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Councils, this is your wake-up call

So you thought Labour's election victory put an end to fears for the future of local authorities? Think again, says Greg Wilkinson.

The past few months must have come as a shock to those who thought the election of a Labour government would end the debate about the future of local education authorities. Rumours of ministerial scepticism - even hostility - abound. Private companies advertise their readiness and willingness to take a challenge currently handled by local government. And the proposal for education action zones has been interpreted as a means of supplanting local democracy rather than enhancing the ability of LEAs to drive up standards. Little wonder, then, that many people are asking whether LEAs have a future beyond the next few years.

Such speculation is unhelpful. To quote from the Michael Barber dictionary of football metaphors, it causes local authorities to take their eye off the ball. The Government has embarked on a crusade to tackle educational underachievement and its official position - as stated in its manifesto, white papers and current Bill - is unambiguous: local authorities have a significant and substantial role to play in the crusade.

But that role differs from the one played by the stereotypical traditional local authority, driven by a need to control. The new role for the modernised local authority is far more subtle, complex and demanding. Local authorities need supporting as well as challenging if they are to perform it effectively. The discussion paper published last week by the Audit Commission, Changing Partners, is a first stab at trying to help LEAs ensure that their story over the next few years is one of success, not failure.

So far as the commission is concerned, local authority success will depend upon three things: clarity, competence and clout. Authorities need a clear understanding of what their new role entails, and of what they must do in order to meet the expectations of their stakeholders - from local schools to central government.

The commission has identified a surprisingly broad consensus of opinion on the role of local authorities. According to this consensus, authorities should: articulate a vision - with a supporting strategy - for education in their areas; act as a vehicle for improvement; ensure equity and an inclusive system of education; and manage trade-offs between competing interests and policies, reducing the myriad conflict and tensions that arise in every part of the country.

But clarity of role is insufficient. Local authorities must also establish clear benchmarks against which each authority can be assessed. The proposed education development plans will be of critical importance in establishing clear targets at authority as well school-level.

Competence is required across an extensive range of educational and managerial activities. The effective local authority must have a strategy that focuses and prioritises efforts, a coherent set of management processes and a culture - evident particularly in the relationships between the authority and local schools - that fosters the highest levels of performance from all staff. If this sounds daunting, that's because it is. Local authorities need balance power between different levels and units of organisation in a way that is uncommon in any part of the private sector, let alone the education business sector.

Finally, local authorities need the clout that comes from appropriate powers to match their new set of responsibilities. The alignment of LEA powers with responsibilities is properly a matter for Parliament and the Government, not the Audit Commission. The principles that underpin current Government policy will undoubtedly be reinforced with fuller details as the School Standards and Framework Bill, and the accompanying code of practice for local authorities, develop over the next few months. To help MPs and ministers with this process of clarification, Changing Partners poses a series of questions about how powers and responsibilities can best be aligned in relation to local authority intervention in schools, the organisation of education finance and the provision of post-16 education.

The publication of Changing Partners is the first in a series of steps to help bring about improvements in local authority performance. The commission believes passionately that the debate about the role of local authorities should not take place merely in education opinion pieces like this one, and that the debate should not be confined to the SW1-WC2 nexus of power in London.

Schools in every local authority area across the country should be discussing how they can form the most effective partnership with their authority. To help extend the debate the commission will shortly be producing a paper for heads, governors and teachers on the role of the local authority.

Later this year, the commission will publish a national report that captures the findings of a research programme encompassing the operations of a dozen local authorities, the budgets of 30 authorities and the views of more than 1000 schools.

This extensive base of evidence will shed light on a number of areas of dispute, notably that of local authority finance. Few areas demand more urgent discussion. At present, the obscurity of the financial arrangements creates the risk of major changes in policy being determined by the staggeringly ill-formed comments of a small number of "expert" commentators.

Finally, the commission will continue its collaboration with the Office for Standards in Education in the programme of local authority inspections. Painful though they may be for authorities, inspections offer a valuable opportunity to highlight both opportunities for improvement and good practice from which others can learn.

But all the guidance, exhortation and judgment from organisations like the commission is secondary to the contribution from local authority officers and members. Ultimately, local authorities will stand or fall by their own efforts. Those efforts need to include a willingness to trumpet (not necessarily celebrate) their successes as well as to deal promptly and vigorously with poor performance.

Local authorities have a tendency to succeed discreetly and quietly but to fail in the full glare of intense media interest. This may need to change. In today's image-conscious world, it is not enough to do well; you must be seen to do well.

The stakes have never been higher. The Government has set demanding targets and has staked its credibility on their achievement. It will not look kindly on what it perceives as a local authority failure. Therefore, authorities are, well-advised to treat the rumours of recent months as a wake-up call and - to get Barbarian once again - raise their game to respond to the challenges of their new role. If they succeed, they will enhance not merely their own position but also the life-chances of current and future generations of pupils.

US warning, 26

Changing Partners, published by the Audit Commission, is available from Bookpoint Ltd on 0800 502030, priced Pounds 15. Greg Wilkinson is associate director of local government studies at the Audit Commission

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