D-Day for informed change

5th September 1997 at 01:00
David Eastwood assesses the impact of a Scots parliament on the learning society

What are the prospects for education in Scotland after September 11? At a time of rapid social transition the capacity of individuals and organisations to learn and change their behaviour appropriately would seem to be essential. Can we become this kind of "learning society"? Faced with severe financial restraint, the majority of the new unitary councils in Scotland have downsized traditional organisations, preserving existing hierarchies and embracing corporatism as the answer to all the new challenges. In effect, the councils have done to their education services what national government did to them. The creation of a learning society depends on reversing this marginalisation of education. To do so we will need to change our conceptions of both local government and formal education.

The current structure and operation of local government makes little strategic sense. The creation of 32 unitary councils runs counter to the logic which established the former regions. Some 20 years on there is surely a very strong case for maintaining that the only strategic unit which makes sense for Scotland in the modern global economy is Scotland itself.

If so, the control of major services such as education should be given to the Scottish parliament, but with a clear commitment to accountability and with a new relationship between people and government. In practice, the Scottish Office already controls most of what education "authorities" do. The future requirement is for an entirely new openness and flexibility in determining and administering policy so that there is scope for local decision-making in the context of an equitable level of funding across the whole of Scotland.

If educational strategy is to be determined by an Edinburgh parliament, then a number of national bodies will also require substantial reform if they are to be open and accountable. Obvious examples are the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum and the Scottish Council for Educational Technology. A confident learning society would benefit from the political independence of such bodies so that they could act as a focus for critical thinking and experiment. Although the future role of the curriculum council is uncertain, given the growing importance of multimedia technology the position of SCET could be critical over the next 10 years. Its commercial activities should be developed as an entirely separate company leaving SCET (or possibly a combined SCET plus much reduced SCCC) as the national centre for advice and research in information and communications technology.

A focus for thinking about the new role of local government has been the European Charter of Local Self-Government. It is an interesting aside that of all the EU states, only the UK and Ireland have not signed up. However, what is not always made clear is that the various proposals for aspects of local government are often derived from quite different premises. Three examples are: acting to redress disadvantage (social justice), giving best value for money (financial prudence) and enabling people to exercise more control over their own lives (devolution).

Two assumptions are often made. First, that a single framework for local government can satisfy all the various proposals simultaneously. Second, that a single set of representatives is appropriate for all the functions of local government. I think both assumptions are unlikely to be true. But there is a paradox in seeking to resolve these matters. We need an informed public debate which examines these issues critically and facilitates the emergence of new solutions.

But if we could do this we would already be a learning society, which we clearly are not. How do we learn to be a learning society? Education, as a creative force within society and within local government itself, could make a significant contribution to this "bootstrap" process. The most important conflict to be resolved is the tension between strategic planning and devolved management. Clearly the principle of subsidiarity implies that power should be devolved not only from national to local government but also from local authorities to citizens themselves.

One possibility is to change the way national government funds local authorities. Instead of a single undifferentiated grant, the major public services could be formulae funded by the Scottish parliament to guarantee an adequate national standard of provision. Although there should be flexibility to determine local priorities for spending, with such a system the public would know exactly how much was being spent on basic educational provision.

In this context, the community charge could then be clearly defined as providing local additionality. Again, people would know what they were getting for their local taxes. The functions of local government could be undertaken by a small number of directly elected committees, which would take back into public accountability bodies such as enterprise companies and health boards. This would avoid the present proliferation of educational functions in areas such as health and would be a better rationale than the current tendency to fragment education in children's committees and the like.

As there would be a vast reduction in the number of committees, the total number of elected representatives would be no greater than at present. Such a specific system would ensure that every area was represented on the education committee and representatives would stand for re-election on the basis of specific achievement. A reformed education committee would monitor progress on national strategy (for all ages, not just schools), would direct funding from the community charge to specific projects, and would have a greatly increased role in raising public awareness of educational issues.

Schools and other educational establishments will need to understand the real message of devolution. They are responsible for the actual delivery of education. In broad terms, education authorities would be responsible for the "effectiveness" of provision, while individual establishments and projects would be responsible for "improvement". To achieve this division of responsibility, the present balance of funding at about 85 per cent devolved and 15 per cent central is reasonable. Demands for more to be devolved are based on the general lack of funding overall rather than critical analysis of the balance itself.

Although it could be seen as a significant restraint on local management, it is probably better for the education authority (rather than individual establishments) to remain the employer of staff. This means that the anomalous involvement of school boards in senior appointments should cease. The authority as employer would ensure proper provision of special needs staff and allow movement of staff between establishments, and between establishments and administration.

In a learning society, people develop themselves by having the ability to think about human situations and how to handle them, by having the ability to initiate developments, monitor their effects and change direction if necessary. This is to take a purposeful stance about our situation, what Dennis Gabor has called "inventing the future".

The possibility of a Scottish parliament offers us the opportunity to invent the future of the nation's education. Presently, because we have failed to grasp the real requirements of local government reform, we find ourselves in the bizarre situation of restricting access to educational and leisure activities to "save" money. Perhaps it's now time to save our education services?

David Eastwood is assistant director of education with Aberdeen City Council. He writes in a personal capacity.

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