The omens are good despite a difficult birth

5th April 1996 at 01:00
Even enabling councils have to make the school buses run on time. It has been a difficult first week for the new authorities, with switchboards unable to link to departments and education addresses apparently unknown to officials (despite the handy guide provided with last week's TES Scotland). One blessing during the muddled first days is that schools in many parts of the country have been on holiday or preparing to break up. There is a fortnight in which to iron out the most pressing problems.

Much has been made of the change in the nature of councils as well as their size and functions. Instead of running services themselves, they are to provide a policy framework within which services will operate. School management is being devolved, many other services contracted out. But to elderly people expecting their home help to continue to turn up and pupils waiting for the school bus the distinction between an enabling council and a service provider is illusory.

All new authorities know that they will be judged in their first few months. They have had a difficult birth because of the funding crisis. Their electorates are about to receive a nasty shock when council tax bills pop through the letterbox. If essential services falter, they will be damned before they can prove their worth.

The first priority has therefore been to ensure a smooth transition so that the transfer of responsibility is not noticed. Who sends the home help matters little as long as she is still employed. The same applies to the role councils play in schools. In our "Councils '96" supplement many gave as their aim an increase in nursery places or the provision of better facilities for special needs so that children did not have to travel to other authorities. But these are necessarily long-term ambitions, dependent on money. In the first instance the smooth running of existing establishments is what counts, and that will not be easy in the current financial climate.

In some areas councillors and officials will have to wrestle with the complex procedures needed to close schools. Not only will parents make life difficult, even unpleasant; the formal procedures themselves are time consuming and bureaucratic, with the slightest slip allowing opponents to halt the process. As past experience in Strathclyde showed, when an education committee gets bound up with closures, it has little stomach for anything else.

Still, this is a holiday weekend and a time for optimism. Despite the immediate and looming problems, the new councils have already made great strides. Apart from organising themselves with commendable speed, their education departments have decided on the strategic way ahead. Local needs as well as common concerns are evident. The wind may not be set fair for councils but a firm course has been plotted.

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