Twenty-nine shades of accountability

"Areas are the centre - until they do something wrong, " said one council leader only half-jokingly of the decentralisation schemes local authorities are required to draw up by Tuesday.

The Government's insistence on a local presence is intended to compensate for the disappearance of the 53 districts. But there are as many variations as there are councils.

Interpretations of decentralisation have included one-stop council shops, improved communication and community access to decision-making. But the final decisions rest with councils and the systems in the four cities are scarcely developed.

John Mulgrew, East Ayrshire's director, observes that the problem for education is that school boards and devolved management have already made it the most decentralised of all services. The council has seven area committees and so far their main impact has been to add to his department's workload, the Northern committee calling for a report on education in the Stewarton area, for example.

Archie Morton, Argyll's director of education, says the council's four area committees have "proved to be useful in ensuring that the voice of education in a local area is a strong one". There have been valuable consultations on pre-fives expansion and school transport. Remarkably, two of the committees backed school closures.

Ken Macleod, director in Dumfries and Galloway, agrees that consultative groups are a useful sounding board but echoes Mr Mulgrew's view on the potential conflict with school board powers. Dumfries has begun a review of area committees to consider whether they should be more involved in matters such as adult education.

Val MacIver, Highland's education chairman, expresses a cautious verdict on what is the most elaborate scheme: eight area committees in the former district councils, spawning separate committees for most services backed by 22 local "service points".

"The system is working but the divisional education offices we had before also worked well," she says. "Skye, Nairn and Badenoch, which now have their own committee and management structures, were well served from Inverness."

Mrs MacIver, who chairs the local education committee in Ross and Cromarty and is cultural and leisure services vice-chairman, believes there is likely to be growing frustration among area committee members. "So much of the budgets and decision-making have been devolved to schools, policy is determined by the council as a whole, and a good deal of what is left is subject to legislation, " Mrs MacIver comments.

Highland has given local areas a say over a small amount of revenue expenditure and allows them to keep 50 per cent of any capital receipts from school closures.

Jack Bairner, a member of the Stirling area committee and a geography teacher at Bannockburn High, warns that if communities feel they have no influence disillusion will set in and "the whole process will be no more than a sham".

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