Who misses the regions?

28th March 1997 at 00:00
The 29 mainland councils will be a year old on Tuesday. Neil Munro looks at their record on education.

The birth was inauspicious, with bitter political wrangling and unrelenting financial pressure. Talk now to education leaders about the break-up of the regional councils and they paint a picture of better management, improved working relations, consultations galore, superior access to the directorate, greater accountability and creative partnerships with the private sector.

Talk to the infantry and a more mixed message emerges. Alistair Johnston of Kelso High, president of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, raised hackles by observing that directors' salaries had "shot up" while their responsibilities had been increasingly delegated to headteachers. Jim McNair, the association's secretary, said most of the new directors had shown "adolescent enthusiasm". This prompted one to comment: "Would that one were so young."

Mike McCabe, director in South Ayrshire, protested to the association about "damaging" remarks, adding: "I would not dispute the increasing pressures that are on senior staff in schools but find it difficult to follow the logic that there is a consequential reduction in the pressures on their line managers. " Mr McNair says his comments simply reflected his frustration at the time over a number of staffing problems. He believes headteachers are "reserving judgment" on the performance of the new councils. Financial problems, inexperience in personnel departments and the creation of excess posts which then had to be shed a year later revealed an uncertain touch, he suggests.

The headlines have inevitably been dominated by cutbacks, job losses and school closures. Sandy Watson, chief executive in Angus and former director of education in Tayside, says: "It is a great pity that reorganisation occurred at the same time as financial constraints without which we would have been able to make great strides."

Jim Anderson, director of education in Angus, which inherited district council spending near the bottom of the Scottish league and regional expenditure below the Scottish average, cites a number of achievements: good "team spirit" within schools and in the education department, plans for a significant extension of pre-fives education, groundwork laid for a youth strategy, and a Pounds 2 million replacement for Andover primary in Brechin. The message is one of modest but measurable gains.

He would, of course, say that. But despite what Mr Watson called a year of "confusion and pressure" for council staff and the howls of anguish which accompanied the disappearance of the regions, council leaders are now eager to enthuse over their new bailiwicks. The loss of a "strategic overview" has been overcome, Tom Farrell, East Ayrshire's education chairman, says.

Eleanor Currie, director in East Renfrewshire, says greater closeness to communities has been a major bonus. John Mulgrew and Keir Bloomer, her counterparts in East Ayrshire and Clackmannan, agree. Mr Mulgrew suggests management is now more "participative" and is proud of remarks from school staff that they see more of the directorate. Some have even been heard to welcome that.

All four are former senior figures in Strathclyde whose abolition has inevitably generated a "small is beautiful" reaction. But directors from a Strathclyde background also regret the loss of financial flexibility. "If you hit a budget crisis in a small council you are in trouble," Mr Farrell says. Small authorities such as South Ayrshire have, however, been able to mobilise some resources. Ian Welsh, the council's leader, cites a Pounds 1 million investment in nursery education boosting classes from one to 13, the successful bid for Government funds to turn a former primary in Girvan into an enterprise and FE centre and the rescue of Mainholm Academy in Ayr to become a flexible learning centre, not forgetting a tree-planting pgramme in 36 schools.

While Strathclyde inevitably casts a shadow, Mr Mulgrew is anxious to dispel any image of the 12 successors as "caricatures" while conceding it was useful at the start to have people like himself, his chief executive and the head of personnel who held senior posts in the former region.

He points to the disappearance of Strathclyde's quality assurance apparatus as one example of a determination to strike a distinctive posture. Mr Bloomer regrets, however, the greater difficulties facing small authorities in providing staff development and curricular back-up served by "standing armies" of advisers and special secondments.

Mrs Currie says there was initial concern over the absence of an advisory service but schools now prefer to have the money in their devolved budgets, which means they do not have to follow an agenda set by somebody else.

Councillors and officials are also experiencing benefits, Mr Mulgrew says. "In any school closures programme in Strathclyde, for example, local views would be represented by the local members but the vast majority of councillors would know nothing about schools other than their own. In East Ayrshire, almost every one of the 30 councillors attended public meetings and school board discussions when we consulted over closures last year. So you knew as director that, when you made a presentation to committee, you were dealing with councillors who were well informed. They had walked the campus and their questions were more thorough and more detailed."

The real strides appear to have been made, however, in developing new ways of working, even if these sometimes remain pious hopes on paper. East Lothian, West Lothian and South Ayrshire all report major advances from the incorporation of leisure and recreation in education departments; the boss of the Gaiety Theatre in Ayr is now the director of education.

Stirling, which has merged child care and education in a children's committee, has taken the opposite line along with Dundee in splitting off community education creating departments of community services and neighbourhood resources. Dumfries and Galloway has moved youth work, libraries and community development into community resources, leaving adult education in place.

Keith Yates, Stirling's chief executive, believes its structure has allowed the education service to concentrate on its main activities. Although the community services budget suffered a cut of 11 per cent this year against 4 per cent for education, Mr Yates says the move has "the potential to allow community education to integrate more effectively with developmental work in communities which is all about improving their quality of life. It is too important to be left to educationists because community development has to involve technical and environmental dimensions."

The biggest question mark, however, is the permanence of the current structures. A Scottish parliament could "suck up powers from the councils weakening both", Christine May, depute council leader in Fife, says. The best policy, Mr Mulgrew concludes, is not to assume the permanence of the present system.



* Arts initiative has led to Borderline Theatre Company working with schools, social work establishments and community centres.

* The council's art collection was put on show for the first time at Rozelle House art gallery in Ayr while pupils gave musical performances.

* A football development officer for schools.

* Links between libraries and schools have involved pupils and staff in the high-tech Cyber Centre in Ayr's Carnegie Library.


* Integrating the former district council's leisure programme with schools.

* Extending use of community pools for primary pupils to make up for axeing of s

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