Editorial - From big beasts to endangered species

Mark the moment. Mark it well. The appointment of Sir Michael Wilshaw as Ofsted chief is a defining moment in the history of post-war English education. "Why, of course," you might say. "We read last week's TES - surely this piece must be expounding on how the Prophet of Hackney's appointment heralds the mainstreaming of the boot-camp approach to school leadership."

Well, no, actually. Sir Michael's new role could go on to represent something like that if his five-year term turns out as the education secretary hopes, but that is a long way off. However, his appointment does symbolise a separate shift in the educational landscape.

Sir Michael is the first Ofsted chief inspector to be selected directly from a headship. Unlike his predecessors, he has never worked for a local authority as an education officer. Christine Gilbert, the most recent incumbent, arrived fresh from making a success of schools in Tower Hamlets; Sir David Bell (outgoing permanent secretary at the Department for Education) ran education in Newcastle; even the profession's old bete noire, Sir Chris Woodhead, had done stints in local education authorities. But not Sir Michael.

How times have changed. You only need to turn to the obituary of Sir Roy Harding on page 16 for a reminder of how things used to be. For most of the years since the war, English education was dominated not by central government, but by regional big beasts who went by the title of "chief education officer". Some of these individuals were even household names. Perhaps most memorable was Sir Alec Clegg of the West Riding of Yorkshire, who for 30 years from the late Forties was a figure of national importance, arguing for, and adopting, classroom reform. To say that the secretary of state hardly got a look-in is only a slight exaggeration.

As recently as the late Nineties and early Noughties, something of this remained. Many not even involved in education were aware of Sir Tim Brighouse and his work in Birmingham and latterly London. He was almost famous.

However, the erosion of the role of chief education officers bestriding counties and cities has long been in train. It was first undermined by Ken Baker's 1988 Education Reform Act, which removed a raft of local authorities' powers and transferred them to the DfE.

But since the May 2010 election, this slow-burner has roared into life. The widespread adoption of academy status has done more than anything else to emasculate what was left of local education departments. Many have next to no power, influence or financial clout over most of the schools in their areas.

News this week (page 8) that ministers are considering handing nearly all school funding directly to headteachers, whether or not they choose to convert to academy status, would sideline local authorities yet further.

There are not enough column inches in this small slot to do justice to the arguments for and against the enfeebling of council educationalists (it is worth remembering that there were a fair few who underperformed even in the golden era of educational administrators). But it is important to note the moment when they were downgraded from life-threateningly injured to little more than twitching.

Because, Mr Gove, it will be almost impossible to resuscitate them once they are dead. And that moment is fast approaching.

Ed Dorrell is TES news editor.

Gerard Kelly is away.

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