Holyrood has to remember its roots

16th April 2004 at 01:00
Local authority initiatives have shown they can influence national policy for the better, says Kevin Orr

Education remains at the heart of local councils' relationship with central government. The nature of this relationship remains just as contentious under the Scottish Parliament as it was before devolution. A defining debate centres on what should be the balance of power between these democratic institutions in a modern Scotland and the extent to which local and central government are able to work in partnership with each other, despite a difficult and at times antagonistic history.

Part of the tension is that both central and local government properly regard themselves as democratically elected entities, acting with a popular mandate. The Scottish Executive is empowered to take a pan-Scottish view of the country's interests. On the other hand, Scotland's 32 councils are organisations which pride themselves on reflecting local aspirations, needs and circumstances in ways which cannot be done by the less responsive machinery of central government.

For non-council services such as health and police, the debate is relatively clear cut. Health and police boards are not directly elected and carry no democratic clout of their own - the Executive can legitimately play a strong role in directing their activities. However, council services such as education present something of a special case.

In an era of human rights, few would deny the need for national standards for education. This alone confirms the importance of the role of central government. Provision of uneven quality across Scotland would result in a postcode lottery for education. Yet education, because it remains a service which is delivered by councils, also has a strongly local dimension with differing political priorities.

Much of the debate therefore has concentrated on what should be the proper balance of influence. This was also a question to which delegates turned their attention during the recent annual conference of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

One of the conference workshops suggested a new perspective. In the face of the well-established thesis of "the national" as being synonymous with "the central", an alternative view emerged from an account of education policy-making which stressed the importance of local professionals and politicians in shaping key reforms over the past five years.

Michael O'Neill, director of education for North Lanarkshire Council, argued in his conference presentation that community schools and specialist schools are both examples of models that have originated in the open-minded experimentation of particular local authorities, informed by awareness of international best practice. They may then have been rolled out more broadly by central initiative, but their roots are firmly local.

Furthermore, in terms of fundamental policy shifts, the move from a narrow focus on attainment in examinations to a more rounded interest in achievement was also driven in large measure by local practitioners. Even in the impassive face of the Conservative Scottish Office of the 1980s and 1990s, educationists continued to make the case and sustain the argument, eventually winning the day under a new Government.

In other words, far from education being an essentially national service that happens to be delivered locally, this account of the reform process highlights important instances of the influence of the local on key aspects of national policy and practice - the local is not parochial.

Even within education itself, there would no doubt be dissenting voices who would maintain that examples of centralisation abound. Or that HMI has yet to fully embrace the idea of importance of "the local" as opposed to simply "the national".

Moreover, colleagues from other parts of the local government front line - from environmental health to leisure, arts and culture, and so on - might observe that from their standpoint many deep frustrations remain, and that when it comes to setting the national agenda not every local service has the profile or negotiating power enjoyed by education.

However, the Cosla workshop highlighted a new discourse for describing the reform process in Scotland which cuts across familiar narratives of imposition and centralisation. This is a version of the local as creator or corrector, rather than the passive recipient of central diktat.

At a time when it is perhaps important to move the debate beyond the somewhat entrenched notion of the central versus the local, it may be that this emergent discourse within education may help frame the discussion of the relationship between central and local government in new and potentially fruitful ways. And in ways which make genuine partnership more likely to develop.

Dr Kevin Orr is a lecturer in public management at Strathclyde University.

He chaired the workshop Delivering National Priorities Locally at last month's Cosla annual conference.

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