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Future shock

What does the 21st century hold for LEAs? Four experts offer their predictions

Sseen your local education authority lately? If not, perhaps you should. Immense changes have been taking place in town and county halls, with enormous significance for local education.

Largely unnoticed, the apparatus of the Victorian school boards is being replaced with radical, modern structures. But will they stand the test of time?

It is too soon to give a definite answer, but there are indications of what the future holds. They suggest that a new, strategic council role has emerged during the past two years from the battles between central and local government. Not from government "interventions" or threats to local autonomy, but from new and confident models of local governance.

After the wilderness years when LEAs were slated for being backward-looking, defensive and timid, the best have re-examined their decision-making and rediscovered the appetite to innovate. But they are also reinventing the LEA in ways that must make the grand aldermen of the past turn in their ermine-trimmed robes.

Government has played its part by encouraging innovation. There are public-private, mixed regional, and public-public networks of councils that have received government funding to explore new ways of providing services to schools. Diversity remains the keyword; so, as we celebrate their centenary, I offer my top six indicators for the future of LEAs.

1 Who could replace them? No one believes the nation's 25,000 schools can be run from Whitehall. Learning and skills councils are untested and lack transparency. Giving regional government responsibility for education is laughable. Slimline LEAs have emerged as champions of school standards. As advocates of parental aspirations and pupil entitlements, LEAs ruthlessly monitor school performance and can help to improve poor or coasting schools.

2 Councils these days are pragmatic. Take the Private Finance Initiative (PFI). Unions campaign for a moratorium over new PFI schemes, without noticing that for four or five years councillors of all political parties have been implementing them. Discounting ideology, they have voted to build schools, provide better teaching and playing facilities and upgrade school equipment.

3 New management models are being tried on like Easter bonnets - in a range of styles and colours. The most exciting models are not found in those "failing councils" where ministers have waved big sticks. Islington was an early favourite in Downing Street, but sadly no more. Madame requires something plus chic? Look at the way the "traditional" county of Surrey has been rethinking how to slim down the core LEA structures (see Local Focus, TES, November 22). Power will still reside with the elected body, while service delivery will go to whoever can best provide it. And the benefits lie with the users.

4 Education has a lead role to play in the nation's urgent reform of children's services - a shake-up called for by the Climbie inquiry.

Councils have to provide coherent, joined-up management of the caring and protective services, with education linked up with social services.

5 Innovation, fresh ideas and school-based action research are infectious - and spreading. For example, LEAs are trialling multi-faith schools, raising the formal school-starting age to six and devising new paths for students aged 14-19.

6 The final pointer to the health of LEAs is the fact that by collective action they can still make big changes happen, such as the standardisation of the school year. This reform, long awaited by all except a few teacher union leaders, is finally happening. Derbyshire may have been the first to commit, but others have followed. As more and more LEAs sign up, there are possibilities for reform of the examination system, post-qualification entry to higher education, and avoidance of the chaos over A-levels that we witnessed in 2002.

The LEA is alive and well. Will it still be going strong in 2103? You would not bet against it.

Neil Fletcher is head of education for the Local Government Association.

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