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Big idea gives us way out;Opinion

Deprived of power, local education authorities are looking for a new role. Their future, says Sohail Faruqi, lies in adapting New Labour's Third Way

I sometimes get the impression that schools believe their local education authority is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

With decision-making and budgets now largely devolved to schools, and with a Govenment which clearly sees schools, not councils as the key agents of educational change, there is an all-too-common perception that LEAs are merely a bureaucratic annoyance, a bit of a bore.

Grant-maintained schools in particular seem to have adopted this attitude and in the new era ushered in by the Government's new Fair Funding scheme - which increases devolution still further - many more LEA schools will be tempted to take a similar line. This would be a mistake.

Thoughtful heads will understand that the relationship between LEAs and their schools has changed and will continue to change. New Labour's so-called Third Way will be crucial to understanding this changing relationship.

As director of education for a new unitary authority (City of Plymouth) born a year into the life of the New Labour government it is especially interesting to reflect upon the potential impact of the Third Way. Already, it has influenced Plymouth's thinking.

One of the problems is that the Third Way has not been adequately articulated as it applies to education policy-making, (for an overview, see Anthony Giddens' book The Third Way). But major Third Way themes such as modernisation, partnership and pragmatism can be seen in Plymouth's vision statement, which is based on three principles:

* achievement by caring;

* developing the learning partnership';

* modernising the local education service.

'Achievement by caring' is our version of the Department for Education and Employment's "pressure and support" model. The idea is that a responsible LEA cares enough about children and their achievements not just to support schools in a minimal way but will apply pressure through setting schools challenges.

'Developing the learning partnership' recognises that LEAs are not the sole or even major players in the education service. Schools should be empowered, yet they should not be islands. We seek a genuinely open partnership between schools and the LEA. It is not practical to say this partnership is equal (because we have distinct functions to perform). We would rather say all partners are of equal worth.

'Modernising the local education service' means everyone involved in governance and leadership (the LEA, headteachers and governors) of schools needs to work together to adapt to change.

For example, Plymouth hopes to ameliorate the adverse effects of competition between schools without undermining the individuality of each school.

Such aims are "modernising" in the sense we recognise that there has been some benefit to parents and pupils from competition, but also appreciate there have to be limits if the system is to avoid turning schools into rival factions. (I suspect GM headteachers, about to return to the local democratic framework, are particularly sensitive about this.) The key modernising task for Plymouth is to offer leadership. Such leadership is not meant to undermine the autonomy or power of headteachers and governors, but it does demand that relationships are recast so that all of our roles and responsibilities are truly complementary.

Especially in the light of the Government's drive to raise standards, the need for education authorities to lead schools could create tension.

LEA offices are still often referred to (largely by their own officers) as the "centre". To use a phrase coined by Giddens (though with a different meaning) I would like to see this as an "active middle" responsible for weaving alliances and networks of education service providers.

In the future LEAs should:

* manage policy-making openly, allowing for free debate;

* reconcile the different interests of those in the education service. Ideally each authority would create a means for the representation of diverse interests;

* ensure, but not necessarily provide, all the services needed;

* regulate the quasi-markets that now exist within the service ;

* ensure social inclusion becomes a reality in schools;

* foster local, regional and national alliances and networks;

* raise the level of administrative efficiency ensuring greater value for money;

* recognise that the authority of the LEA will need to be negotiated and not assumed as a result of tradition or statute.

This list is formidable and I hope shows that viewing LEAs as an increasing irrelevance makes no sense.

But I would say that, wouldn't I?

The author is director of education for the City of Plymouth

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