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Editorial: A little local impossibility

The relationship between central and local government is never easy; but in education it seems to be increasingly complicated and bad-tempered. This week, the Queen's Speech promised legislation to modernise local government. So far as education is concerned, "modernisation" seems to mean that local education authorities must delegate yet more education funds to schools - while at the same time being held increasingly responsible for their performance.

It now looks as if they will be asked to achieve the impossible. As fast as a duty is laid upon them, the wherewithal to achieve it is threatened with withdrawal. Currently, the Department for Education and Employment is consulting on how to "cap" the funds which LEAs spend centrally, thus pushing more money out to individual schools.

However desirable this may seem in theory, in practice it looks like driving local authorities in two different directions at once. For example,special needs spending is a candidate for capping; but LEAs have already been informed by the Law Lords that shortage of money is no excuse for not fulfilling their statutory obligations. Central funds for school improvement are another possible target; yet last year LEAs were told they were "on probation" and responsible for making sure their schools achieved the required levels of performance.

The education welfare service could be at risk, in spite of the fact that David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, wants truancy slashed by a third. School meals will largely be delegated to schools; how then are the new nutritional standards to be enforced?

Such contradictions reflect a growing ambiguity at the heart of the Government. While Mr Blunkett sees a key role for local authorities in raising education standards, the Prime Minister is more sceptical. He is thought to be influenced by those who would like schools to be more independent of local bureaucracies.

Mr Blair is known to favour a pragmatic "What Works" attitude, rather than an ideological approach to government. If this is really so, he should think hard about the wisdom of clamping down on LEAs so hard that they cannot carry out his government's policies effectively.

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