Divisions spark fears over cost

21st February 1997 at 00:00
Headteachers' worst fears about local government reorganisation have been justified in Wales, says David Winfield, of the National Association of Head Teachers. The principality switched last April from eight LEAs to 22 at the Government's insistence, and without the benefit of a local government commission.

Furious opposition from teachers, parents and councillors resulted in only the most minor of boundary changes.

Anger at the cost of the reorganisation has been exacerbated this year by budget cuts threatening hundreds of teacher redundancies in at least half the new authorities. There is a strong feeling that the unwelcome reorganisation was a "divide and rule" ploy by a government which disliked the big Welsh authorities' power.

The new authorities are almost all small. Even in urban South Wales, Mid Glamorgan, with a population of 540,000, has been divided into four authorities. The smallest, Merthyr Tydfil, has a population of only 56, 000. Rural authorities, meanwhile, find themselves with 80,000 people spread over hundreds of square miles.

"No one knows how much reorganisation has cost in Wales, but the figure ofPounds 16 million has been mentioned," Mr Winfield says. "It stands to reason that if you replace eight directors with 22, plus all the additional deputies, administration costs are bound to rise."

LEA budgets in Wales do not have the education element identified as in England and this is causing conflict between the new authorities and the Welsh Office, Mr Winfield says. "On the ground it is not clear how much money should be spent on schools in any one area. Councillors still learning about education 'on the job' are having to deal with acute problems. What we see is advisory services disappearing."

Even CEOs, reluctant to be identified now that their councillors are adjusting to, and in some cases learning to love, their new responsibilities, still have doubts about the whole exercise. They point to the irony of smaller LEAs being introduced just as the health service is working towards larger units. Economies of scale have been lost, they suggest, support and advisory services have been particularly hard-hit, and it will take years to work out the launch cost in terms of early retirements and additional bureaucracy.

"There are some advantages," says Tom Davies, chair of the Association of Directors of Education. "Some places have found a new sense of civic pride. But there is a cost. At a time of severe financial stringency, books and equipment for children would have been a better use of the money."

Margaret Morgan, NAHT council member and head of a primary school in Flintshire, one of the four authorities carved out of Clwyd, looks back on the past two years as a time of trauma. "I think people had learned from the dissolution of the ILEA in London. No one actually went without pay at the point of handover. But there was a significant amount of demoralisation amongst the LEA staff and this inevitably impinges on the schools they are supposed to be supporting."

The NAHT in Wales asked each authority to work out its education costs on the basis of existing school budgets. But it is now admitted that this approach took no account of the central services which are now under threat. There is also a suspicion that the outgoing councils spent their reserves with greater abandon than normal during their final year.

"What we are seeing is advisory services split into four or five but expected to provide a joint service. They find they are working for different masters with different agendas," Margaret Morgan says. "Smaller-scale authorities do have some advantages in terms of contact, but the process of reorganisation so far has been enormous in personal terms. Only time will tell whether there are improvements in the longer term, but it does seem absurd on the face of it to replace eight bureaucracies with 22."

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