At a time when saving cash and being efficient have become the watchwords of the public sector, it's time to bring further education colleges back into the fold of local government. That may not sound like music to the ears of college principals, boards of management and even the Scottish Funding Council, but the fact is that when the colleges went out on their own, effectively as part of the package that was the last local government reorganisation, massive duplication of function took place.
Where the local council education department had previously looked after everything from staffing to buildings and finance, dedicated teams appeared in every college office in the country and duplication flourished unchecked. Some might argue that colleges were freed of the centralised control of councils and became less of a local political football, but there were significant casualties along the way. For, perceived freedoms brought greater responsibilities without the reassuring safety nets provided by being under the council umbrella.
Now is the time to look at the issue again. With Curriculum for Excellence, the emphasis on education for life and the need to be more efficient all coming together, it would make great sense to return the colleges to local education authority control to reintegrate them into school building programmes, timetabling and staffing, for example. The colleges' natural home is much more with links to and from schools, rather than with universities.
Bringing colleges back into the fold, and remembering that their origins lie firmly in their creation by councils, would not be turning the clock back. Rather, it would be a recognition of the stark facts of the educational economy of today, as well as a look towards an increasingly stark future, very different from the high-spending times in which colleges went out on their own.
Exactly why politicians of all hues have never been very interested in further education colleges remains a mystery, for the fact is that colleges have a very significant part to play in the educational lives of a large section of the population. Part of the problem may well be that few people now recall that colleges were part of councils' education remit, few principals and staff remain in post from those days, and the status of colleges as semi-independent (in theory, at least) has become the status quo.
Returning colleges to council control would surely delight the unions, which have had to work hard to keep some sort of parity of pay and conditions alive; a nationally-agreed system, linked to school staff pay and conditions, would go a long way towards avoiding duplication and strife. No one has to look too far to see where going it alone, expanding too rapidly and working outwith the economies of scale and the protection of local authorities has led some colleges into much hardship - and more are likely to follow, perhaps, as further economic constraints kick in.
That there are testing times ahead for further education is certain, but it makes little sense not to take a good hard look at council management to share resources, buildings and staff and to achieve real efficiencies in both college and school sectors.
But, above all, it is students who would be the winners, with backroom efficiencies and the effects of reducing duplication being ploughed into the classroom, where it counts. If anyone has any doubts about that, let them spend time in their local education department offices or in a college, and it will quickly become apparent just how much education department-school-college business is being transacted at present, without a streamlined structure to bring it all together.
Failure to include colleges in the national debate about the future and shape of the public services within the context of councils will be to condemn some to closure, with all that entails for the communities they serve.
Colleges already recognise their role within the curriculum for life. Let's sweep away the barriers created by the relatively short time in their collective history that they have been out of council management, and restore the traditions, links and efficiencies that will let them develop now and in an increasingly challenging educational, political and financial future.
Hugh Dougherty is a former local government officer and now a media consultant.