Harsh realities ahead for the new councils;Comment;Opinion

5th January 1996 at 00:00
A year ago, peering into 1995, we unaccountably failed to predict that a 32-year-old would masquerade as a schoolboy. Surprises always confound the prophets, which is just as well for a newspaper depending on the unpredictable. Therefore although all the New Year punditry is about John Major's chances of survival and the possibility of a general election, the political drama is no easier to rehearse than any other event of the next 52 weeks.

What is clear is that the educational agenda will be dominated by the changes in local government. They may not make the most gripping news but they are bound to loom large for the simple reason that the education system is run locally and not centrally. Indeed, the Secretary of State plans to emphasise local accountability, not because he loves most of the 1,100 new councillors (fewer than 100 of whom are Conservative) but because he sees no need to continue as the unpopular long-stop protecting councils from the consequences of their own decisions and because he wants to pose as a true devolutionist.

Therefore the new authorities will be asked to set their own priorities for spending their capital budget. If a school goes unmodernised because the council has put its money elsewhere, it will not be able to blame the Scottish Office for the decision, only for the general shortage of cash.

The real battle will come, however, when the new councils tackle the problem of excess school capacity. If the Government sticks to its latest word and withdraws from the closure process, it will disappoint parents, wrongfoot councillors and probably have the Roman Catholic hierarchy beating on the doors of St Andrew's House. But ministers reckon that not only will they avoid awkward choices between parent rights and local-authority cost-cutting, but they may tilt some school boards towards opting-out. The effects are likely to be more obvious after 1996. So current ministers may have to observe them from the opposition benches.

The new councils will take office desperately short of money. As budgets are set in the coming months, the extent of cutbacks will become clear and although the regions became expert at breast-beating and then finding enough money to keep services going, a combination of Scottish Office stringency and the aftermath of regional "disaggregration" will place some councils in dire straits. The myth of Government claims about extra money for education will be rapidly exposed, but will angry parents and upset teachers blame ministers or the new councils?

The fallout could be long term. The acceptability of the Higher Still package is increasingly seen to depend on the support schools can expect. The Government points to the extra funds available but teachers see little prospect of these stretching to sufficient in-service help and availability of materials to allay their concerns.

As we have already said, Higher Still needs to be explained and promoted in the way the 5-14 programme was several years ago. But it will also require resources directed through local authorities as well as from the centre.

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