A shake-up of local government could herald far-reaching change for schools, says Ross Martin
If you missed it, you missed out!" This catchphrase from a children's Saturday morning television show may not have been heard in staffrooms across the country earlier this month - but perhaps it should be. The consultation period on the local governance Bill has now come to an end. If it passed you by over the long hot summer, then I suggest that you use your core IT skills to log on to the Scottish Executive website, www.scotland.gov.uk.
This Bill will change the way local councils work (or don't work, as some would have it). The main thrusts are to professionalise the role of councillors (ring any bells?), to reward them appropriately for the distinct tasks they do (getting louder?) and, most radically, to change the make-up of the management team (the McCrone doctrine is spreading). But is there more to this than these simple comparisons?
The professionalisation of the role of councillor is, like teaching, a long awaited recognition of fact. The job is a difficult one that requires a range of abilities and skills which can only be gained through long hours of dedication, a wealth of on the job experience and a whole lot of study.
Not all those elected meet these high specifications, and perhaps an entry qualification needs to be considered. But for many the comparison with teaching is apt.
There are many other parallels between councillors and teachers, including the presentational role (of policy or of curricular content), the educational role (of children or of the community) and the pastoral role (supporting individuals or groups within our communities). Perhaps the most striking similarity, as we witness the first fruits of McCrone, is the shift from subject specialisms to a more generic skills-based approach.
The Bill will move councillors from control of their own specialism (their own electoral ward, referred to by many in the possessive). The implementation of the single transferable vote (STV) will introduce, for the first time, competition in the political market-place. No longer will a knock on constituents' doors once every four years be enough (indeed, will one parents' night a year suffice?).
Multi-member wards will, like faculties or subject groupings in schools, test individual expertise within a wider group, forcing comparisons and introducing the basis of real consumer choice.
"One size fits all" has been rejected for schools with the introduction of local flexibilities and the encouragement of diversity. This same thinking is now permeating our council offices. Majority control from a minority vote is unsustainable. Political plurality, the most likely result of the 2007 local council elections run under the STV-PR (proportional representation) system, will consign to the trash can of history the one-party states which have dominated much of Scottish local government over recent years.
Members of the public and pupils alike will be able to exercise greater choice than has hitherto been the case. Voters in any given area will have a choice of councillor to take problems to. In a typical ward of three or four members, and assuming that voting patterns continue to deny any one party a majority, electors will be able to choose from a wide spectrum of councillors with the majority being represented by the person they voted for.
This competition for votes, and remember that with proportional representation every single vote will count, will put power back into the hands of the voters. Councillors will be constantly aware of community concerns and this will tip the balance away from representing the council and firmly towards representing the community. They will need to adapt to strengthen their advocacy and facilitating skills, while simultaneously reducing their role as the local "fountain of knowledge".
Sound familiar? Will these forces resonating through the corridors of power send shock waves through our school corridors and into classrooms and staffrooms?
Will, for example, pupils or their parents begin to demand a choice of teacher from those available within the faculty? Small departments could in the past limit choice on the basis of narrow areas of expertise, such as "Mr Jones is the Standard grade specialist and Mrs Smith is more experienced at presenting pupils for Higher". Will large multidiscipline faculties find this defence breached by the growing demands of an increasingly sophisticated and consumer-conscious student body?
Skills that are popular with consumers will be in increasing demand. Poorly performing practitioners, like unpopular subjects and the departments that have offered them in the past, will be under pressure to "reform or die" - note that this is a phrase much used by ministers when talking about local government. Is this why performance-related pay as discussed in the Millennium Review was dumped by McCrone? Was it a realisation that once consumer choice is unleashed any system has to react to that?
And the potential impact doesn't stop there. What about the culture of local government that the Bill is intended to create (in school-speak, the ethos)? What impact is the resultant cultural change likely to have on the management of the local state as a whole, and its biggest and most important service, education in particular? Note that the Bill is entitled the "Local Governance (not Government) Bill". Does this point to a wider agenda regarding the reform of local democratic accountability?
The role of local councillors has traditionally been a contradiction. On one hand they represent their community on the council, and on the other they increasingly appear to represent the council in their community. If this dichotomy is to be removed by forcing councillors down the advocacy route and away from representing the service provider, this opens up the most intriguing of possibilities - education being taken out of the direct control of local councils.
Could the local education authority then develop and mature into a stand-alone organisation operating apart from, but held to account by, transport providers or any other part of the local council, through its newly acquired community planning powers?
Have you found that Scottish Executive web page yet?
Ross Martin is director of the Scottish Forum for Modern Government.