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A beacon amid the new shadows

Clare Dean finds some headteachers are capitalising on local government change. Take a blank sheet of paper, have a long, hard think and draw up the ideal education authority. What would it comprise, what would its aims, values and principles be, how would funding be allocated?

For the new authorities elected earlier this month, these are not simply hypothetical questions. The 36 shadow unitary authorities created under the Local Government Review have an opportunity to re-think the way education - the biggest of the county council services - is provided.

And for headteachers in Redcar and Cleveland, one of four new authorities to have emerged from the shire county of Cleveland, it is too good an opportunity to miss. They aim to ensure they are in the vanguard of change, and have formed an association covering primary, special and secondary schools.

Kevin Aherne, head of Ings Farm primary in Redcar, said: "We are leaders in education, working at the chalkface and we feel that we have a duty to identify the needs of the education service in the new authority.

"We need to state very clearly our aims and values, and the provisions we feel our children are entitled to."

For the Redcar and Cleveland Headteachers Association, or RACH, the bottom line for the new authority is that it should not provide a worse service than schools receive at present.

The association has spent the past two years thrashing out ideas. It has held two conferences, has a constitution and a steering committee which consists of heads from seven primaries, four secondaries and one representative of special schools. It has also set up working groups on general administration, governors, curriculum support, special needs, general purposes, LMS and information technology hardware and systems.

The new authority it hopes to influence will be run by Labour. It includes schools in rural sites around Skelton and Guisborough, the seaside town of Redcar, and Eston on the edge of Middlesbrough, which could almost be described as inner-city.

Not surprisingly headteachers are concerned about funding and they want to be able to influence budgets. They also want cheque-book facilities - something they do not have at the moment.

They say that they do not necessarily want the same computer management system, but would like a system supported by travelling bursars and centrally-based finance officers who are guaranteed to respond within 24 hours.

They want advice, not inspections, and the potential to use advisory staff and headteachers on a part-time basis and to move towards subjective support, not objective analysis.

They also feel there is a need for an educational development centre, to act as a base for in-service training and meetings and want more governing body training.

The motivation behind RACH was needs-driven, said the headteachers. A spin-off has been that the participants have formednew links, clusters and friendships.

Ken Tonge, from De Brus school in Skelton, said: "I am talking to heads who I have never met before and I am learning from them and getting to know about parts of the education service that I didn't know existed."

The extent to which they can dictate terms is unclear, however.

Just four members of the unitary authority's 24-strong education committee have an "education background". The chief education officer is yet to be appointed, and it is not even known where its headquarters will be based.

John Coulthard, chair of the authority's education committee, said his first priority would be to maintain the level of aggregated school budget.

He also said Cleveland County Council would push ahead and complete its plans for 100 per cent nursery provision by next April.

Mr Coulthard, who is a member of Cleveland's education committee, is meeting RACH's steering group today.

He has pledged consultation rather than confrontation over the shape of the new authority, and said: "My message for them is don't look for change, we hope to carry on as we are."

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