Don't gamble with Bucks

18th November 1994 at 00:00
Educationists don't want it, residents are not keen, and it would probably cost a lot of money. Stephen Sharp argues that the Local Government Commission should leave his county alone.

Reorganisation of local government in Buckinghamshire, excluding Milton Keynes, would be a massive gamble. Consider: Exhibit A: the MORI survey conducted for the Local Government Commission - the body reviewing the structure of local democracy. The survey found only 19 per cent of a cross-section of Buckinghamshire residents in favour of the proposed option of four unitary authorities. A total of 16 per cent favoured three unitaries; 18 per cent wanted no change outside a unitary Milton Keynes; 18 per cent favoured the status quo; 29 per cent didn't know.

However you work these figures, it is difficult to portray them as a mandate for change. What is more, the commission's leaflet during the summer attracted only a 3.3 per cent response from adults in Buckinghamshire households - the lowest response in any of the nine counties for which proposals were announced on October 26.

Exhibit B: the commission's costing of change. This is up to Pounds 13 million transitional costs and up to Pounds 5m a year thereafter. This has been estimated to mean Pounds 36 on the Band D council tax to the end of the century and Pounds 20 thereafter. For Bands G and H, you add two-thirds and double the figure respectively. How many people when expressing their preference in recent months were under the impression that reorganisation was meant to save money?

Exhibit C: Sir John Banham's comments to the inaugural meeting of the National Governors' Council in Birmingham on October 29. "There is not a single shred of evidence that unitary local government is better than two-tier local government. It is a massive gamble which I am only prepared to recommend where there is strong local support." The figures quoted above don't look like strong local support.

Sir John repeated his comments at the ACC conference in Leicester on November 9.

Exhibit D: evidence submitted to the commission (although not accurately or fully reflected in the commission's report). A wide cross-section of national, regional and local interests said that the case for change had not been made, with the possible exception of Milton Keynes. This included such broad interests as the ramblers, the farmers, the construction industry, the Library Association and the anti-counterfeiting group.

Of particular relevance to the education service are the views submitted by the Office for Standards in Education, the county's largest training and enterprise council (Thames Valley Enterprise), the Thames Valley Chamber of Commerce and Industry, teachers' associations and voluntary reorganisations.

It is of great concern that the commission's recommendations do not appear to have taken seriously enough the implications for the management of the education service. OFSTED is one of the statutory consultees in this process and went to the trouble of writing detailed comments on each county area. The OFSTED comments on Buckinghamshire, as on many other counties, were largely supportive of the present arrangements. "An effective education service . . . efficiently administered and well-managed . . . a successful local financial management structure."

A number of clear warnings were sounded: "The recommendations give little indication as to how this quality of service and the confidence of the community are to be maintained." In respect of special needs: "There is a co-ordinated approach to these services, particularly in terms of the identification of pupils' special needs. Neither the effectiveness of the totality of provision or the cost implications of separated provision are explored in the recommendations. This is a serious weakness."

It continues: "The commission's report makes no reference as to how it envisages education authorities setting up or working in partnerships with other services nor does it consider the associated cost implications."

And, finally "nowhere in the report is there a persuasive argument for the fragmentation and disaggregation of the benefits gained from an economy of scale nor of how the quality of education will be safeguarded."

The point about local management is especially important. The Buckinghamshire scheme was developed in partnership with governing bodies and is kept under review in the same way. It gives schools, broadly speaking, the degree of delegation they want, providing services tailor-made to their wishes. Secondary schools in the county, by a combination of delegation and devolution, have control of 99.4 per cent of their budget.

Four unitary authorities would need more officers than one county. Figures agreed between the county and the districts show a need for at least 15 per cent more staff. This looks very likely to have to come from limited budgets and therefore put a further squeeze on school budgets. By the time any independent audit - by, for example, the Audit Commission - is carried out, it would be too late. The trend of recent years, of reducing central staff (by 25 per cent) to protect school budgets, would be reversed.

The submission from Thames Valley Enterprise, which appears to have been lost or mislaid by the commission, repeated its earlier preference for either the status quo or larger unitary authorities. What we have got is Milton Keynes and three small unitary authorities. The Thames Valley Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which, with the TECs, is an important partner in a number of education business activities, complained about "cavalier treatment of our representation" and came out clearly in favour of the status quo outside Milton Keynes.

The teachers' associations in the county, including the National Association of Head Teachers, came to the same conclusion. So did many of the major voluntary organisations which work in partnership with the county council. Leading among these was the Bucks Council of Voluntary Youth Services, an important umbrella organisation for some 30 associations including the uniformed youth services.

What is more, two days after the commission's proposals were published, it emerged from the National Consortium for Examination Results that Bucks local authority schools had scored the highest percentage of five or more A-C grades in GCSE in 1994. It has also emerged from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accounting that Buckinghamshire library services were leading on several indicators in 199394 - book issues, requests, income generation.

So I am bound to conclude that wholesale change would be a gamble and it is easy to understand the indignation and outrage spreading throughout the county. It is because of evidence such as that I have quoted that, independently of the county council, the "Friends of Buckinghamshire" has come into being, with Lord Carrington as president. It is not surprising that the county council has resolved to oppose the recommendations outside Milton Keynes with the utmost vigour.

The growing support shown in NOP polls and the commission's latest recommendations for status quo in most of the historic shire counties means that it would be all the more anomalous to be setting up small unitary authorities in Bucks, at a time when education ministers are promising schools a five-year moratorium on change. It is understandable that people in Bucks are asking "why us?".

Stephen Sharp is chief education officer for Buckinghamshire.

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