Switch foreshadows discontent in Wales

Paul Fisher

Removing a tier of government seems a rational exercise for Wales, until one looks at education, the most expensive service of all.

When the eight county councils are abolished and become 22 shadow unitary authorities under the local government reorganisation, there will be 22 heads of education services on, perhaps, Pounds 50,000 a year, hardly an economy. Most of these jobs have already been advertised, although appointments must wait until after the council elections on May 4.

These so-called shadow elections will elect 22 new sets of councillors, also replacing 37 sets of district councillors, who must prepare to take power on April 1, 1996. Their first deadline is far earlier, for they only have until September to submit draft plans so that the Welsh Office has some basis on which to make its grant allocations next December. The shadow councillors, some of whom will already be members of existing councils, will take over from transition committees formed last July.

Some shadow authorities will find much groundwork has been done by transition committees. However, councillors representing the three new unitary authorities in Gwynedd will have to get busy fast because, according to a recent National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers' study, their transitional committee first met in March.

Alun Jones, the NASUWT's regional officer, is clear on the likely effects of the changes. "Things," he says ,"are set to deteriorate."

Anthony Hughes, a primary head in Pont-rhyd-y-fen, does not know what is going to happen to the IT support centre down the road in Baglan, nor to the more distant education psychologists' unit in Swansea. Of most immediate concern is what will happen to his budget when West Glamorgan splits in half and his funding is decided by new councillors and bureaucrats who will look after the interests of Neath and Port Talbot.

Mr Hughes' education officers at County Hall in Swansea are also facing the unknown. They are waiting until their new political masters are elected before deciding if Swansea will buy in the services of the Baglan IT centre and whether to split the educational psychology service.

Such consensus as exists says that the hand-over will be felt in administration rather than classrooms. The exception is special needs, and the desire to avoid duplicating services.

Win Griffiths, Labour's spokesman for local government and education in Wales, says: "Smaller authorities won't be able to provide the same level of service, and fragmentation is the enemy of excellence in the provision of special education services."

Griffiths reckons that while three or four of the authorities have the resources to go it alone on special needs, the other 18 or 19 will need to co-operate if they are to maintain quality. From the beginning, Labour has recommended joint funding and is encouraging the new councillors (the majority of whom are likely to be Labour) to look for a community of interests.

John Ellis, director of education in Dyfed (who must prepare to split his remit between three new unitary authorities), is as worried about support services as he is about special needs. "Since the national curriculum, schools are screaming for outside support. Is this going to be there, particularly in rural areas?" One Swansea education official who wished to remain anonymous said the "performance indicator should be that there is no detectable turbulence as far as pupils are concerned". A tough target, given that a few power vacuums are bound to emerge from the general confusion. What it will mean for future generations is uncertain. The key issue, according to a senior education officer who (like most of his colleagues) has taken early retirement, is overall funding.

Alun Jones agrees, and goes further by debunking the myth that Welsh education is superior. Exam league tables prove the opposite, says Jones, and reflect the fact that Wales is Britain's poorest region. He charts a decline in pupils' belief in education as salvation, saying: "There are no pits left to go down, so there's no fear of going down them. With so much graduate unemployment, kids are asking why they should bother improving themselves." A reasonable question, but one that no transition committee or shadow education authority seems equipped to answer.

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