Pass the ammunition

13th June 2003 at 01:00
Ministers must use a tough inspection policy to curb councils and restore faith in schools, says Ross Martin

THE haggling between the parties that now form the second Scottish Executive has been, encouragingly, more to do with who can claim credit for future success - the reform of government - than which party should be blamed for past policy failures - the lack of real reform in our public services. This shift to a front foot mentality augurs well for the direction and attitude of the new Government in Scotland, a Government that appears to recognise the fact that it is on an extended probation period.

This important change of tack is a direct response to the results of the electorate's actions, actions that gave the coalition a bloody nose while rewarding the fringe elements with a new standing on the Mound. Boldness of attitude won public plaudits, while the dullness of "doing less, better" was punished. The class of 2003 appears to have learnt this particular lesson fast.

The climate around the coalition discussions has been the (long overdue) settling of a power and function struggle between those who would traditionally be described as centralists and those who would confuse devolution (of policy) with decentralisation (of implementation). The settling of this argument will define our new coalition, recasting the key relationships between our layers of government and providing clarity for an increasingly sceptical electorate.

It is the key to unlocking the investment and reform packages, such as the McCrone settlement, all across the public sector. But there is a complicating factor - the existence of 32 local education authorities and their own relationships with the Executive and the schools they run.

The tendency throughout the Scottish Parliament's first term was to talk tough on town hall culture but not be tough on the causes of that culture.

If the politics of the new Parliament is to be engendered in other layers of government, then democratic renewal of councils, quangos and other public bodies is a given. Of course, if reform of the local level does not result in any significant renewal then the Executive, with an education budget no bigger than that of Birmingham, could perfectly well manage the system from the centre while devolving ever more resources and responsibility directly to schools. In other words, if McCrone fails, then LEAs will be RIP. Similarly so for health, policing and other services.

Clearly, the role of the Scottish Parliament, through the Executive, is to formulate policy and to make adequate core resources available to education authorities. In turn, the authorities effectively and efficiently manage the implementation of these guiding principles which are ultimately delivered directly by their schools. If only it were that simple.

The reality is rather more complex. Either directly or through the use of blunt budgetary instruments, such as ring fencing, each level of government seeks to achieve its own wider, and often impatient, policy objectives. It leads to the inevitable question of whether we suffer from too much government, or is it simply that there is not enough good governance?

The inspection regime highlights these arguments. The First Minister wants to be bold, securing the ability of the Executive to launch unprogrammed and robust inspections which will hold school and hospital managements to account. The Liberal Democrats wish to devolve responsi-bility, leaving local managers directly accountable to the public they serve.

One point on which they seem to be converging, in an uncomfortable pincer movement for those who populate regional health boards and education authorities, is that they wish to cut out the "middle man". This unusually enterprising approach of placing the responsibility for delivery directly with school and hospital managements rewrites the role of LEAs and RHBs, something that can only be justified if they are demonstrably failing.

tep forward the rigorous inspection process. The Parliament needs to be seen to be making a difference to the lives of ordinary Scots and the area of greatest influence is the real reform of our schools and hospitals.

Massive investment has been poured in, yet results are not improving nearly fast enough for an impatient electorate. Direct action from the Executive is required. An interventionist inspection regime is being born. Proactive, not reactive. Unannounced, not programmed in. Powerful and robust, not weak and piecemeal.

The radical reform of London's schools has pointed the way. In Scotland, we have a way to go but there are signals that the message of real reform is getting through, such as the Glasgow housing stock transfer, which will shift responsibility from the city chambers and place the power in the tenants' hands. But what about parent power? Can the underperformance of the city's schools be tolerated for much longer - or is a similarly visionary transformation required here too?

All the indications are that this new get-tough policy will be aimed at Falkirk. This is an area that should benefit from a stable and positive coalition council but still suffers from an inactive and hesitant collection of minorities and independents doing shabby deals for individual gain. So poor politics leads to poor policy which leads to weak and ineffectual management.

A tough new inspection regime will provide the Executive with the ammunition it needs. The graphs need to get moving in the right direction, and fast, if confidence in the state schools sector is not to plummet.

Imagine school attendance figures declining to one in two? Some would say that we are close to that with hearts and minds - even if the bums still fill the seats.

Ross Martin is director of the Scottish Forum for Modern Government.

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