Central reservations

24th November 2000 at 00:00
Local government is losing its distinctive voice in education policy-making to the Executive, argues Willis Pickard.

IN THE DAYS of George III and Lord North, a resolution was moved in the House of Commons by John Dunning, claiming that the influence of the Crown "has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished". It remains a controversial assessment on which generations of history students have had to write essays.

Similarly controversial is the claim that the Inspectorate has increased its influence over Scottish education and, in the phrase of Graham Dane in last week's TES Scotland, ought to be taken down a peg or two.

Mr Dane is an activist in the Educational Institute of Scotland. His claim is supported by local government. Keir Bloomer, president of the Association of Directors of Education, told the parliamentary education committee inquiry into the Scottish Qualifications Authority that HMI's involvement in formulating policy was compromising its principal role of assuring quality in schools and colleges. As well as their dominance over Higher Still, Mr Bloomer instanced the way in which inspectors had criticised schools for the way they had implemented modern language developments which the HMI themselves had pushed.

Gordon Jeyes, head of children's services in Stirling, told MSPs that HMI education policy "which emphasises detail is taken as read, as if it were the only way of implementing the strategic policy of parity of esteem and maximum opportunity throughout life" that lies at the heart of Higher Still.

Senior inspectors vigorously contest the claim that they have made policy but the intervention this week by the new Education Minister and the creation of an inspections-only agency suggest otherwise. The administrative side of the education department has won an internal victory in one of the contests for influence which have dominated the landscape since devolution. Focus on the fate and future of the HMI, alongside the creation of the parliament and the expansion of the education departments (four ministers where once we had at best a single minister of state) mean that those representing central government have hogged the limelight.

All attention is on the doings of central authority - witness the debate on who knew what about the crisis at the SQA. Civil servants may think themselves exposed to scrutiny and criticism to an unparalleled extent but even the evidence taking by the education and lifelong learning committees of the Parliament keeps the focus on what the Executive is up to.

The result is that the voice of local authorities, which run the schools, is all but stilled. They have always depended on central government for the blk of their funds, and they now find more and more of the money has been ring-fenced for purposes dear to the Executive. They complain that initiatives which schools have to carry out are decided at the centre - Higher Still in particular. Their own procedures are about to face scrutiny for the first time from the Inspectorate.

So, conscious as councils are about a shift in the balance of power, what are they doing to find a counterweight? They ought to be speaking up for the virtues of local democracy and decision-making. Yet at a critical moment they have removed their own opportunities for stating their case.

The media focus on personalities more than policies, or rather they report policies through personalities. Who in education now counts at local government level? A handful of directors of education - Keir Bloomer (now chief executive in Clackmannan), Gordon Jeyes, Michael O'Neill in North Lanarkshire - are public figures to the education community, but not beyond. The elected spokesman for the authorities as a group is Danny McCafferty of West Dunbartonshire. It is no disrespect to contrast his place in the public mind with that of Malcolm Green in the 1980s or Elisabeth Maginnis in the 1990s. Away back when regional councils were new, George Foulkes made his reputation as education committee chairman of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, and became a Tory demon figure.

The arrival of 129 MSPs makes it more difficult for local government leaders to be centre stage. But the structures have changed to their disadvantage, too. Not necessarily, it is true, as decision makers. In Fife it may make administrative sense to have reduced the director of education to a third-tier post. Labour in Edinburgh claims that the recent creation of an executive comprising only top-table Labour councillors will make for more effective policy creation and implementation. But the removal of cross-party committees has taken away a forum for public debate and publicity. In Edinburgh the statutory need to maintain involvement by teacher and church representatives has kept the vestiges of such a committee but the media have lost interest as the power base has moved to the council executive.

COSLA has scrapped its education committee. Danny McCafferty is only one of 22 spokespersons for areas of policy. Major policy papers go to the regular meetings of the 32 council conveners and chief executives. Although there is an education "network" meeting every second month, it is in private.

There is no local government "voice" on education. Individual councils highlight their local "success stories" but the influence of the Executive, with its HMI courtiers, goes unchallenged.

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