Tighter budgets are the first signs of change

21st February 1997 at 00:00
What has changed one year on from the massive upheaval of local government in Scotland? The school signs may be freshly painted with new council names but schools do what they did last year and the year before, exam passes improve, teachers still get paid and buses run on time.

The overriding difference is finance and tightening budgets. David Eastwood, assistant director of education in Aberdeen, recently lamented: "My title is assistant director, services to schools - but it should be assistant director, withdrawal of services to schools."

Ian Lang, president of the Board of Trade and former Scottish Secretary, instigated the scrapping of the 12 regional and island councils, which controlled education, and the 53 district councils. He turned them into 32 all-purpose authorities, envisaging that this would bring councils closer to the people. Even John Major, on his sorties to Scotland, revelled in breaking up the Labour-dominated Strathclyde and Lothian regional councils which ran half the country.

Mr Lang also promised savings but no increase in costs. The local authorities, however, say the price of reform was at least Pounds 180 million, although ministers only allocated Pounds 80m. Disputed funding formulae for the new authorities intensified anger, while the drawing of the boundaries was also tainted by talk of gerrymandering.

There appeared to be no coherent rationale for the size of authorities, according to Bob McKay, director of education in the Scottish Nationalist-run Perth and Kinross council and past-president of the Association of Directors of Education, who admits there are pluses and minuses amidst "the over-arching budget crisis''.

He observes: "The diseconomies of scale are coming home to roost. Our capacity to respond has been reduced in areas like curriculum development and special educational needs.

"The pluses are that we are nearer to the point of service (schools), we've broken down extended hierarchies and we've been allowed to focus on what education authorities should do. We've developed the enabling relationship with schools. In the smaller council, we've a better chance of a corporate model where we can do joint work with social work or leisure and culture.'' The downside, he points out, is the lack of budgetary flexibility in the small authority. Structures have not developed uniformly across the country. Some education departments have merged with leisure and recreation as in South Ayrshire and East Lothian, allowing education committees to discuss theatres and golf courses along with national testing. Others such as Stirling set up a children's committee to oversee education and other services affecting the age group.

In Highland, which retained the regional council boundaries, there has been little structural change other than to increase the number of area offices from five to seven to cover the huge expanse of territory. Val MacIver, education convener, says that the region was already heavily decentralised and management had been trimmed over successive years.

In the small East Renfrewshire council to the south of Glasgow, Eleanor Currie, director of education, maintains headteachers tell her that the service to schools has improved since the demise of Strathclyde.

The Labour-run region, the largest authority in western Europe, paid little attention to schools in a formerly Tory-run local area, served by a Tory MP. Ironically, it is now run by Labour, suggesting that voters had scant regard for Mr Lang's great reform.

Mrs Currie believes that the level of school maintenance has never been higher, headteachers are closer to the small directorate and 94 per cent of spending is devolved to schools. "There's a great pride in a small authority, '' Mrs Currie argues, extending to requests for corporate-looking flannels and Pringle sweaters for janitors and even heads.

But like others, there is the budget and the next lot of cuts.

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