Education authorities face being restructured after the next Scottish elections - possibly along the lines of police and fire boards - the leader of Scotland's directors of education has predicted.
John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, said the concordat agreement between national and local government, which removed previous ring-fenced funding, had created "a lottery" in council services, because spending priorities were different.
The Government, he said, was finding it difficult to deal with 32 different approaches to the single outcome agreement, which specified what each council was trying to achieve. This tension had been exacerbated by the Government's attempts to specify some of the outputs, such as class sizes.
The response to these problems, he predicted, would be neighbouring authorities co-operating over their approach to education.
In an echo of the report produced this week by Sir John Arbuthnott, which was commissioned by the eight local authorities in the Clyde Valley area, Mr Stodter said: "If eight neighbouring authorities share similar challenges, do you need eight different strategies and eight different approaches? You could come together in joint arrangements, like the police boards we already have."
Sir John's review recommended sharing health and social care services, particularly in relation to care for the elderly and residential and additional support for young people. It also proposed sharing some other services, such as education.
The eight councils in the Clyde Valley area which are the subject of his report are West and East Dunbartonshire, Inverclyde, Renfrewshire, Glasgow, North and South Lanarkshire, and East Renfrewshire. North, South and East Ayrshire are said to be watching the outcome of the Arbuthnott review with interest.
In a parallel move, the leaders of Edinburgh, West and East Lothian, Midlothian, Scottish Borders and Fife last week announced their intention to step up the number of services delivered across their local authority borders.
Sir John said in his review that there was a need for councils to display "urgent momentum" to fight a real-terms funding cut, which could be as much as 15 per cent over the next four years as local authorities had to pay for PPP (public-private partnership) projects and currently unfunded pension commitments.
He did not consider the option of changing local boundaries, an exercise he described as "costly and unproductive" and likely to divert resources, energy and attention from the "very real public-sector financial challenges".
When he set out on the review, he was warned that there was unlikely to be much scope for joint working in education, Sir John told The TESS. But when he convened a meeting of the eight heads of education, there was considerably more common ground and consensus than anticipated.
Directors identified the following as potential areas for shared management or planning:
- School transport - buses as well as the transport used for children with special needs;
- School buildings - maintenance, use outside school hours and charging for their use;
- Supply teachers - recruitment and deployment of supply teachers managed centrally, either within Clyde Valley or across Scotland, thus giving supply teachers the chance to work in different kinds of schools and to gain wider experiences;
- Provision of specialist services in curriculum development, psychological services and ASL support.
Education would also benefit from a shared payroll function and could take the lead in this regard because of the size of its workforce, said Sir John.
"At Clyde Valley and at government level, we will have to examine possible impediments to joint working, such as contractual agreements relating to PPP projects and statutory arrangements," he added.