Iron-handed councils must learn to trust

28th March 2014 at 00:00

It's that time again. In the mid-1970s, lumbering behemoths like Strathclyde Regional Council - overseeing a population of 2.5 million and with nearly 100,000 civil servants - were spawned from local authority reorganisation. Only 20 years later, the nine regions had been declared too cumbersome and were carved up to leave 32 councils. Now, we may have to rip up our maps once again.

When senior figures at the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland say that another round of geographical rejigging should be considered as Scotland faces ever-tightening education budgets (see pages 16-18), you can see their point. ADES general secretary John Stodter presents this "killer fact": Ayrshire and Fife both have populations of about 360,000, but whereas Fife has a single local authority, Ayrshire's three authorities spend an extra pound;25 million a year on education.

Reorganisation in the mid-1990s left us with a hodgepodge. Authorities range from Highland, a hangover from the old regions covering 11,838 square miles, to the 61 square miles of the traditional county of Clackmannanshire. Elsewhere, well-heeled suburbs of Glasgow were lopped off to form East Dunbartonshire and East Renfrewshire, councils largely free from the scourge of poverty that afflicts their big-city neighbour.

Pooling resources is a no-brainer, as long as it's not merely a front for taking jobs away, and councils have been exploring joint arrangements for years. But Stodter and his ADES colleague Bruce Robertson have called for radical reform of Scottish education if it is to emerge in good health from this era of financial meltdown. Tinkering with municipal boundaries isn't going to cut it.

A fundamental re-examination of councils' power over schools is on the cards. The EIS has mooted an end to their control of education, with schools instead funded directly by central government and accountability resting with local "education boards". An alternative is devolution of all education decisions to local authorities under a quasi-federal system of school management.

It's about more than structures: a cultural shift is required. Scottish councils' level of responsibility for schools is both strength and weakness. Children are protected from the educational Wild West presided over by Michael Gove in England. But for all the freedom promised by Curriculum for Excellence, Scottish local authorities still have an at times suffocating hold over teachers.

A couple of examples. TESS reporters frequently encounter eloquent teachers who are jumpy about being quoted, even when it comes to positive stories, because of stringent council communications policies. And the tight control that many authorities exert over schools' use of websites such as YouTube and Twitter shows corporate fear trumping creativity and invention.

Size may well matter, but it's crucial that councils, however big or small, show greater trust in their teachers.

henry.hepburn@tess.co.uk

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