Please do not feed the birds

6th February 2009 at 00:00

Dick Dastardly and his cunning canine, Mutley, should have applied for a contract as pest controllers for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. They would have been welcomed with open arms. That was the thought which sprang to mind when I read in The TESS that one senior education figure had said: "Cosla is in a difficult position, trying to herd the pigeons".

I'm not sure what the anonymous commentator thought of pigeons, but it did not seem complimentary - which suggests he or she did not work in local government - or at least had a cynical view of municipal life.

The cat had truly been set among the pigeons (sorry, I couldn't avoid that) when The TESS managed to obtain a letter from Cosla president Pat Watters, which complained "forcefully" to council leaders that conflicting information on council education spending was making it difficult for Cosla to get a true picture about what was happening across the land.

This surprised me - for it was ever thus. It has always been the task of local education authorities to muddy the waters (sorry again, that one was unintended) on what is being spent in schools and on central administration, as it is the latter that justifies the very existence of the education department.

It was no surprise to find that Glasgow City Council had announced cuts in primary schools and nurseries - it was the same in Edinburgh a year ago. What is more difficult to tell is if the cuts are careful planning to ensure resources are reaching the points of real demand or a political exercise in protecting vested interests in the municipal monolith's HQ.

Despite being a Tory at heart, though one who is struggling to support the present vacuous shower, I'm willing to give Glasgow the benefit of the doubt as, in my past dealings with its education service, it was surprisingly willing to think beyond the normal limitations of the local authority straightjacket.

Pat Watters's concern is that some councils are not being straight with Cosla and this has made his job of defending their reputation more difficult. Glasgow's closure programme must surely make the concordat with the Scottish Government unachievable, as the attainment of reducing class sizes to 18 for P1-3 becomes practically impossible.

So what? This is politics and it will not be beyond the abilities of a parliamentary intern to work out what the achievement of local government is, if you strip out figures from recalcitrant Labour-controlled councils. The more interesting result will be where SNP coalitions control authorities and still fail to attain the targets set in the concordat. At that point, the concordat looks dead - for, if the SNP's own people can't engineer the Promised Land, who can?

From my reading of the concordat, all that was required of authorities on free school meals for infants was for that old favourite of Scottish education - a pilot - to be deployed with the resulting outcomes informing the decision about whether or not a universal scheme would fly. That's a leap, to be expecting all councils to have the funds available to go ahead with the policy before the pilot has come to land - or crashed and burned!

With the concordat between central and local government being pulled all ways - and authority revenues suffering during the recession - the possibility that councils might present a united front must be slim. After all, one of the reasons we have councils is because circumstances are different across the country.

Dick Dastardly tried to stop the pigeon by every means foul and fair - and failed. One can't help but think that Pat Watters is destined to fail in defending the honour of local authorities, for at this juncture they are indeed flying off in all directions.

Brian Monteith has his own solution for pesky pigeons in the Scottish Parliament - asking for a falconer to be appointed.

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