North Somerset).

Like Avon, BANES is a hung council, and the need for political consensus has smoothed the reorganisation process. According to David McGregor, headteacher of Broadlands secondary school in Keynsham, discussions between heads and councillors have been "almost non party-political". "Members are very willing to listen to a wide range of stakeholders in the education community," said Mr McGregor, a member of BANESH, the local headteachers' association, which is joining in the unitary spirit by acting as the sole representative body for primary, secondary and special schools.

The majority view in the authority is that small will be beautiful. Avon County Council was responsible for 474 schools (369 primary, 59 secondary, 30 special and 16 nursery), with a 1995-96 education budget of Pounds 315.2million; BANES controls just 85 (69 primary, 11 secondary and 5 special) and its first education budget is Pounds 58m.

Frank Thomas, chairman of BANESH, and head of Ralph Allen secondary school, in Bath, said: "Avon has been a generous authority, spending 12.5 per cent above SSA in recent years. The overall level of satisfaction among schools is reflected in the fact that just two have opted out across the whole authority. But you simply cannot have the same level of contact with officers in an authority of that size as you can in BANES. That intimacy can only bring improvements."

BANES' first budget has done nothing to dent the heads' optimism. By drawing Pounds 3m from reserves passed on from Avon County, Bath City and Wansdyke District councils, and by cutting other services by up to 8 per cent, BANES has delivered a standstill budget for schools.

With no local elections due until 1999, Roy Jones is looking forward to four years of productive continuity between officers (the vast majority of whom have been taken on from Avon) and councillors.

But BANES has inherited problems from Avon. The most significant are a Pounds 9m backlog in essential repairs to school buildings and a surfeit of temporary classrooms.


Unitary status, April 1995

Isle of Wight

Unitary status, April 1996

Avon becomes Bath and North-east Somerset, Bristol, South Gloucestershire, North Somerset.

Cleveland becomes Hartlepool, Redcar and Cleveland, Middlesbrough, Stockton-on-Tees.

Humberside becomes East Riding of Yorkshire, Kingston upon Hull, North Lincolnshire, North East Lincolnshire.

North Yorkshire - unitary York created, remaining area two-tier.

Unitary status, April 1997

Bedfordshire - unitary Luton created, status quo for rest.

Buckinghamshire - unitary Milton Keynes, status quo for rest Derbyshire - unitary Derby City, status quo for rest.

Dorset - unitary Poole, unitary Bournemouth, status quo for rest.

Durham - Darlington, status quo for rest.

East Sussex - Brighton and Hove, status quo for rest.

Hampshire - unitary Portsmouth, Southampton and status quo for rest. Leicestershire - Leicester City, Rutland, status quo for rest.

Stafforshire - unitary Stoke-on-Trent, status quo for rest.

Wiltshire - Thamesdown and status quo for rest.

Unitary status from April 1998 (to be finalised)

Cambridgeshire - unitary Peterborough, status quo for rest.

Cheshire - unitary councils for Warrington and Halton, status quo for rest. Devon - unitary Exeter, status quo for rest.

Essex - unitary Southend, Thurrock, status quo for rest.

Hereford and Worcester - unitary council for Hertfordshire on pre-1974 boundaries, status quo for Worcestershire.

Kent - unitary council for merged Rochester and Gillingham, no change to present two-tier structure in Gravesham and Dartford.

Lancashire - unitary councils for Blackburn and Blackpool, status quo for rest.

Nottinghamshire - unitary Nottingham City, status quo for rest.

Shropshire - unitary council for The Wrekin, status quo for rest.

Wiltshire - unitary Thamesdown, status quo for rest.

No change: Cornwall, Cumbria, Gloucestershire, Hertforshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Northamptonshire, Northumberland, Oxfordshire, Somerset, Suffolk, Surrey, Warwickshire, West Sussex.

Berkshire is petitioning the House of Lords for leave to appeal against six unitaries.

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