Who'll pick the berries on Calton Hill?

9th August 1996 at 01:00
Working the blackcurrant bushes on a warm summer day frees the mind for a little fanciful speculation. Although this is one voter who believes that Tony Blair's referendum is a show-wrecker for a tax-raising Scottish parliament, conjecture intrigues. What would the new parliament look like? I have to confess that to me it looks a bit like a doubled-up version of the late Strathclyde Region: another tier of regional government with shared powers. How would Scottish education fare from Calton Hill? In particular, would parents find themselves back outside the school gate?

Seen and not heard as in the past? Told what was good for them and their children? Meekly accepting the decisions of one or other of the layers? Or is the genie of involvement and accountability unlikely to be recaptured now that it has been released from its bottle? We have a handful of clues. One comes from Labour's Helen Liddell. We know what she plans for school boards, and there is not much cheer for parental partnership there.

Another hint comes from a recent conference on education and a Scottish parliament. Delegates expressed concern about the current level of parental choice; and no - they were not arguing for more. Speakers were uneasy with choice in its present form. Unsurprisingly, there was no consensus on how to cope with perceived parental over empowerment. At least Strathclyde knew what its responsibilities for education were. And did it share them with another tier? Here, however, it would seem that parliamentary enthusiasts are casting the net for role and function.

Watchdog is one promising possibility identified by the conference. It would seem that the policies and practices of the 32 education authorities are to be "scrutinised and tested" by "stronger committees" (hardly a vote of confidence in the new councils). The aim: to create "greater opportunity for consensus". All this supervision seems to promise, Pinocchio-like, a vigorous if artificial new life-form. Indeed, the summarising speaker suggested that the time the parliament would have to devote to scrutineering duties would mean less opportunity to "churn out new legislation to swamp schools or encroach on the work of councils". Has vision come to this?

Professor Lindsay Paterson of Moray House Institute observed that it would take time to work out the balance of power between parliament and councils, and between councils, schools and communities. He hoped that this would ensure a "good spread of power". Sounds like a jeely piece. Which powers will be creamed from councils - or schools - to create the "spread"? Will devolved school management become a folk memory, a mirage in the paper desert? Alarm bells tinkle. What of local school empowerment? What of partnerships between head and school board?

But wait - the conference expressed a pious hope that a "commitment to subsidiarity" (I quote) will provide a counterbalance (presumably to the burgeoning bureaucracy). You begin to get the picture: 129 new politicians on Calton Hill, cost perhaps Pounds 45 million per year, and no doubt at least half of them looking to influence Scottish education.

Labour's baby is unlikely to mirror the Addled Parliament, dissolved without passing a single Act by Jamie Saxt and First in 1614. But in the absence of much educational legislation, there is always a bright future in creating ever-stronger committees and wider debating circles. Still with an eye to history, let us hope that this new tier of local government does not copy the Pensionary Parliament (1661-1679), so called for the bribes or pensions accepted by many of its members, and noted for the growth of party faction.

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