Bringing local education authorities back could save £500m a year

I HAVE to challenge Glasgow’s P Keightley in Tuesday’s National who thinks the Scottish councils are too big. This reader thinks that with 32 tips there are too few; there is a suggestion that we should turn to norway with 422 tips?

The problem with this way of thinking has to do with the agents we will need to handle this additional advice. Edinburgh, for example, has 17,000 employees for a population of 450,000. That’s about one bureaucrat for 26 people. If we go to more councils, that means more bureaucrats. These bureaucrats have to pay – say £30,000 per person. Each time you add a bureaucrat, you lose a teacher or two binmen. There is an innate tendency for council headquarters to add staff, usually at the expense of frontline services, as corporate management teams like to grow. And these business leaders are expensive – Andrew Field, chief executive of Edinburgh city council, is paid £175,000 a year, more than the Prime Minister. So – more advice, more CEOs, less money for coal.

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My case is that we should call for regional delivery of schools, roads and transportation services. I argue that we shouldn’t have 32 unitary authority board education and transportation departments, but nine regional shared service boards. Schools are largely autonomous – and regional transport departments make much more sense for joint thinking about road networks over a wide area, with subsidized bus journeys not stopping at city council boundaries, for example.

The money saved by such a move would mean that existing city councils would have a lot more to spend, as the number of bureaucrats would be lower due to economies of scale. Indeed, it was a model we followed until 1996, when the regions were dissolved by the British Conservative government; they found them too far to the left. At that time we had proportionately more money to spend on teachers and local services (provided by district councils) because regions offered economies of scale. As soon as we moved to unitary authorities in 1996, costs skyrocketed. For a while in 2018 I felt the SNP was listening, because after submitting a petition to Parliament in 2016 calling for this (PE1606: Forcing Scottish councils to work together at regional level to deliver education and transport) and having made the rounds of all the agitations I could note, while trying to lend an ear to the SNP candidates, that the regional school boards appeared as an aspiration in the 2016 SNP manifesto.

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In November 2016, MSPs closed my petition, stating “there are current and upcoming consultation opportunities that will advance the issues raised by the petitioner.”

Six years later, nothing has changed. So much for parliamentary “consultation”. Readers can find full details on my website

I used Scottish Government data to calculate that if the merger meant going back to local education authorities (LEAs) based on the old regional councils, i.e. before 1996, it would save Scotland £500m a year. It’s just for schools – it doesn’t include roads. Think how much we could reduce the size of classrooms if we did that. 500 million pounds would allow us to double the number of teachers; instead of classes of 30 students, we could reduce the size of these classes to 15.

Results? Happier teachers, happier students. And our young people would benefit massively – becoming the kind of active citizens that P Keightley says we currently lack. It’s not about having more bureaucrats, it’s about having brighter, more confident and more engaged citizens. And move on from a school system that discourages that, which is currently producing so many people who see themselves as failures. It’s all about education, isn’t it?

Pete Gregson

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