A marriage of councils made in heaven – or hell?

20th November 2015 at 00:00
After Scotland’s only education merger failed amid accusations of petty politics, experts warn that change is coming – one way or another. Emma Seith reports

Over the past three years English councils have saved £462 million by sharing services with each other, one recent report has claimed. And in one of the few places where two education services have been merged, which is actually here in Scotland, the deal was reckoned to have saved money and improved pupils’ performance.

Indeed, the merger was heralded as “straightforward” to set up, given the “remarkable uniformity” in the way education is delivered across Scotland.

But, last month, the agreement between Stirling and Clackmannanshire to run their schools in tandem collapsed unceremoniously amid accusations of political game-playing.

Even the sharing of basic back office functions seems beyond Scotland’s increasingly “defensive and risk-averse” councils, says Iain Docherty, a professor of public policy and governance at the University of Glasgow.

This is bad news for schools, many education directors argue, because the failure of Scottish councils to work together to deliver services is costing the taxpayer money and hurting pupils.

Professor Docherty goes further, warning that the Scottish government could soon run out of patience on this issue and its solution might be a national education agency. “The inevitable question is, do we need this back-room architecture?” he adds.

‘A great opportunity’

Back in 2010, Stirling and Clackmannanshire joined forces and started sharing their education and social services. In the words of former Stirling chief executive Bob Jack, they “showed initiative at a point when opportunity presented itself”.

That opportunity was a vacant head of education post at Clackmannanshire Council and a vacancy for the equivalent position for social services in Stirling. The shared ambition of the two councils was to improve services by closer joint working and to save money, given the challenging economic climate.

Belinda Greer, the education director who set up the shared service and ran it until 2013, says: “The councils benefited from shared expertise and best practice across councils. The performance of pupils in national examinations in both councils improved year-on-year.

“There were economies of scale. Combined, Stirling and Clackmannanshire remained one of Scotland’s smaller education services.”

The population of Clackmannanshire is 51,400. Stirling is bigger, but the authority there also serves one of the smaller populations of Scottish councils at 89,850. Together they catered for a population of 141,250, which is about average for all local authority areas outside the cities.

It was not difficult to get the shared service off the ground, Ms Greer says. Certain conditions had to be in place (see panel, page 18), but the partnership was “straightforward” to establish because of the “remarkable uniformity” in education across Scotland.

Ms Greer, who now lives in Hong Kong, where she is chief executive of the English Schools Foundation, adds: “The duties of an education authority are outlined in the Education (Scotland) Act and all education services in Scotland follow national guidance and adhere to national policy.

“In other words, there are great similarities in the work of the education authorities across Scotland and certainly across schools. Put bluntly, education authorities are all working to achieve broadly the same objectives.

“While there may be some variation in approach and, more frequently, emphasis, there is remarkable uniformity in Scotland, suggesting a strong national consensus about priorities – for example, about the need to increase attainment, in particular the performance of children and young people experiencing the effects of poverty.”

However, Stirling called time on its five-year partnership with Clackmannanshire last month, claiming it had been subsidising the so-called “wee county”, which has just three secondaries, to the tune of £400,000 a year, and that the savings the arrangement was producing were “marginal”.

There has been some speculation that political differences were behind the split: Clackmannanshire is SNP-led whereas Stirling is Labour-Conservative.

‘Savings were made’

Sharing services in Stirling and Clackmannanshire did save money, at least as far as education was concerned, Ms Greer says. “The size of the shared education team was considerably smaller than the sum of the two separate education teams and therefore there were savings in education,” she says.

A report by Ernst & Young into the partnership, published in June, said the joint education and social work service was achieving savings of “in excess of £1 million per annum”.

It recommended deepening the partnership, and identified that a return to separate services was the least favourable option, likely to cost £4.6 million over five years.

Ms Greer laments the passing of the Stirling and Clackmannanshire partnership, but she insists it at least proved that such arrangements can work.

“Having 32 education services provides a high degree of local accountability, responsiveness and scrutiny, but it obviously comes at a cost,” Ms Greer says. “More efficient ways of delivering services mean less spending in offices and more in classrooms.”

‘Lower than a snake’s belly’

However, it does not look as though the idea of councils voluntarily forming partnerships is going to solve the problem of having 32 disparate authorities in Scotland, Professor Docherty says. Sooner or later the Scottish government will have to do something about “the map”, he argues.

He predicts that a dramatic overhaul is unlikely and the government will take “baby steps”. The recommendations of the local tax commission, which has been charged with identifying fairer systems of taxation, are likely to provide a starting point.

Professor Docherty adds: “That will expose all kinds of issues about boundaries and the different tax-raising potential each local authority has.”

Ultimately, the government might take education out of local authority control and turn to a national education agency, he speculates.

Certainly, the relationship between the Scottish government and councils on education was recently described by one education director as “lower than a snake’s belly”.

The government failed to consult local authorities umbrella body Cosla over its National Improvement Framework and plans to introduce national testing, or its proposals for a chief education officer for every council, or over moves to improve the attainment of disadvantaged children.

‘Not a panacea’

At the start of the year, local and national representatives locked horns over the Scottish government’s policy of maintaining teacher numbers. It was this policy that had hamstrung Scottish councils, not an inability to share services, a Cosla spokesperson says now.

They add: “Shared services are not a panacea for the challenges faced by local authorities in balancing education budgets and should stop being seen as such…The savings delivered by shared services are dwarfed by the pressures facing local authority budgets.

“The real issue is not shared services but the complete lack of financial flexibility that councils now face as a result of the government’s policy on teacher numbers.”

Even in England, where the sharing of services between councils has been embarked on with gusto, the efficiencies achieved do not match the cuts to council budgets.

However, at least savings are being made. TESS asked Cosla for examples of councils sharing services with success and was told that they just weren’t “heroic enough” to make headlines.

Baby steps, indeed. And silent ones too, it would seem.

The expert’s view: what is needed for a merger to go ahead?

Belinda Greer, the education director who set up the shared service between Stirling and Clackmannanshire and ran it until 2013, shares her prerequisites for a successful merger:

A common need to find more efficient ways of delivering the education service without compromising quality, and while protecting the direct funding that schools receive.

Buy-in from across all political parties in both councils and a high level of trust in the shared service. It should not be necessary to have every detail worked out and agreed.

Shared priorities across both education authorities. This should be the case with two councils working within the framework of national policy and guidance.

Strong relationships at a senior level, particularly between the two chief executives and with the education director.

Open communication and positive working relationships within the education team at every level – schools, headteachers, elected members, professional associations and trade unions.

An agreed model for sharing the funding and costs of the merged education service.

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