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Teamwork pays in a small authority

David Henderson surveys the latest developments in East Lothian.

When single-tier councils were a wicked glimmer in John Major's eye, many pundits anticipated difficulties running education services in small authorities. Eight months on, East Lothian, sixth smallest council out of the 32 with a population of 90,000 and 47 schools, believes it is proving doubters wrong.

The 15-strong Labour-run council, opposed by three Conservatives, has pushed education to the front of its policy initiatives after creating an education and community services department in the former district council set up in Haddington, the former county headquarters.

In the small authority, departments were forced into marriages of necessity with beneficial spin-offs, such as closer links between schools and the library service, according to council leaders. The education and community services department does indeed cover everything from pre-five education to burial charges in a cradle to grave approach.

Government ministers expected the new councils to take a fresh look at the way they provided services and East Lothian, although no friend of Mr Major or Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth, has grasped the opportunity.

Willie Innes, education convener, reflected: "The department is working well and we are very happy with the way things have progressed, building relationships with staff in schools and getting an understanding of the problems they are having. We realise they have got a huge task.

"The advantage we have is closer working relationships with schools and school boards. People know the key players and they respect the problems we are facing." What you might call small is friendly.

Mr Innes has toured schools, met staff and describes the feelings as "upbeat", despite the bleak financial outlook. The talk is of 5 per cent cuts across the council next year that would bite into education ambitions. "We share Tony Blair's idea that education is the utmost priority but we live in a world determined by the Scottish Office," he stated, indicating that resources will be switched to absolute priorities in the forthcoming battles."The main issue is underfunding and in areas like nursery provision we are only making slow progress."

Council leaders are continuing to soften the blows by spending Pounds 1.5 million this year, out of a possible Pounds 8 million nest egg, on repairing school buildings. The financial legacy from the district council is helping to raise morale, Mr Innes believes.

Unlike with its neighbour, Edinburgh, school closures are not on the agenda. Buildings are a problem, though. There are not enough of them to cope with the expanding population, lured by improved road networks and the attraction of a semi-rural, small town and sea setting close to the city. The primary at Humbie was due to close a decade ago yet now an extension is planned.

Alan Blackie, education director, said the vast majority of schools have healthy rolls. The difficulty, shared by other councils, such as Aberdeenshire and Perth and Kinross, is the time lag in Government funding which takes two years to catch up with the reality in schools.

Having worked at senior level in Lothian, Mr Blackie admits some of the initiatives in the former region have not been possible but this is counterbalanced by the easier relationships at a personal and functional level. "If you take the library service," Mr Blackie points out, "primary schools now get a much better service than they did out of a centralised library service in Lothian. Some very small schools in the country had not had their project boxes updated for some time. At the Christmas break, library staff will be in making up 35 boxes for primary schools."

There is added value, he insists, from merging outdoor education and services like the countryside rangers or bringing together the Brunton Theatre and the two drama workers. As director for cemeteries, grounds maintenance and golf courses in the Pounds 42 million education and community services budget, he spends a third of his time on non-education matters, roughly equivalent to the budget breakdown of education to leisure and recreation.

His initial priority was to have the service up and running without schools being able to see the join. There is certainly no vast central bureaucracy. Last year's education cuts saw to that. Other tasks were to create education dimensions to property, legal, finance and personnel departments while reviews were initiated on devolved school management and special educational needs.

The council is about to establish a curriculum review group to take account of Higher Still and other developments and the plans for setting outlined in Achievement for All. A seven-strong quality assurance team, supported eventually by secondments from schools, is finding its feet. Supported study groups are gaining ground, a youth parliament will be set up and teachers are being encouraged to build on the already lively international exchanges programme.

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