All change

27th April 2007 at 01:00
It is not just the political composition of the 32 local councils that is up for grabs next Thursday, as Neil Munro reports

election day on May 3 will result in the biggest shake-up local government has seen - and the impact on education could be significant.

The children's services agenda, which attempts to do away with "departmentalism" in separate local authority compartments, has already led, in varying degrees, to combinations of education, social work, leisure and library services under the one director. Indeed, only a handful of authorities now have a director of education with that title.

If Labour is returned to power in the Scottish Executive, the drive to reduce costs and merge services in smaller councils (or even across the public sector as a whole) will gather pace. If the Liberal Democrats and the SNP have influence, their plans to replace the council tax with a local income tax will have an impact on all services.

Tom McCabe, the Finance Minister in the outgoing exec-utive who has been in charge of public service reform, has made little secret of his impatience to see more progress. Speaking to the annual conference of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) last month, he ack-nowledged there would be tensions between local and central government. "They're not doing the same job," as he put it.

At the same event, he got himself into some trouble - with councillors from all parties - over the suggestion that he favoured the removal of education from council control. He did not exactly assuage suspicions when he attempted a clarification: "It would be wrong to look at any one service in isolation. The executive has never singled out one service for reform, but neither should we cherry-pick individual services as being outwith our consideration. Under no circumstances should we rule anything out."

Mr McCabe's comments drew a robust response from his fellow Labour Party member Sam Campbell, then provost of Midlothian Council. "You will not touch education -no, no, no."

Local authorities, historically, have not needed much persuasion to pick a fight with central government. It has been no different under the Scottish Parliament. Those in the Labour heartlands in particular are angry with the First Minister, Jack McConnell, over the introduction of proportional voting in council elections - and that's when they are not also sore about the "imposition", as they see it, of national policy commitments backed up by ring-fenced funding which deny authorities discretion over their spending.

The running sore of Scottish Executive plans to reduce class sizes in P1 and S1-2 is a case in point. "It took no account of practicalities, such as changing demography and accommodation constraints," according to Rob Murray, the SNP leader of Angus Council. "There was no consultation with local authorities whatsoever."

Audrey Findlay, the Liberal Democrat leader of the outgoing administration in Aberdeenshire, spots a faultline: "Ministers still tend to work in silos - while encouraging everyone else to act in a corporate fashion."

On his conciliatory best behaviour, Mr McCabe, himself a former council leader in South Lanarkshire, told Convention of Scottish Local Authorities:

"If we end up as rivals, we've failed. Part of being in public service is about working with people you don't necessarily love."

Mr McCabe said central government needed to work with a range of partners to deliver its policies. But he added in his Cosla address: "I agree: we don't want to micro-manage. Society is way too complex nowadays for a single organisation or a single solution."


The four main cities are leading the way in change - all in different ways.

Edinburgh has already forged a children and families department out of the former education and social work services for young people, effectively breaking up the generic organisation of social work as a combined youth and adult service.

Glasgow intends to bring together the whole of social work and education under one executive director, with heads of the two services and five area-based education managers underneath - if the plan survives. The intention is to maximise links between education, social work and health, while creating "a culture of integrated working".

Undoubtedly, whichever party or parties end up running the city, there will be a relentless drive to boost pupils' attainment to lift Glasgow schools from their ignominious place at the foot of every educational league table.

This will not just be about education: the city council's 10-year economic blueprint says that "Glasgow will not flourish without better-educated and skilled people, and more innovative and successful companies".

In Dundee, the former administration went into reverse in its organisation of education: from the neighbourhood structure favoured by other councils, it reverted to a more traditional system with heads of primary and of secondary education, of support for learning and of education resources.

According to Anne Wilson, the director of education in Dundee, this has been welcomed by schools because it provides them with "focused" support, including monitoring progress and performance.

As in Glasgow, raising attainment is the name of the game.

But perhaps the most sweeping changes, potentially, are occurring in Aberdeen where the central apparatus of education has been swept away into three "neighbourhoods", North, Central and South. There is no longer a director of education or of any other service, but "corporate directors"

for each of the three neighbourhoods and for continuous improvement, resources management and strategic leadership.

These changes have been led, perhaps ironically, by a former primary head and director of education, Douglas Paterson, who is Aberdeen City Council's chief executive. It is no secret that what he calls "a radical restructuring for joined-up service delivery" has not met with universal acclaim, and Mr Paterson himself acknowledges the council is at "a critical point" in the process.

He wants to see schools raise their game and improve their performance - without, as he puts it, "professionals holding on to their traditional boundaries and roles".

This is happening at a time when education spending is being reined in after years of being above the Scottish Executive's grant aided expenditure allocation, when target-setting has been reintroduced to boost schools'

aspirations and performance, and when the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation has revealed that poverty in the "oil capital of Scotland" has worsened over the past two years.

Mr Paterson's message for schools is strikingly similar to that of many others in local and central govern-ment: without putting it in so many words, it is that the days of education being a law unto itself are over.

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