David Henderson opens a three-page focus on Moray with a look at its new approaches to education and community development
In its first season in the Scottish football league, Elgin is shouldering the dubious honour that has belonged to clubs from other small towns: it is propping up the others. At least Elgin and its Moray hinterland is on the map.
Sandy Keith, Labour's education convener in an authority dominated by Independents, would like to think Moray is also on the map educationally.
"We are very well placed, if HMI reports on our schools are anything to go by. They are usually very positive. We've got well staffed and well resourced schools and buildings that are in pretty good shape. The infrastructure is there," Mr Keith says. "As an authority, we like to think we're doing a good job and our parents do too."
The rural authority, sandwiched between its larger neighbours of Highland and Aberdeenshire, has to cater for a population of 86,000 centred on the towns of Elgin, Forres, Buckie, Keith and Lossiemouth. There is no one solution to implementing council policies: what may go down in the fishing town of Buckie may be unsuited to the farming - and whisky - communities in Speyside.
The IndependentLabour administration has been restructuring services since it swept away the Nationalists two years ago. Education used to have a director, depute and four heads of service. Now it has a director, two heads of service and a remit that includes community development, leisure, museums and public information.
Five years ago, after the break-up and reorganisation of the local authorities, Mr Keith used to believe Moray was too small to survive as a unitary authority, but not now. "Moray is big in area, small in population but you can run it without building in extra layers of bureaucracy, such as the decentralised structures you find in other authorities," he says.
Headteachers continue to have substantial scope for action: that is the decentralisation that matters, Mr eith insists. At the chalkface, however, some teachers still regret losing the greater contacts and pooling of ideas and resources that the old Grampian region brought.
Mr Keith believes that over the past year, more collegiate working has brought headteachers more firmly into the council management structures under the central planning of education director, Donald Duncan, and his small core team.
"The structure that's in place is more fit for the purpose than this time last year," says Mr Keith. Spending has increased and education budgets have been protected.
Moray has put behind it one thorny issue: rural school closures. Three primaries closed last year after a four-year wrangle but the administration has pledged to avoid any more closures over the next couple of years.
Mr Keith believes a significant change in policy is the commitment to spend more on the visiting specialist teachers' service in primaries. "It had been allowed to wither on the vine," he says. Now, an additional pound;80,000 has been injected to keep the specialists touring the rural primaries where they are particularly appreciated.
Fresh approaches to planning are essential for a small authority moving from an education department to an educational services department. Since the council has no advisory service, schools are having to collaborate closely - sometimes with secondments - to progress curriculum and management strategies, such as Higher Still. Associate school groups or clusters therefore assume more importance.
More than 40 per cent of provision for pre-five-year-olds is arranged through partner groups, an approach less common to urban areas with more solid nursery traditions.
The partnership approach is also tested through the new community schools initiative involving Milne's High in Fochabers, its feeder primaries, the police, social workers and community development workers.
"No one element can deliver on its own but everybody has a part to play," Mr Duncan emphasises.