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Bigger, but will it be better?

Clare Dean reports on the creation of a local government superbody. There was a perverse sense of satisfaction for local authorities in Gillian Shephard's attack on Calderdale over the debacle at The Ridings, which led to the school being deemed a failure and the permanent exclusion of 12 pupils.

By laying the blame at the door of the council, the Education and Employment Secretary was acknowledging that local authorities have a role to play in school improvement.

Just four years ago that would have been unthinkable - ministers had left local authorities in no doubt that they were being written out of the script.

This summer's White Paper, Self-Government for Schools, which paved the way for the Education Bill currently going through Parliament, signalled a change of heart.

It spoke of a "significant continuing" role for local authorities which have "built up over many years experience and expertise in the administration of the schools sector". Meanwhile, the Government said that one of the main functions of a local authority was promoting quality in schools.

Years of campaigning by council leaders and officials appears to have paid off at a time when the political profile of education has risen dramatically. But privately some fear their work could be jeopardised.

Ironically, the threat comes from the Local Government Association, the new organisation designed to strengthen local government's influencve by providing a single voice.

From next April, it will represent 500 county, metropolitan and district councils, including local education authorities, in a bid to try to boost their influence on Government policy-making.

The organisation will replace the existing Association of County Councils, Association of District Councils and Association of Metropolitan Authorities.

Brian Briscoe, the former chief executive of Hertfordshire County Council, has been appointed its secretary. The person to head its education team will be known by the end of this month.

The position - like the other top jobs in the new organisation - has been ring-fenced which means that only David Whitbread, education officer at the ACC, and Alan Parker, his opposite number at the AMA, are in the frame.

It is unclear how many staff will be recruited to the LGA education team, but there are fears that the previous eight strong contingent across the AMA and ACC could be halved.

In the summer the all-party Council for Local Education Authorities unanimously demanded that education staffing at the LGA should reflect "more adequately" the size and importance of the service.

Councillors said that it should have an officer team devoted to supporting the work of its education committee with comparable resources to the AMA and ACC.

They argued that education represented more than 40 per cent of local government spending and raised some of the most pressing political issues affecting local government.

No answers have come back from the LGA although Carol Grant, its director of communications and public affairs, said: "Education is obviously one of the biggest services that local authorities run and has to have a high profile within the LGA's work."

But she added: "The question of its share of resources is still to be determined."

There are serious doubts among local authorities about whether the LGA's education department will be able to cope with at least twice the amount of work with half the staff. And the fact that there is even to be an education committee on the new organisation is something of a triumph for local authorities.

Initially it was feared that it would be grouped together with housing and social services under a "personal services" category without its own officer support, but councillors demanded a special place for education.

It will now have the largest of all the LGA committees comprising 74 people compared to the 50 or 60 for other services. Yet despite its size members will represent only half of the present local education authorities. When the unitary authorities come on stream next year the percentage will worsen.

Labour will have a slim majority on the education committee, holding 52 per cent of the seats, the Liberal Democrats will take 30 per cent and the Conservatives 20 per cent.

Graham Lane, the Labour education chair of the AMA and CLEA, must be the front-runner to chair it. His media profile is second to none in local government and he has received more coverage than Sir Jeremy Beecham, chairman of the AMA, who has been elected first chairman of the LGA.

He also has a lot of support from the Liberal Democrats and the Tories on the AMA education committee.

But it is not clear yet whether the education chair will be chosen by the committee or by the entire LGA Labour group.

The education committee will meet three times a year, rather like a mini parliament, and will set up panels and task groups to do the detailed work.

The LGA as a whole will hold a general assembly twice a year - one has already been held in shadow form and had so many delegates (650) that the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre in London had to be booked.

It will have a policy and strategy committee to provide the overall direction for the organisation and ensure that it speaks with "one voice" and apart from education the only other single service to get its own committee will be housing.

Sir Jeremy Beecham has pledged the LGA will promote vigorous, effective, responsive, democratic local government and leadership.

But as David Whitbread said, there may be problems: "There are a lot of tensions because the existing organisations and local authorities have their own culture."

He was not worried about how the new education committee would work as the ACC and AMA are already collaborating on many pieces of policy.

"It is the work of the LGA as a whole - the complications of voting, subscriptions. That is where the real headaches are," said Mr Whitbread. "And then there is the accommodation. It will inherit three sets of premises, doesn't really want the staff to be scattered about but can't afford one new big building."

Alan Parker added: "The LGA will work because it is going to have to. This is the only game in town."

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