A logical parting from Westminster policies

1st August 1997 at 01:00
Education is the easy area to devolve. It all goes to the Edinburgh parliament. The only reserved areas involve the continuance of UK research councils and the requirements of certain professions. The combined histories of Scottish educational development and of administrative devolution mean that the way is paved for the long needed legislative layer to be added.

At the time of the last Scotland Act in 1978 the position of the universities was controversial. Their leaders did not want to lose the British connection. But the most recent quinquennium in which all higher education has been funded from within Scotland has removed that debatable territory. Indeed it is one of the strengths of the devolutionary argument that in no matter where London control has been removed would anyone in Scotland want to restore it.

Farmers on the other hand will have to get their heads round the new arrangements for the agriculture, fisheries and food programme, which presently falls outside the Secretary of State's block grant from the Treasury. The Hill Livestock Compensatory Allowances will still have to be settled separately each year instead of being embraced in the new block, which will also not take cognisance of payments under the Common Agricultural Policy. School sums are easy by comparison.

There are, however, aspects of devolution which raise questions for teachers. The mechanics of a Treasury grant to the Scottish parliament mean that spending on public services will be determined by UK policies, as at present. Therefore the argument advanced against the Conservatives that leaking school roofs and inadequate resources had to be laid at Westminster's door will not be affected by devolution. Some people might even say that a reduced number of Scottish MPs at Westminster will weaken the case for better funded public services. But no legislative change short of independence would make a difference.

More realistic in the context of the scheme on offer are questions about the relationship between Edinburgh and local councils. Education will be a principal spending function of the new parliament. It is bound to be more frequently and rigorously debated than in the limited Scottish time at Westminster. MSPs' involvement will be welcome, especially if it means rapid response to classroom and staffroom concerns.

But almost inevitably the MSPs will intrude on territory jealously guarded by councillors, and they will do so in the knowledge that the bulk of local government money comes from national taxation (with or without an extra 3p on income tax). There is a case for greater central control of education but it has to be thought through and not become the sterile ground over which MSPs and councillors compete for power.

In the real life of the new millennium many of the detailed arrangements set down with admirable clarity in last week's White Paper will probably come to seem impractical, irrelevant and outdated. The relationship between Edinburgh and London and that between the Scottish parliament and local government will change as circumstances and personalities dictate. The fiscal provisions in particular are unlikely to stand the test of time. They will be subject to the closest scrutiny during the passage of the devolution Bill, assuming that a yes, yes vote has been secured on September 11.

The need for a mandate is paramount. Doubters, especially those worried by the unresolvable West Lothian question, must ask themselves whether English MPs should continue to make fundamental decisions about Scottish education. The outrage generated by nonsenses like the Self-Governing Schools (Scotland) Act must be translated into a massive endorsement of the White Paper.

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