Can Dewar tame the directorate?;Opinion

12th March 1999 at 00:00
BEEN THERE, done that. Douglas Osler and his HMI troops must be suffering from weary feelings of deja vu. For the Government's White Paper on Targeting Excellence reads in large parts uncannily like lingering echoes of the January 1997 publication of Michael Forsyth's upbeat parting shot to Scottish education, Raising the Standard, his White Paper on education and skills development.

Leave aside the predictable shouting-match arenas represented by the Tories' too-little-and-too-late experiment with nursery vouchers and likewise miscalculated approach to the introduction of the self-governing option. Bar the spin, we've sure been here before with new Labour's recently unveiled approaches to early years standards and excellence, parental involvement and the knowledge economy.

It is, however, amusing to note that while the Forsyth carrot was in prospect two years ago (excellence awards for highly effective schools), such unthreatening encouragement is now replaced by the proposed Dewar stick in the form of the unpleasantly named (and so beloved of the tabloids) "hit squads for Scottish sink schools".

Who would venture to say that Labour's hard line will not deliver the goods? Perhaps only a Labour Government can successfully turn the screw on its vassals in Scotland's left-wing authorities. Certainly a Labour Government is, by leaning on its council fiefdoms, successfully bringing to fruition former Tory policies for closing half-empty schools and recycling massive wasted resources into the classroom.

One problem facing Labour quite starkly south of the border is emerging in paler reflection here. It is of the Government's own making, for having restored the primacy of local authorities politicians are having to search for ways to mitigate their own malign policy.

In Scotland, for example, the re-empowerment of local authorities represents a real threat to private pre-five provision. Thence follows diminution of choice for parents and increased public spending.

Under the Conservatives, English schools were at least able to put corrective pressure on poorly performing local authorities by threatening the grant-maintained option. The existence of this possibility created a power balance between schools and parents and the authority. This has been removed in both countries, leaving the Government with the problem of failing authorities identified by Education Secretary David Blunkett, and potential Scottish "sink schools" which Mr Dewar intends to target.

An important proposal in Targeting Excellence relates to compulsory inspection of local authority managements - another much-needed reform which the last Government lacked the Scottish muscle to attempt. Currently voluntary, only a tiny handful of Scottish directorates have so far invited in the inspectors.

The top rank of council officials are paid more than most headteachers, with salaries of pound;50,000-pound;80,000. Most councils employ a director, an average of three assistant directors and a tier of education advisers, all on salaries well above the pound;28,000 ceiling for a principal teacher.

Matters may be better now than in the former Lothian Region in the early eighties. In those days each education invoice was checked by five different grades of administrative staff, and all reports by the architects' department to the director of education actually had to be rewritten by an education official before presentation to the education committee (to give them an educational ethos, it was said).

Education directorates have long defended those fiefdoms as essential to the running of a quality service. With the harsh reality of the latest instalment of Standards and Quality newly in front of us, it is right to pose the question: has local government failed Scottish education? Could it, too, do better?

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