Tinkering with boundaries won’t change much

23rd October 2015 at 00:00

There’s been a bit of hoo-ha in central Scotland, with Stirling and Clackmannanshire’s collaboration in education and social work services hitting the buffers. Political acrimony has been blamed, with a Labour-Tory administration butting against an SNP one.

Certainly, the decision to row back is in opposition to the general direction of travel. In recent months, more and more education bigwigs have been talking up the need to work across local authority boundaries, knowing that budgets will continue to shrivel in the coming years.

And we’re not just talking loose, ad hoc arrangements. The 32-council map of Scotland seemed etched in permanent ink not so long ago. Now, however, we’re hearing increasing scepticism about the need for small councils such as Clackmannanshire (with three secondary schools) and artificial boundaries (why must Ayrshire be divided into three?).

The structure and scale of local government is important, no doubt – although it can distract from the real story. Throughout civilisation, from local precincts to transcontinental nations, borders have come and gone. I was born in the 1970s, just as the old system of district councils was being supplanted by a handful of monolithic mega-authorities, which 20 years later gave way to the current 32-council system. Now the sands seem to be shifting again. The globe is peppered with disputed territories – Palestine, the Falklands, Crimea – and maps of the world are constantly morphing. What matters most, however, is not where borders lie but the prevailing ideology within them.

Millions of people who grew up under Stalinism are now getting their heads around laissez-faire capitalism – how such systems impinge on lives is more important than where an imaginary line is drawn and what the places either side of it are called. Tinkering with or dismantling local boundaries – at considerable expense, no doubt – may well bring some benefits to Scotland, but how much will it really change things?

In the run-up to the 1988 US election, George Bush, who became president, was asked if he should turn his attention from quick political fixes to the longer term health of his country. “Oh, the ‘vision’ thing,” he replied in exasperation. Whether politicians like it or not, the longterm direction of travel is what matters.

And in Scottish education that road is a fairly straight one. The comprehensive ideal, imperfect as it has been in practice, remains in place 50 years after it began (see the forthcoming 6 November issue for more on that). Curriculum for Excellence cannot yet be declared a roaring success, yet no political party is offering an alternative. Even the most controversial education issue of the day, standardised national assessment, has so far failed to fuel the level of dissent that was widely predicted (see page 10).

For better or worse, Scottish education is on a fixed trajectory – however many councils we have.

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