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A different dimension;Platform;Opinion

The Audit Commission's latest report urges LEAs to look up from their cash and planning responsibilities and develop their creative perspective, says Andrew Foster.

THE past education year has been an eventful one for local authorities. Virtually every month of 1998 saw the unveiling of a major initiative - LEA inspections in January, development plans in February, local authority-school relations in March, Fair Funding in May and so on. The pace of change has been remarkable and the agenda has been challenging.

As chief education officers contemplate their demanding in-trays could I make a plea that they take some time out to read the Audit Commission's latest report on education: Held in Trust - the LEA of the Future. Why? The report from the public spending watchdog looks beyond the demands of budgets and plans to dwell on the question of what will really make the difference to performance.

Although they have to respect national priorities, each authority must tailor its education services to meet the particular needs of its local community. Held in Trust does not offer a magic formula for success that will work in every LEA across the land. But it does pinpoint the underlying qualities which can have a major impact on their effectiveness. The authority of the future needs to offer clear leadership and direction, pursue high standards unremittingly, manage resources efficiently and effectively, ensure that policies turn into practice and, as the report's title suggests, develop a high trust relationship with all its partners in the educational process - most especially schools.

It is too early to give a conclusive assessment of how well local authorities are tackling the new agenda. Recognising this, Held in Trust examines what can be learned from current practice and maps out how they will need to develop their organisational capacity. The report is uncompromising but realistic. We see a range of performance: some authorities are not delivering well enough, which will be highlighted by LEA inspections, but others are beacons of good practice and bring out the best in our system. The challenge is to raise all LEAs to the standards of the best.

So as they read this report, I would hope that chief education officers ask how well their authority is doing. Held in Trust addresses a number of issues but I would point to six key questions:

* Do we have an effective partnership with schools?

When asked about their LEA, schools predictably offer a range of opinions. But, of critical significance is that some authorities fared consistently and markedly better than others. An effective education service depends to a large degree on the quality of this partnership. LEAs are doomed to fail if they do not invest in an effective working relationship with their schools.

* Are we providing the leadership and direction that our education service needs?

LEAs face a number of plans and initiatives that have to be developed and integrated. How robust is the planning process? Are priorities clear? Are people signed up to them? Will policies lead to action?

* Are we making a difference in our schools?

Local authorities are only one of a number of influences on pupil achievement and an arm's length one at that. Yet schools acknowledge that their advisory services can make a difference through targeted support and intervention in areas such as school management, the curriculum and the quality of teaching. But a number of authorities lack systems to tell them whether their advisers are effective or how they use their time.

* Are we giving schools a fair share of the resources available?

The cash delegated to schools varies from less than 60 per cent of the education budget to more than 85 per cent. The need to retain funds for services such as special educational needs and home-to-school transport varies across the country. But current budgets are not obviously based on an objective assessment of the needs of authorities and schools.

* Do our services give value for money?

Schools depend on a wide range of support services from cleaning to payroll, many of which are provided by their local authority. Costs and standards vary widely. LEAs need to review such services to see if they can offer better value.

* What about best value?

Standards are rightly centre stage at the moment but best value paints on a broader canvas; all aspects of performance and the full range of authorities' responsibilities will need to be addressed. Much attention has been given to support for school improvement but this accounts for only 10 per cent of LEA spending - what about the other pound;4.5 billion? Tackling the standards agenda does not mean that LEAs can lose sight of their other responsibilities.

Held in Trust heralds the changes needed and reminds LEAs that they cannot rest on their laurels. But as they approach their centenary, it is clear that some things don't change: "The director of education has many problems which are not always apparent to the layman ... the administration of these arrangements makes the job of the director of education a busy one." (From Eric Jackson's Local Government in England and Wales, 1945).Local authority ratings, 21 Andrew Foster is controller of the Audit Commission. Copies of Held in Trust - the LEA of the Future, are available from Audit Commission Publications, Bookpaint Ltd, 39 Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon, OX14 4TD, price pound;20.

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