Shaping Holyrood;Opinion

16th April 1999 at 01:00
RELATIONS BETWEEN local government and the new parliament are not likely to loom large in the election campaign. Understanding the electoral system is as close as most people will come to tackling procedural novelty. But for education and other locally run services for which the parliament will assume ultimate responsibility, the future locus of power will be fundamental.

The Conservatives, enjoying the luxuries of opposition, are straightforward. They would remove schools from local authority control. Parental democracy backed by a strengthened Government department would take over. In one sense this might be music for civil servants' ears. But would officials really rather deal at first hand with parents and headteachers than with local authority officials who, by and large, speak the same language?

Let us assume that 32 education authorities are not the best vehicle for running schools. In a small country with its own legislature, can central government not do the job without a tier between it and the schools? In theory yes, but in practice no - as New Zealand, which tried the experiment, soon found out. There are too many aspects of education best provided outwith individual schools or the clusters apparently envisaged by the Conservatives. The consequence would be unelected boards, formed on either a geographic or a functional basis. The Health Service is no advertisement for that way of doing business.

If the parliament had come first, we would not have 32 local authorities, but few of the failings of education can be put down to their performance in the past four years. Yet the aspirations of central and local government have created tensions. The president of the Association of Directors of Education has protested about the behaviour of the senior chief inspector (page one). Once the elections are over and the new executive appointed, a "who does what best in education?" debate can take place, for it will be as important as deciding the political complexion of the parliament.

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