The truest voice of the people

12th January 2001 at 00:00
Local authorities will remain central to the future of education because only they have a direct link with the electorate, says Danny McCafferty.

Recent contributions in The TES Scotland from Willis Pickard, Fred Forrester, Ross Martin and others have sought to open up debate, post-McCrone, on issues such as who speaks for education, can we reach consensus on its purpose and what should be the process of decision-making?

Education authorities, as part of local government, have been for generations the custodians of the state comprehensive education system. Their tenure has been a time of continual evolution.

The future will see further change. Authorities do not claim an exclusive right to speak for education but, as the democratic voice of their communities, they are undoubtedly central. No other constituent group among the many interest groups that have a legitimate say in education has that direct link with the electorate.

The past few years have seen significant changes for local government.

Since 1996-97, funding has been cut in real terms by around pound;500 million. Many experienced councillors were successful in the elections to the new Parliament and that led to a new generation coming forward. The Parliament itself has put the spotlight on education as MSPs came to grips with their new roles.

There has also been internal restructuring as councils have striven to be more cross-cutting and to deliver the twin pillars of social inclusion and best value. Continuous improvements in quality and standards are a key element. Education has remained a priority for local authorities and, in spite of the complexity of balancing ever-tightening budgets, every effort has been made to protect the service and to improve it. I believe we are succeeding.

That, briefly, is the context in which education authorities and councils generally have been working. Local government has never at any stage rested on its laurels We know that we need to keep improving the service. That was why we tried in 1998 and 1999 to modernise teachers' pay and conditions - and to restore the standing of teachers. We failed then but have played a key role since in the follow-up to the McCrone report. As a member of the local overnment side in these discussions, I am determined to do all I can to restore confidence and trust to what I see as a deeply embittered and demoralised profession.

The outcome of the McCrone deliberations will determine whether enough has been done to create the conditions for longer-term stability and planned modernisation incorporating professional ownership of the process. But that is a story for another day.

There have been other major issues, not least the passage last year of the Standards in Scotland's Schools etc Act which the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and councils contributed to throughout its stages. There is no doubt that key elements of the Act bear Cosla's fingerprints.

A criticism - with which I have no quarrel - is that in the public perception local authorities have been seen to lose a "distinctive voice".

Yet now more than ever, through a remodelled networking, local authorities are influencing national agendas with access to the civil service and ministers in a way quite unimaginable under Westminster. The media see and report only the outcome rather than the process. And the outcome is often announced by the Scottish Executive.

I acknowledge that we should take steps to overcome any presentational difficulties in the media. We will do that. But this should not be confused with the role or influence of local authorities being diminished.

In a purely educational context, however, the book has only been opened at the first page. Let's see how the story develops.

Danny McCafferty is education and children's issues spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

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