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Fit people

Some of the new unitary local education authorities have been elected and the search begins for the men and women to run them. David Bell assesses the qualities an ideal candidate should possess. As the dust from the local government review begins to settle, attention will inevitably turn to the practicalities of establishing new authorities.

In particular, there will be much discussion and speculation about the leadership of the new local education authorities. Already, work has been done behind the scenes to advise authorities on what they might be looking for in their new chief education officers, the "fit" people in the immortal words of the 1994 Education Act. But just how easy will it be to recruit them and what skills, knowledge and experience will they need to do the job?

Since LEAs began to reduce their central administrative capabilities following the 1988 Act, opportunities for staff have been few and far between. The traditional route into LEA administration, beginning with a professional assistant's post and then moving onwards and upwards, had already begun to disappear before 1988. When second and third tier posts fell vacant, many were eliminated. Government-induced uncertainties surrounding the role of LEAs did not encourage those working in schools to apply for what senior posts were available in county halls or civic centres.

Coupled with this, is the fact that many LEA officers across the country have decided to leave the profession, some taking early retirement while other have sought pastures new. Anecdotal evidence from around the country suggests that LEAs are not exactly spoilt for choice when they advertise their most senior jobs.

To some, this shortage of appropriate talent at the senior levels might seem irrelevant. Yet as evidence from around the country grows that schools are looking for new styles of collaborative leadership in a locally accountable context, the need for high quality chief education officers has never been greater. The more the Government talks sympathetically about a new role for LEAs the more important becomes the quality of the people who lead them.

Local government reorganisation will demand the attention of the brightest and best. It will be a formidable task to establish a new LEA. It will require a high level of technical knowledge in areas such as formula funding, budget construction and other areas of administration such as statementing, admissions, appeals, buildings and so on. Yet, more than that, there is a unique opportunity to create a new style of education authority which reflects the realities of the l990s. The characteristics described below would equally apply to CEOs in well-established authorities as well as the LEAs of the future.

The CEO in a new authority is going to be under intense scrutiny. They will have to manage the often conflicting demands of their new authority, governing bodies and headteachers. At the time they will be establishing relationships with a variety of users of the service who might also have a different perspective. So, what will be the key characteristics of such a person?

First and foremost they must be an educationist rather than an administrator. The post will require a high degree of technical competence but this alone will not be enough if the CEO is to carve out a place for education in the new authority.

It is ironic that the new authorities in Scotland will not be required to have a director of education when the system there has resisted many of the attempts to downgrade the role of the education authority. But the designation of a post is not enough. The new CEO will be required to convince schools in their area that they know about the day to day education of children and young people in schools.

This will require them to be conversant with the major curriculum and organisational debates within schools. It will require an interest in teaching and learning and a capacity to ask searching questions about the practice of schools.

The task of convincing headteachers will not be easy for whatever the weaknesses of their previous LEA they will have had some confidence that they were dealing with a well-established organisational structure. But that in itself is an opportunity, as the new CEO will be able to carve out a distinctively educational role. Headteachers would be looking for insights from the CEO based on a well-developed educational philosophy. They will want to see evidence of empathy with teachers and a capacity to engage them in critical and supportive discussion. At heart, they will want a CEO that can engage with children and young people and who understands the impact of decisions taken by the new LEA on the day to day running of schools.

The demands on the new CEO will be great. They will have to: * Make sense of the organisational confusion in a way which leads to a clear educational focus for the new LEA; * Reshape by persuasion, the thinking of others and reappraise their own thinking on matters within the new LEA in the light of evidence and experience; * Develop a clear view of what the schools in the area are capable of and share that with all the participants, encouraging them to find a common set of aspirations for the new LEA; * Promote improvement and effectiveness based on sound knowledge of evaluation and inspection.

* Debate and discuss alternative approaches to organisation and practice.

Inevitably, the fledgling LEAs will think long and hard about the selection criteria. All sorts of factors will influence these decisions; have the potential CEOs got senior management experience in schools? Do they have experience of monitoring and evaluation? Have they worked in a complex political environment? The list of possible questions is endless and important. However, perhaps the real focus has to be on the hard questions asked earlier. In particular, can the potential CEO demonstrate that they can lead a new authority into exciting areas of educational achievement in ways not seen previously? Can they build genuine community consensus and support for education?

It could be argued that these questions will only be answered for good or ill when a candidate has been appointed. Yes, but for elected members, and chief executives appointing CEOs, the task will be to devise a selection process which answers such questions.

The old bureaucratic certainties may have to be swept aside in favour of a dynamic leadership that combines a clear educational philosophy with a practical, down-to-earth knowledge of the mechanics of getting a new system up and running.

Being the CEO in a new LEA will be a formidable challenge even though, in many ways, success or failure will be driven by external forces and events. Will the new authority be sympathetic to its new powers and responsibilities? Will educational concerns be bogged down in a sea of detail and trivia? Will the transitional arrangements be so complex that everyone ends up feeling aggrieved whatever the new LEA actually does?

Yet, for all of that, the CEO has a wonderful opportunity to make education count in authorities which, in the recent past, have not had such a function. The risks are high but the rewards are great. Vibrant new LEAs led by people committed to making a success of a new situation, can work together with schools in relationships which reflect the multiplicity of accountabilities of the l990s. It is not for the faint-hearted!

David Bell is the assistant director of education at Newcastle City Council

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