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Local education authorities are in the same muddle they were brought in to clear up 100 years ago, says Peter Newsam

Local education authorities have just had their 100th birthday. The celebrations have been muted, the bunting scarce. But was this lack of festivity justified, or should the centenary have been marked across the country with the popping of champagne corks? To answer this question, we need to look at what LEAs have achieved and what role they may play in the future.

LEAs were created in 1902 to put an end to muddle. Towards the end of the 19th century, more than 2,000 directly elected school boards, 15,000 or so voluntary bodies, the recently formed county councils and a clutch of government departments managing their own schools were tumbling over each other to educate the nation's children. This confusion of overlapping responsibilities has been well described as "haphazard, uncoordinated and incoherent".

The 1902 Act went some way to sorting things out. The school boards were abolished and the main responsibility for education was entrusted to 145 LEAs, the county and county borough councils.

LEAs have developed in four phases. The first was between 1902 and 1918, when the new bodies were bursting with energy. They challenged the Board of Education's highly prescriptive regulations for the curriculum. They also harassed the Board over its building regulations and, supported by their medical officers, built schools that provided a healthier environment for children.

Under-nourished children do not learn well, so LEAs developed a school meals service. Schools needed more and better-trained teachers, so, in 1902, the first year of its existence, the London County Council created what later became the Institute of Education of London University. And so it went on. The thread running through these years of energetic LEA enterprise was the steadfast opposition of the Board of Education to nearly all of it.

In their second phase, between 1918 and 1944, many LEAs remained innovative. Cambridgeshire pioneered community colleges, and Manchester and London set up central schools. At the same time, educational psychologists devised nationally standardised tests in an effort to provide fairer access for children to different forms of secondary education. These were years, too, when the education committees of multi-purpose councils found a collective and increasingly influential voice through the Association of Education Committees.

The 1944-1970 phase saw LEAs flourishing. The distinct roles of central and local government were, for the most part, clearly defined by convention and good sense. No one doubted that LEAs fulfilled a role that was beyond the ability of other organisations. It was for LEAs to build more than 8,500 schools to cater for a bulging child population and the raising of the school-leaving age. It was for LEAs to create the training colleges to supply the teachers needed. And it was left to LEAs to develop the secondary education system envisaged by the 1944 Act.

Since 1970, the decline of the scope and influence of LEAs has been steep.

Why? Explanations differ. Mine focuses on the years 1969-72 and on the response to two reports on the future of local authorities.

One of these documents was the Redcliffe-Maud Committee report, published in 1969. In dealing with education, the report made three assumptions. The first was that education outside the universities should remain a cradle-to-grave service; the second was that the local authorities managing this service should be large enough to be able to attract the right calibre of officers and elected members; the third, also relating to size, was that local authorities should be of sufficient stature to provide, individually and collectively, some countervailing balance to the power of central government.

The Committee originally proposed that LEAs should have a population of 500,000 or more. This would have led to 50 to 60 LEAs outside inner London.

That minimum size was later scaled down to 250,000 to accommodate the perceived needs of the personal social services. The Maud Committee's three assumptions were not shared by the government of 1970; nor have they been by any subsequent one.

An equally important report was the Bains Report of 1972, dealing with the management of local authorities. On sound administrative principles, it advised that local authorities should act corporately. This meant that the education service could no longer be allowed to remain half in and half out of local government, sometimes owing less allegiance to the local authority as a unit than to the educational world outside, notably the Department of Education itself.

The rejection of Maud's assumptions and the acceptance of Bains and corporate management precipitated the decline of LEAs. Education officers found themselves busy with corporate issues, such as the siting of drains.

No harm in that, had not the Department of Education, whose function is education and not drains, at the same time become urgently and actively educational.

To the Department and its ministers, from the mid-1970s to the present, there has seemed no good reason why a government's educational initiatives should have to squeeze their way through a thicket of corporate decision-making in locally elected councils. Education ministers in a hurry want action. If existing local authority structures cannot or will not provide it, the response has been to use or create other local agencies outside local government to push the initiatives through.

So what next? LEAs could continue much as they are for as long as anyone will let them. But this is not a healthy prospect: few of the really important developments in education are now under local government control.

Organising school transport appeals to some people; and having visions appeals to others. But being able to initiate and manage important educational change is what brings able and committed people into LEA administration. The loss of that prospect is already driving some of the best of them into despair or well-paid consultancies.

The other way forward is to recognise that the administration of education is now in much the same muddle as it was before the1902 Act was introduced.

In any given LEA area there are now overlapping educational responsibilities and multiple accountabilities. To survive with any of the coherence envisaged by the Maud Committee, education may have to be separated from local government as it is now constituted.

Corporate local authority management that includes education still makes sense, but it has not been allowed to succeed. So it may now be time to introduce an updated version of those elected school boards that disappeared in 1902. The Maud Committee's 50 or so authorities responsible for a full range of educational services might correspond, as others have suggested, with the areas of the Learning and Skills Council, made coterminous with some of the larger existing LEAs.

Finding ways of establishing the degree of local accountability that a democratic society requires in nationally organised, locally managed education authorities would not be easy. But it was achieved in 1902, so it should be possible again.

Sir Peter Newsam is chairman of the Central London Connexions Board. He was education officer of the Inner London Education Authority from 1977 to 1982

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