Politics is getting in the way of councils making savings that could improve children’s schooling, an education chief has warned after the collapse of Stirling and Clackmannanshire’s shared education service.
Scottish councils’ failure to work together to deliver services such as education is costing the taxpayer money and hurting pupils, said Bruce Robertson, an education policy adviser for both the Scottish government and the education directors’ body ADES.
Mr Robertson told TESS: “It seems that there is no appetite for shared services – now we have none in education. But are 32 local authorities sustainable in times of austerity?
“Thanks to budget cuts, education improvement services in some councils are shrinking and in other cases are anorexic. Politics is getting in the way of efficiency and potential improvement for children.”
Mr Robertson, who is also a former education director at Highland and Aberdeenshire councils, has said previously that the “salami slicing approach” taken to budget cuts so far could not continue. He suggested that “radical” structural reform was the only way to protect education provision, and nothing should be off the table.
End of the road
Earlier this month, Stirling Council took the decision to walk away from a five-year partnership, having shared education and social work services with neighbouring Clackmannanshire.
The two councils decided to work together to make efficiency savings, but Stirling now claims it was subsidising Scotland’s smallest mainland authority, which has just three secondaries, to the tune of £400,000 per year.
However, a report by auditors Ernst and Young earlier this year said that the partnership was achieving savings “in excess of £1 million per annum” and that it would cost £4.6 million over five years to “divorce” the services. Splitting would be the “least favourable option”, it said.
In fact, auditors recommended that the two authorities deepen their partnership, with Clackmannanshire leading the social work service and Stirling hosting education.
This has prompted accusations that the decision to split was politically motivated. Clackmannanshire Council is SNP-led while Stirling has a Labour-Conservative administration.
The leader of Clackmannanshire Council, Les Sharp, told TESS that Stirling Council never raised any complaints with him before pulling the plug on the shared services earlier this month. The move came as “a real shock”, he said.
“Staff put huge efforts into making this shared service work and invested huge amounts of time,” he said. “To have it pulled apart by the strike of a pen – I feel bad for them that that’s happened.”
Mr Sharp hinted that the council was looking at the feasibility of devolving budgets to its schools. Clackmannanshire wanted to “empower schools and communities”, he said.
“A couple of weeks ago I might have said I wanted to go back but now I think we have a golden opportunity to do something different,” he added.
Stirling Council leader Johanna Boyd insisted that the partnership set-up was “not in the best financial interests of Stirling Council”.
She claimed that the officers and consultants commissioned to investigate the partnership found that any future financial savings would be “marginal”.
“Arrangements currently in place found Stirling Council subsidising Clackmannanshire Council by a sum in the region of £400,000 per annum – an unacceptable cost when added to the final figures,” Ms Boyd said.
The cuts that Clackmannanshire Council intended to make – £20 million over the next three years – were “an undue risk and potential burden” for Stirling’s taxpayers, she added.
The decision to revert to a Stirling-only children’s service was taken by the council on 8 October and the partnership arrangements are expected to cease by the end of March 2017.
A problem shared?
Back in 2013, Iain Docherty, professor of public policy and governance at the University of Glasgow, predicted “a lot more” partnership-working between councils.
Shared services were, he said, a way to fix the mess left by the 1996 reorganisation of Scottish local government which resulted in the 32 local authorities there are today. However, the first two attempts at education partnerships have failed. The planned partnership between East and West Lothian failed to get off the ground after changes of political leadership.
And now Stirling Council has pulled the plug on links with Clackmannanshire, claiming the project was costing it £400,000 a year.