Taxing problem of officialdom

4th September 2009 at 01:00

What an academic year it is to look forward to. Think A Curriculum for Excellence, think educational reform, think Fiona Hyslop, think school closures, think career opportunities (lack of) - and that's before thinking about papers to read, papers to mark, CPD and that visit to the doctor's.

I think we can safely agree that the interminable debate about the new curriculum will rumble on. It's aye been that way, it would seem. It felt like it took a generation to conceive and deliver Standard grade reform. The development of Higher Still appeared little better. Now A Curriculum for Excellence has all the traits of being another example of what the Scottish educational establishment does best - resist change.

If ACfE were a dog, it would be First in Show at the Crufts of educational excellence. Look at the fine bone structure, the high ideals set, the sense of purpose - only for the lack of resources to become a threat and for the corruption of those ideals by meddling bureaucrats and officials to betray and make impossible its delivery as intended. Yep, its pedigree would be thrown into doubt by those that sired it - its authors suggesting it would not even do well at Scruffs.

A Curriculum for Excellence could become that mongrel nobody wants to take responsibility for and which is kicked out into the street. How terribly Scottish.

I recall the late Douglas Mason saying the same about his creation - the poll tax. Conceived by a Scot living in Scotland and with its application in Scotland before the rest of the UK (against the better judgment of Margaret Thatcher who correctly thought it would be unpopular), it was, he argued, always designed to be a low-tariff, simple tax rather as the TV licence once was.

But then officials and bureaucrats got hold of his design and it turned out unrecognisable to him and very unpopular with those who suddenly had to pay for their local services (those who made a saving on their old rates bill were a good deal quieter).

Now ACfE stands accused of going the same way by no less an authority than Keir Bloomer - one of its architects. Mason said the poll tax could work only if local government was reformed at the same time, having fewer responsibilities so that it did not have to raise so much finance that the tax became unbearable. He expected the poll tax to be no more than pound;250 per head, with councils being able to make it lower if they tried.

A principled academic of St Andrews breeding, Mason had not reckoned on the ability of officials to subvert his design or the cunning of Labour politicians who ran most of Scotland's councils to drive up the cost so it would hurt as many people as possible. I recall one Labour councillor in Lothian, who went on to become an adviser in Blair's government, saying privately that all his party had to do was make it as costly as possible and it would become the most hated tax in the country. He was not wrong.

I seem to recall that, by the time the officials and two tiers of Labour councillors had been involved, my "community charge" was about pound;430 per head - which meant the Monteith household was paying more than it had under the unpopular rates. The rest is history (or myth).

Ironically, there are many in today's establishment, such as The Herald, suggesting that local government reform is just what we need. The problem appears to be that we have too many local authorities. Bring back Strathclyde Regional Council seems to be the call, or am I being unkind? More centralisation? Why stop there? Why not just run local councils from, er, Edinburgh. Victoria Quay to be exact.

Let the officials really run the show properly? I think I need another holiday.

Brian Monteith once couldn't pay, but did pay.

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