Education directors' days are numbered

18th July 2014 at 01:00
Concerns raised over lack of expertise in merged departments

The sidelining of traditional education directors is putting pupils' interests at risk, it has been claimed, after TESS carried out a nationwide survey about the changing nature of the role.

Only five councils now have a director solely responsible for education, whereas an education director was the norm after the 1996 reorganisation of local government. At the turn of the millennium, councils started experimenting with merging services, which proved relatively uncontroversial because the process tended to be led by leaders with an education background.

But the economic pressures of recent years mean that it has become standard practice for directors to take on extra responsibilities. This has led to fears that their remit is too broad in some parts of the country, while there are also concerns over roles being filled by people with no background in education.

In 16 local authorities, education directors hold responsibility for wider children's or youth services. In eight councils, their area of activity includes sport, leisure or culture. Housing and community safety also feature in some areas.

Stirling and Clackmannanshire councils said they shared an education director, while neither East Lothian nor West Lothian had a dedicated education director.

Bruce Robertson, policy adviser for education directors' body ADES, said: "When councils' budgets really started to suffer a few years ago, that led to the start of seriously slimmed-down education directorates - functions like ICT, finance and personnel being transferred to wider corporate services - and the arrival of non-educationalists in senior roles.

"There's a need for a senior and experienced educationalist to be at the top, because without it there is a danger of not having the expertise required to ensure that statutory duties around education are met; that headteachers get the support and direction needed; and that young people get the very best from their time at school."

Mr Robertson, who has been an education director and a director of education, culture and sport, said that issues such as staffing and school improvement required specialist knowledge. He believes there should be a legal requirement for councils to have a chief education officer, as is the case for social work.

He added: "Questions should be asked as to why chief executives and councils think a service as large as education can be headed up by a non-educationalist or [do] not even have someone in the management team with such a background - or why, in some cases, there isn't even a director post for education."

Highland Council established a new care and learning service in April, bringing together education, children's health and social care. "The benefits for children and families of a more integrated approach have been highlighted in research," a spokeswoman said. "These include: better engagement; reduced duplication; speedier decision-making; the development of a shared culture; improved communication; enhanced collaboration and increased job satisfaction for staff."

In Inverclyde, the education director is now also in charge of communities. A council spokesman said its structure allowed a high-quality service "while making sure we are as efficient as possible".

A spokeswoman for the EIS teaching union said that bringing together education and social work could have benefits, "but we believe this will work best when education departments are dedicated to education and are led by a director who has experience within the Scottish education system.

"We also believe that local, democratic accountability is important and the link between a council's education committee and department should be continued by maintaining and supporting the role of director of education."

Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said she was not convinced that every local authority had got it right, adding: "Some structures appear to make more sense than others."

A spokesman for local authorities body Cosla said: "Education is an extremely important service which councils value highly and we have absolute confidence in the way that individual councils approach and structure delivery."

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