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The devil is in the detail

The consultation on the relationship between local authorities and schools is over. John Davies reports

The consultation is over. Last Friday was the deadline for suggesting improvements to a 48-page document that will have an important bearing on how schools and local education authorities work together.

The draft code of practice on local authorityschool relations, will have statutory force once the School Standards and Framework Bill receives royal Assent as expected later this summer.

It was thrashed out between officials at the Department for Education and Employment, local government, headteachers and other representatives before its publication in March. Which is why Graham Lane, the Local Government Association's education committee chairman, is happy. "I went through the published document putting ticks and crosses and writing comments," he says, "and I finished up with lots of ticks, a few comments and only a couple of crosses."

The reaction of the Secondary Heads Association is largely favourable, too. "We're rather pleased on the whole with the way the Government has taken on board the complexity of the situation," says Bruce Douglas, its president.

And speaking for the grant -maintained sector, John Knowles, vice-chair of its headteachers' association, welcomes the code as "really helpful for the new relationship between schools and local authorities" .

The teaching unions are not so receptive. The National Union of Teachers, the biggest, has reservations. It thinks the draft code "contains subjective assertions" and presents headteachers with "a perplexing array of apparently prescribed detail". And the NASUWT, the second biggest union, which, like the NUT, was not involved in the drafting process, is worried about "overly bureaucratic systems which could seriously undermine quality teaching in schools".

Local authorities will be able to intervene in schools a little more than in recent years if the code is adopted. They will exercise more influence on school appointments, and will have new power, for instance, to appoint governors in all categories of school; demand information from a school; and issue formal warning notices to governing bodies. As Mr Lane puts it, "Previously, when things went wrong in a school, the local authority's only power was to withdraw delegation, that is take over all powers. It was all or nothing. Now we have gained a right to intervene earlier."

Grant-maintained schools will no longer be independent of local authorities, which is no doubt why the "principles of a constructive relationship" need to be spelt out in the code. And why the code's introduction emphasises that local authority intervention should be "in inverse proportion to success" and that "the Government's starting point is a presumption in favour of school autonomy".

The code details when authorities can and can't intervene. If there is cause for concern about a school's performance, a "process of informal discussion" is recommended before any action is taken. A target figure for interventions is laid down: an authority shouldn't normally expect to use its powers in more than 12 per cent of its schools. "We were very keen that there should be a guideline to say roughly how many schools local authorities might expect to intervene in - as opposed to co-operating with as consenting adults - and the DFEE has picked that up," says Bruce Douglas of SHA.

Christine Whatford, vice-president of the Society of Education Officers and chief education officer for Hammersmith and Fulham, in west London, thinks the code is "a reasonable basis for a relationship", since "it describes how good authorities work with their schools".

However, target-setting - the subject of heated words at May's National Association of Head Teachers' conference - may be another matter. Under the 1997 Education Act, schools are required to secure annual performance targets; now Whitehall is "agreeing" literacy and numeracy targets with every authority in England and Wales. So how can individual schools' targets be made to match up with what their local authorities are required to achieve?

Here, the code concedes that an authority "has no legal power" to make a school change its targets. As Ms Whatford says, "We are going to be held accountable for overall targets without having the power to insist on any individual schools having targets that match the figures the DFEE set us. "

The idea of targets being laid down from on high by the DFEE also worries Brian Fidler, professor of educational management at Reading University:

"What happens when those targets aren't met? Nothing. Whereas if you start out with targets for individual children, you can see if they meet them and try to work out why. Arbitrary targets won't work."

Nevertheless, Ms Whatford thinks "the occasions will be very few and far between" when local authorities and schools can't reach agreement on targets. On such occasions, I guess the local authority would have to make a matter of public record what its view was."

Or maybe the process of target- setting, far from forcing local authorities and schools into opposing camps, will bring them closer together. As Mick Brookes, a Nottinghamshire junior school head and a member of the NAHT executive, observes: "What's happening with target-setting will, I hope, set a precedent for relations between schools and authorities. Certainly here in Notts there seems to be a mood that the authority wants to work with us - to say to the Government with a united front: 'Hang on a minute, you can't just pass targets down to the authority willy-nilly and say pass them to the schools.' We need to have a discussion about the reality of a complex situation."

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