Wednesday 2 December 2009

What is the point of local government?

I ask this in light of the recent reshuffle of the Scottish government. Fiona Hyslop, the Education Minister was effectively forced from office by the combined threats from the opposition parties. Her crime? It is claimed that she has failed to deliver on key SNP manifesto pledges. The SNP had made a commitment to reduce class sizes in Primary 1, 2 and 3 to eighteen pupils or less and to maintain teacher numbers in the face of falling school rolls to cut class sizes. Now this is a laudable aim, but the responsibility for delivering this commitment rests not directly with the government, but with local councils. It is the local councils that have full responsibility for nursery, primary and secondary schools. We have 32 of them each with their own Director of Education. Each council can of course set its own priorities and reducing class sizes may not be one of them.

But do we want 32 mini school systems in Scotland? It would seem not. After all most of the key policy decisions are already taken at the national level by the government and parliament. The starting and finishing ages for schooling is set by the government, as is the exam system. Guidance on the curriculum and class sizes is issued at the national level and the qualifications and pay for teachers is negotiated on a Scotland wide basis. So what does each local council actually do? They run the system, but have little or no say in the key decisions. The money to pay for all this comes primarily from the government. Local councils only raise about 20% of their budget, the rest comes from the government in Edinburgh. Yet the government does not have direct control over how this money is spent. However the government is still held responsible when things go wrong.

The same applies not just to education, but to Social Work and the Health Service. In all cases the key decisions regarding policy and conditions of service are taken at the national level. Hence the question posed at the beginning - What is the purpose of local government? To get an answer it seems to me that we need to ask another question. This would be to ask what the people of Scotland want to be the same wherever they live in the country and what they would be happy and willing to see different. I suspect that in relation to education, social work and the health service the overwhelming majority of Scots would want the same standards and level of provision to apply everywhere throughout Scotland. Specifically in relation to education, how many people actively want to see children start school at age five in Glasgow, but age six in Aberdeen and age seven in Orkney? Or how many would welcome councils having the right to go back to class sizes of 40+? Or to deciding that teachers need not have a teaching qualification in order to teach?

To a large extent most people already feel that it is the case that we have a national education system with the same standards and level of provision everywhere. That is why there is such a media and political storm whenever there is a failure to meet these standards or levels in any one part of the country. And it is this demand that the government take responsibility that lay behind the demand for Fiona Hyslop to resign or be sacked.

However most of our national politicians do not want to recognise the obvious - that if they want government ministers to be fully responsible and accountable then we need to take these services away from local councils and set up nationally run bodies to run them. Only this way can government be sure that the money it allocates to education is actually spent on education and not on some local council’s pet project of the day.

I myself have always felt that national politicians by and large like the present set up as they can always blame local councils when things go wrong. And everyone needs to have someone else to blame. So I was pleasantly surprised when I read that the government is to look again at the need for local councils to run education and care for the elderly. Some leading members of the other political parties are known to be in favour of this move. So I can only hope that this idea is seriously considered and does not become a political football.

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