Is this the end of the concordat?

11th December 2009 at 00:00

So poor Fiona Hyslop has paid the price of a central failure in SNP policy. I wish her well.

When the SNP Government announced its "historic concordat" with local government to usher in a new era of good relations, I told the colleague next to me in Parliament that it wouldn't last.

Probably every new government seeks a new cordial relationship with local government; very few leave office with that being the case. It is in the nature of things that priorities can differ at local and national level.

With local government being blamed for the catastrophic fall in teacher numbers, it looks like the end of the current concordat. It appears Mike Russell has been brought in as the new Education Secretary to "do" local government and strip them of their education responsibilities. But, if the SNP want to see where the blame for the failure lies, they need only look in the mirror.

When I became Education Minister in 2003, I inherited the commitment to deliver 53,000 teachers. My senior civil servants didn't hide the difficulty of achieving the target. But there was clear purpose to our plans - education was the basis on which opportunity for individuals and national success would be built. Increasing teacher numbers when pupil numbers were falling produced a historic opportunity to target resources around those the current system was failing.

I had to drive that policy, secure the funds and, with my officials, negotiate the extra training places in universities, find the new placements for trainee teachers, gear up the induction programme and ensure the cash we were giving got to schools.

The target was met. It is incompetence of staggering proportions that has seen the SNP Government preside over the reversal of almost all that good work in just two short years.

The answer is not to take away all local responsibility for education: it is for the SNP Government to recognise the naive and catastrophic errors in its policy.

While I was driving the progress to recruit and train more teachers, I was well aware of support among the education leaders within councils. We were delivering cash to their service. I was equally aware of a different view among a number of council leaders who believed education had done well from the Labour-led Scottish Government and it was now time to give other services more cash. This view revealed little understanding of how we saw strengthening education as a clear national priority.

Many council leaders were unhappy with the way we constructed the finance, which meant the extra money had to go to schools. If that was not the case, what would have been the point of me adding cash to the budgets of education departments, if money in equal measure was being taken out of those budgets for other things?

If council leaders didn't share our priority for education, there was little to make me believe they would have delivered without the financial mechanisms we put in place. The stark failure on teacher numbers by the SNP Government is continuing evidence of the short-changing of councils in recent budget settlements and clear evidence that giving up the policy levers to deliver a national commitment has been a massive error.

There is a real challenge for any government that can only deliver its priorities through others. That is why most societies have a mix of local funds spent entirely at the discretion of the local authority and some central government funds with strings attached, to ensure delivery of key national objectives.

Within that territory lies inevitable tension, and that is in the nature of central and local government relations internationally. When the pendulum swings to local government, central governments have difficulty delivering - witness teacher numbers. When the pendulum swings to central government, you are in danger of losing diversity, innovation and necessary fine-tuning in the application of policy to meet diverse local circumstances.

In their rush to blame local government for their own policy failings, the SNP is in danger of making as catastrophic an error as that of investing everything in their "historic concordat". Maybe the SNP achieved from the concordat what it set out to achieve: the ability to blame local government for everything bad, yet take the credit for anything good. When not blaming Westminster, blame the councils.

The local authority leaders should have seen that coming a mile off and never signed up to the disastrous arrangement from which, just maybe, they will lose their biggest role in our local communities.

I would have little reservation in reducing the number of education authorities and extending the ability of the dozen or so really capable education leaders to provide the inspired local leadership the system needs. I believe a case can be made for 100 per cent of education funding coming from central government, while continuing much local decision- making.

The focus locally should be on more devolution to headteachers and on where real discretion can be exercised locally - not pretending that, in a system with national expectations and standards, everything is a matter of local discretion. Such a system would bring the added advantage of reducing the level of the council tax.

If the slide in teacher numbers is to be arrested and reversed, it is in the hands of the SNP Government to do so. It is their choice and their responsibility, and there is no need to end local responsibilities on the way.

Peter Peacock was Education Minister in the previous LabourLiberal Democrat administration.

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