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A borough reborn

Lambeth, ravaged by fraud and cuts, is starting to rebuild. Heather Du Quesnay hopes that next week's White Paper on LEAs will not write them out of the script.

Next week the Government will publish its White Paper on increasing school autonomy and the future role of local education authorities. I wonder what it will have in it for Lambeth.

This south London borough is a curiously well-focused illustration of the power that local education authorities still have for good or ill. The political extremism and mismanagement of the past have resulted in the waste of millions of pounds of public money. Weak management or poor working practices have given rise to fraud and corruption. The prevailing culture has put the interests of staff ahead of those of the customer. Concern about equalities has been allowed to become an excuse for low expectations and poor standards of service.

Although education became one of Lambeth's responsibilities only in 1990, it has inevitably been tainted by the corporate malaise. The education department has a reputation for being unresponsive to parents and schools. We are seen as aloof, even downright hostile, by some of those who should be our key partners. The quality of our services is patchy - some are good, others pretty shabby. There has been until recently a culture of central control, expressed through bureaucratic, rigid and inefficient financial systems. Consultation has been inadequate and the spirit of partnership which characterises the best LEAs is palpably lacking.

As a result, in education as in the council as a whole, people have had to make their own way. Services are incoherent and fragmented with managers and staff staying within the bunkers they have built to defend their working space against the corporate incompetence. The schools too have sought to look after themselves. Under the circumstances, it is perhaps surprising that only 16 out of 100 have so far become grant maintained. Most have chosen to stay within the local authority not only because of a dependency which they cannot break but because of a deep commitment to the Lambeth community and out of loyalty to each other. But the authority's past failure to support them is revealed in the unacceptably wide variation in their performance: Lambeth has some of the best schools in the country and some of the worst.

The competent heads of successful schools have sometimes resisted the authority's attempts at leadership. I suspect in part because they did not realise the extent of the problems elsewhere. Dismal practice and low expectations in one school existed cheek by jowl with excellent teaching and outstanding achievement in another, sometimes only a few hundred yards away. Yet the good practice did not rub off - and the weakest schools descended into a spiral of decline and demoralisation, condemning hundreds of children to educational failure. That is the inevitable consequence of a lack of leadership, and direction within the local education service, particularly in an inner-city area where there is a high proportion of families who need support from their public services and are certainly in no position to play the market.

But now the spirit of change is abroad in Lambeth. We have a hung council which is united in its determination to prove that local government is as significant a factor for good in the community as it previously was for harm.

Chief executive Heather Rabbatts is driving through her multi-phased programme of improvement at a merciless pace. Anti-fraud teams and competency testing are rooting out corrupt and inadequate staff, and the new team of chief officers is working together well. The education department is already implementing changes. Chief among our needs is a senior team which will combine the best of the existing department with some talented people who can bring new ideas from outside. The scope for able people to make a real impact on a local education service and a community has never been greater than it is in Lambeth now. The rewards for vision, managerial competence and daring will be great.

The main task facing the new management team is to build with our partners a strategy for driving up standards of educational achievement right across the community. Lambeth has already made a good start. The Office for Standards in Education initiative to inspect all the schools in the authority's area is turning out to be a real benefit. It is horribly stressful for governors, heads and staff - and that is something I hope OFSTED will try to improve in the future - but it is giving us a bed of evidence against which to identify priorities for improvement and create a common agenda for schools and the authority.

Our response to schools which are failing is led by the education committee, with senior councillors as well as officers rigorously analysing reports, calling schools to account in public session and contributing to the search for solutions, for example by appointing additional governors of high calibre. Their advantage over a Government-appointed education association or "hit squad" is their roots in the community and their network of local connections . The inspection programme is also identifying examples of real excellence both in school management and pedagogy and there is an imaginative advisory headteacher initiative to encourage the secondment, full or part time, of senior staff from good schools to support, and sometimes replace, those in difficulty. The generosity and professionalism of Lambeth's education community are revealed by the fact that we have had no difficulty in finding heads and deputies to give this kind of assistance.

The drive to raise standards will be the focus for the developing partnership between schools (including, I hope, several in the grant-maintained sector), authority and stake-holders over the next year and beyond. We have to explore the contribution that early-years assessment and target-setting can make to schools' efforts. We need to involve parents and carers in developing statements not only of children's entitlement but also of parents' responsibilities - late arrival at school, for example, often because parents are absent or not capable of getting their children out in the morning, is a big issue in Lambeth.

We are fortunate that a radical decision already taken by the council is to bring together services like child care, adventure play and nursery education from three council departments under the auspices of education. The new Unified Children's Service is potentially a powerful engine for promoting early learning and supporting parents and families. We are working closely with the health authority and aim to build a network of voluntary and private-sector providers working alongside us to promote the learning and development of Lambeth children.

At the other end of the age range, Lambeth's youth service comes from a fine London community education tradition, but it has been ravaged by budget cuts and uncertainties which have put at risk both its links into the community and its voluntary-sector partnerships. Times have been hard, but we are now starting to rebuild.

A lot is going on in Lambeth and there is energy aplenty. We wait now to see whether we shall be supported or hindered by the ideas of this or of any potential future government for the role of local education authorities. We have no difficulty with giving schools increased managerial freedom or with making them more accountable to parents and community, provided that the mechanisms chosen genuinely do that. We certainly support the unanimous national insistence that standards must be raised. But national politicians, as well as local councillors, must avoid dogma and gimmickry. We need a national act of will and some pragmatic solutions. Markets and consumer choice alone will not make much difference to the life chances of inner-city pupils whose parents do not have the will or the money to pay for transport to a more distant school or for extra-curricular tuition. Grammar schools are fine for those who get into them, but in the past, they were an excuse for lowering our expectations of educational achievement for the majority of children.

What inner-city children need is good teaching in their local school. The priority for government must be to create a framework within which schools can be rigorously but fairly held to account both by parents and by the community; within which there is an overwhelming emphasis on quality of teaching and on supporting and challenging teachers to do an ever-better job in ever-more demanding circumstances; within which there are fair procedures for setting admission policies, for dealing with complaints and for offering redress when things have gone wrong. The framework must also encourage the whole community to take a pride and an interest in the schools which are educating its young citizens. Local education authorities are key players in providing a local dynamic for the national strategy. We look to central government in future to treat us as respected partners, not as bit players they would prefer to write out of the script.

Heather Du Quesnay is executive director of education in the London borough of Lambeth. She is also president of the Society of Education Officers

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