English shatter councils' confidence

25th November 1994 at 00:00
Wales. The Government's plans to establish unitary authorities in Wales, Scotland and some English counties are seen as a massive gamble. But how long are the odds against education winning this time? The TES reports.

Evelyn Waugh wrote "we can trace almost all the disasters of English history to the influence of the Welsh". In Welsh education there's a disaster in the making which, if it occurs, will be due to the influence of English politics. Westminster directives are forcing a Welsh local government reorganisation that will shoe-horn 37 district councils and eight county councils into 22 unitary authorities.

Amid worries that smaller equals weaker, the eight county-based education authorities will translate into 22 LEAs. Edgar Lewis, Clwyd's deputy director of education, voices a widespread concern: "What we have at present are LEAs large enough to provide for modern education. We'll be reverting to pre-1974 days when authorities were too small to offer a full range of services. I expect that staff, management and curriculum development will suffer." He anticipates intractable funding complexities for arts services, educational psychology and the special schools whose catchment areas reach beyond what he sees as arbitrary new boundaries.

Alun Jones, the Welsh officer for the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, shares these small-will-be-wizened anxieties and pinpoints teachers' fears. His example is mid-Glamorgan where 42 comprehensives are to be split among four new LEAs, the smallest of which (in Merthyr Tydfil) will have five comprehensives. "That's too few schools to find suitable redeployment options and there will be increased compulsory redundancies. "

At the end of last year Mr Lewis criticised the Welsh Office for "lack of specificity about the way unitary authorities will fund and manage". The criticism still stands because the Welsh Office, in a copybook exercise of arm's-length buck-passing, has established a Byzantine hand-over structure which will absolve central government of any blame if things foul up. When local government legislation got Royal Assent in July, 22 transition committees ground into action and formed specialist service groups to study revised areas of responsibility.

Behind them sits the Staff Commission for Wales, a Welsh Office quango whose line is that it couldn't possibly second-guess recommendations of the transition committees. The quango brief is "to safeguard employees' interests" and it boasts an "open door to any worried teachers". The number to phone is 0222 575469.

It is now the calm before the storm. The date in Welsh educationists' diaries is the "shadow election" on May 4, 1995. The resulting shadow authorities will plan for a handover of power scheduled for April 1996. "There's every potential that services will disappear," Mr Lewis warns. "New authorities may not be willing to co-operate and nobody is sure whether the political will is going to be there."

The wrangling begins next May. Will the new authorities be able to afford single directors of education or will they devise combined posts for directors of education, leisure and the arts? With the inter-school bodies they are to inherit, will they co-operate in joint working or rely on a lead authority or allow some to fizzle out?

The flavour of the decade is sub-contracting, but Messrs Lewis and Jones have their doubts about it. While the local authority man says rural Wales won't be able to support private organisations to fill the gaps, the man from the union fears the growth of casualisation and the loss of his members' rights to holidays, pensions and sick pay.

Nobody knows what will happen. But what is certain is that Welsh parents have endorsed the existing system with two overwhelming votes of confidence. Only 2.2 per cent of Welsh children are sent to private schools, whereas in Britain as a whole 7.4 per cent reject the state system. Of the UK's 2,500 private schools, 65 are in Wales and many of these are concentrated along the border.

There has also been considerable resistance to opting out. In spite of vigorous PR blandishments from the Welsh Office, a mere 16 of Wales's 1, 947 schools are grant-maintained and Mr Lewis reckons heads and governors are now waiting for a clearer view on the effects of reorganisation - and for the next general election.

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