Authorities aren't value for money
For all that the Scottish Parliament was intended to usher in a brave, new era of searching analysis and inclusive debate, it is still remarkably easy to step outside the permissible bounds of political discourse. Recently, Frank Pignatelli, chief executive of Learndirect Scotland, broke a major taboo by suggesting that the traditional education authority has had its day in Scotland.
The ferocity, and inanity, of most of the responses to his speech, made at the annual conference of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, suggests that he has touched a raw nerve. No one bothered to take on his central question: given the amount of money they consume, are authorities value for money?
Instead, a classic array of diversionary arguments was mounted. There was the ad hominem attack. How can Mr Pignatelli have any credibility, went one argument, since he ran Strathclyde Region's education department - the largest education authority in Western Europe at the time? (Though, in truth, that very experience should surely mean that we listen carefully to what he now says.)
Then there was what might be called the Hilaire Belloc defence, after the lines he wrote in Cautionary Verses - "always keep a hold of nurse For fear of meeting something worse". Freedom might be dangerous. Schools, it was implied, might find it awfully burdensome if authorities passed on to them all the resources that the Scottish Executive intended them to have - far better to hold back a lot of the money and spend it on schools'
Finally, there was the locus classicus of political debate - redefining the question. In the words of one education chief, Frank Pignatelli was "missing the point". In fact, what is remarkable about the refusal of Scotland's educational establishment to answer calmly and forensically Mr Pignatelli's argument is that it is they who are missing the point, wholesale. It is worth looking at this debate in some detail because it is not only iconic; it is also highly illuminating about the contours of mainstream thinking about education and, indeed, public services as a whole in Scotland.
First, this discussion is conducted in a vacuum. There is no acknowledgement that there has been a decade's experience in England of local management of schools and that this has been almost entirely positive. One of the most disabling of all the slogans which has wrapped itself around Scottish politics since the advent of the Parliament is "Scottish solutions for Scottish problems". Putting aside the climate and the state of the national football team - two problems about which we can do little - there are few issues which can honestly be described as uniquely Scottish.
There are substantial continuities not just within the UK but more widely in the EU. Yet, devolution has narrowed rather than broadened our horizons.
The national focus is far too often a parochial one, rejecting good and tried ideas from outside because they were not invented here. Even the slightest liaison with schools across the border would give most defenders of Scottish education authorities pause for thought.
I was a governor of a large primary school in south London. The benefits of devolved control over budgets were made very clear to us when the school was completely redecorated internally and externally for substantially less money than it cost to paint just the outside a decade earlier. The reason we were able to achieve such a substantial improvement in value for money was that we controlled the expenditure rather than having it done for us by the authority.
Instead of using the expensive and inefficient direct labour organisation of the council, our school caretaker was able to tender to local firms - and then he supervised the execution of the contract. When you spend your own money, you inevitably do it more wisely than when you are spending other people's money on their behalf.
One common argument for holding funds back from schools is to provide services that are needed but which could not be cost effectively purchased by heads individually. The experience in England is that if it is valued and needed then a school will buy a service back from an authority, but that often they prioritise the provision of teaching staff for pupils. That seems the right choice given that the purpose of an authority is to provide education to local children.
It is uncomfortable that when given the choice schools will often value central services less highly than those who provide them, but this leads to a second key point about education in Scotland. The current management overhead which sits on top of schools in the form of local authorities and the Scottish Executive is far too high.
A mixture of factors have made this unchallengeable. The main one is that, though we are a small country, we are able to indulge the public spending habits of a much larger one because we receive such a generous subvention from our richer neighbour - at least pound;5 billion more is spent on Scottish public services than is raised from local taxpayers.
And because more than 80 per cent of school spending is distributed by government rather than raised locally, there is less pressure on local politicians to ensure that every penny is well spent. This might be acceptable if there were any evidence that the money which sticks to the sides on the way down provided anything that added value in any discernible way. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that something uniquely valuable is provided by education authorities.
And there is plenty of evidence that there is not a sufficient cadre of senior leadership talent in Scottish local government to provide 32 first-class chief executives and senior management teams. At the very least we are stretching our talent too thinly.
But the real solution is to go back to first principles. We must be honest about what is the primary purpose of an education authority and be brutal in ensuring that the heads and schools who deliver that responsibility are provided with the maximum support and resources.
John McTernan is a former Scottish Executive special adviser and chairs a school board.