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Fan the flickering flame

Heather Du Quesnay seeks a new script for 21st-century dialogue between local councils and Government.

Local government education departments and their staff have no more right to exist than any other public agency - or, indeed, private business - unless they are doing a job that needs to be done, genuinely adding value to the educational institutions in their area and offering real service to the public. And I believe that we have come through the past seven years not just as survivors, but as a powerful force for improving education, because we have both responded to the challenges laid before us and taken real initiatives to remodel our services, to develop our managerial skills and to rethink the culture of our relationships both with the schools and with those who use our services.

Local management was born out of the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit of local government at both political and managerial level and it has resulted in one of the biggest voluntary transfers of power from the local political centres to the grass roots that has taken place in recent years. This has happened without a lot of fuss and commotion, without marches and protests, without children's education being damaged.

It worked because the ideas were developed slowly through a quiet process of trial and sometimes error, in close co-operation with the heads and governors who had to make it operate. Central government played an important part in recognising the power of the ideas and choosing the moment to turn the brainchild of a few local education authorities into a national norm. Here we have an almost perfect illustration of the way central and local government can work in partnership if they have the will and the wit to do so.

What a pity, then, that the first half of the 1990s nearly saw the annihilation of that very central-local partnership which had characterised the development of the public education service for the previous half century. The flame flickered - very nearly failed - but was never entirely extinguished. And recently it seems to have been fanned back into life for two reasons.

First, the national agenda for education is becoming more sharply focused and, while differences remain between the major political parties, the underlying issues are the same for all: school effectiveness and standards of achievement; early-years provision; the 14-19 curriculum and the qualifications framework; the professional development and status of teachers; special educational needs; the contribution of the education service to securing a safe, prosperous and harmonious Britain.

Second, LEAs have done a good deal in recent years to put their house in order. Relationships with schools have never been better. The very fact that schools can choose whether to be part of an LEA has galvanised us. Virtually every LEA in the country has developed an open and robust partnership with governors and heads. The quality of services has been transformed, often by putting them on a trading basis. Co-operation with business, industry and the voluntary sector has never been better.

We accept the right of central Government and its officials to determine the framework of national policy, to monitor standards, to take steps to encourage innovation and best practice and, indeed, in doing all this, to reflect the values and concerns of the political party in power.

We would hope that central Government and its officials, in turn, would recognise that we too work in a political context. Local government politicians are elected by their communities to ensure that local services are delivered effectively and efficiently in accordance with local needs and priorities. It is entirely appropriate that they too should seek to reflect their political values in the decisions they make, and we, as their paid officials, must work within the policy that they set us.

If that is understood, it need not be a problem. But if the old commonplace that the British education service is a national system locally administered is interpreted too rigidly - and national Government forms the view that local government is simply there to act as its passive agents - we get into difficulty, as we have in the past over Government policy on opting out, which could hardly have been expected to attract the mute compliance of local authorities in so far as it represented a denial of the role of local government.

We may yet have a similar difficulty in the coming months over local spending on education. Local government circles were delighted by the Secretary of State's success in winning a national increase in the education standard spending assessment. But the delight was somewhat abated by the tight constraint on SSA for all other local services and in any case, local politicians cannot be expected to allow their priorities to be determined in Westminster or Whitehall.

It would help if the concept of subsidiarity could be taken more seriously in central government's relationships with local government: after all as a nation, we argue for it hard enough in our dealings with Europe. Charles Handy reminds us in his book The Empty Raincoat that subsidiarity is different from empowerment in that empowerment implies that somebody on high is giving away power, while "subsidiarity . . . implies that the power properly belongs, in the first place, lower down or farther out".

As local government officers, we are very clear that the relationship of the councils which employ us to central Government is one of subsidiarity - we are not waiting for the crumbs of power to be dropped from the table. What we need, perhaps, is a stronger sense of federalism which would admit both of a lead from the centre and of individual initiative and autonomy at local level. I firmly believe that without an energetic contribution from a strong and respected local government sector, the aspirations for rising educational standards and international competitiveness of any central government will be thwarted.

To look at some practical illustrations of the contribution which local authorities can make, let us start with school effectiveness and pupil achievement. Measuring success in education is, of course, a complex matter and we must be wary of reducing our ambitions for the learning of young people to that which can be measured easily. Some of the knowledge, understanding and skills which we want our young people to learn can be assessed, marked and reported in quantitative terms. Some cannot. The fact that we want to preserve the development of personal values, empathy with others, imagination, creativity, which cannot easily be measured, within the curricular requirements for every child is not an excuse for refusing to measure that which can be measured and that which can serve as a means of monitoring the effectiveness both of the learning of the child and of the teaching she or he is receiving.

Local authorities throughout the UK are playing a significant part in promoting this agenda. The national targets for education and training offer a splendid framework. On their own they are meaningless at the local level. But the concept of target-setting is sound, and if the national targets can be locally interpreted - by local education authority area, type of school, by community, by individual school - then you have something which governing bodies and heads can use as a management tool, both for benchmarking their performance against other similar schools and for motivating and monitoring their pupils and staff.

Similarly, in matters of general school performance, the Office for Standards in Education inspection arrangements appear at times to be a somewhat crude and certainly a resource-hungry instrument and I regret that a greater attempt was not made, when they were set up, formally to recognise the role of local authorites in the business of assuring quality in schools. However, OFSTED is substantially dependent upon local authorities for delivering its inspection programme, particularly in the primary phase, and takes every opportunity to encourage chief education officers to require their advisory and inspection staff to do more.

LEA staff form a substantial network for the transmission to teachers of an understanding of what constitutes an appropriate level of achievement for children of differing levels of ability and differing social contexts. If we are really to drive up teachers' expectations of what their pupils can achieve, nothing is more important than to help teachers challenge themselves to demand more. LEA advisory staff, informed by their OFSTED experience, are doing that daily through training courses, through one-to-one lesson observation and feedback, through offering consultancy to heads. The act of inspection is both threatening and sterile if it does not feed strategies for improvement.

LEAs are also, of course, playing a crucial role at individual school level both in helping schools to prepare for inspection and in follow-up work. The legislation, as it is framed, makes some extraordinary assumptions about the capacity of governing bodies to act alone following an inspection. In many cases, some action is needed over poor performance in a particular subject area, over weak teaching, over ineffective management. Is it really to be expected that a governing body, acting alone, can make the necessary professional judgments, and deploy the appropriate personnel procedures? Governors are, after all, volunteers, fitting an increasingly time-consuming and sometimes stressful piece of service to the community into their lives. They need professional advice and support, just as company boards do after management reviews.

Rigorous quality assurance depends upon LEAs not only as a rescue-and-retrieval service for schools in difficulty but as the vehicle for interpreting national standards and policy, for providing relevant local benchmarks and for monitoring school performance between inspections.

None of this involves the culture of dependency which Her Majesty's Chief Inspector condemns. The work would, however, be much enhanced by the encouragement of partnership and mutual respect between OFSTED and LEAs. Much could be gained if the OFSTED database, upon the evidence of which sweeping judgments may begin to be made about the relative performance of different kinds of school, were open to local scrutiny.

And in the longer term, we await proposals for what happens next after the first cycle of inspection is complete. It must make sense to move towards a system of internal self-review - the Japanese continuous-improvement approach - coupled with light external monitoring by LEAs, national moderation of standards by OFSTED and targeted inspections directed at particular aspects of the system or schools shown by the other mechanisms to be a cause for concern.

Too little has been done in the past to ensure rigour and relevance in teacher professional development and training. We welcome the energy which the Teacher Training Agency is bringing to the task. Our weakness as a nation in the application and implementation of front-line research is as much of a problem in education as it is in science and technology. It is also of the first importance that the national agencies like OFSTED, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, the Teacher Training Agency and the Basic Skills Agency whose territorial preoccupations tend to keep them apart, should be encouraged to pool their knowledge and expertise. What a golden opportunity for the LEA to stand at the centre of such a partnership and to give teachers access to high quality training which draws on such a deep reservoir of support.

Moreover, more could be done to turn inspection into a learning experience for teachers. The LEA could easily secure that feedback loop, if it were given the opportunity to do so.

Disseminating information about good practice has always been a key task for LEA advisers. No amount of glossy brochures published by OFSTED and the DFEE can substitute for the insights of an experienced adviser, shared in the context of a real classroom.

The work of a number of the national agencies, particularly the Teacher Training Agency, SCAA and the National Council for Educational Technology, depends upon this kind of local dissemination and support. It is absurd to think that a single national body can develop and maintain effective channels of communication with 25,000 schools, 400,000 teachers and as many more governors. The contribution of LEA advisers is a critical but unacknowledged element in the system. Isn't it time that an initiative was taken, not simply to chart the numerical decline of LEA advisory services but to analyse the effects of the policy changes of recent years, like budget cuts and the introduction of trading, to identify their role for the future and to suggest innovative ways in which LEA advisory services can be developed?

Heather Du Quesnay is the new president ofthe Society of Education Officers and this article is a shortened version of her address to last week's annual conference.

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