No way, say churches

14th April 2000 at 01:00
Labour's Edinburgh modernisers run into a brick wall in bid to dominate policy in the capital's schools. By David Henderson.

THE hand of God has dented new Labour's bid in Edinburgh to scrap the city's education committee after a sharp reminder of the legislation which ensures a voice for the churches.

But policy-making will still undergo a radical shake-up under proposals to modernise council decision-making, with the creation of a young person's commissioner and four policy panels to initiate and advise on developments. Teachers will be involved.

The city is now certain to accept that education has to be treated differently to other key services after a move in June to cabinet-style government, dominated by committee conveners in the ruling Labour administration.

Leaders are still taking soundings, and have ordered further checks on the legality of the plans, but are likely to maintain some form of committee with cross-party representation, backed by church and teacher nominees.

Labour-run East Renfrewshire has already slimmed its committee structure but conceded that religious and teacher representation could not be unilaterally changed because of clauses in the 1994 Local Government Scotland Act.

Edinburgh's leaders now face three options: include three church representatives on the 13-strong executive when education policy is decided; retain the present education committee; or widen the executive when education is being discussed.

Paul Williamson, the current education convener, admitted: "The issue of the legislation does not fit easily with the new model. We need to find a mechanism where religious rpresentatives have a formal opportunity to develop policy at executive level. Education business would have to be dealt with differently from any other business."

The favoured option is an executive of 13 Labour members, three opposition councillors, three church representatives and two teachers. That would still constitute a much smaller body. A panel of non-executive councillors will act as a second chamber to scrutiny proposals.

Labour leaders acknowledge that excluding opposition councillors and teachers from policy-making would result in public concerns being channelled through the church representatives.

Mr Williamson said the city was determined to press ahead with a more "transparent and effective process" involving broad-based policy panels, despite the difficulties posed by the legislation, which the Scottish Executive says it has no plans to repeal.

The four panels will focus on quality and curriculum, education support services, lifelong learning and children and youth services. Other "consultative panels" of service users, such as teachers, will feed in.

"Most policy-making will be developed in partnerships before it comes to the executive. This allows us to decentralise a lot of policy-making and engage far more people from outside agencies with a range of expertise," Mr Williamson said.

East Renfrewshire, meanwhile, maintains that the service is working "more smoothly than before" and decisions are taken faster. An executive education committee - one of three remaining council committees - comprises three church representatives, one teacher and nine councillors, five of whom are Labour.

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