Get a grip and let the LEAs go

Gary Thomas

Gary Thomas believes Labour should commit itself to a more radical education policy.

I'd always thought the Labour party was radical. That's why I joined it. But now it's got itself into a frenzy, supporting one of the most conservative institutions in the country - the local education authority.

I've worked for six LEAs, as a teacher, psychologist and lecturer. I've been a governor twice, currently at the LEA school my children attend. But, try as I have, I can see LEAs doing nothing which schools could not do better themselves.

The two responsibilities which people are most passionate about in their support of LEAs are special needs administration and school admissions. Let's examine them.

In special needs, LEAs have failed. Most have not implemented policies which reorganise special schools and their staff and help integrate children into the mainstream. Why? Not simply because they have no money, but because they have failed to manage the system. Only a few shining exceptions have shifted resources and done the job of integration properly.

Only a month ago I was supporting the parents of a little boy with Down's syndrome at a tribunal. They desperately wanted their son to go to his local primary and the school was keen to accept him. (This is not an exceptional case.) Who resisted it? The LEA. Why? Because it was going to cost slightly more to send the boy to a mainstream school. All the LEA's resources were locked up in special schools which, through inertia, they had failed to devolve to mainstream schools. I'm glad to say the authority was defeated at tribunal and ordered to allow the primary school to accept the boy.

On admissions, Labour seems to think that LEAs keeping a grip will prevent selection by individual schools. But why should it cost so much? Why should schools pay 10 per cent of their budgets to the LEA to ensure this happens - Pounds 250,000 a year in the case of a medium-sized comprehensive? All it needs to ensure equity on entry is for the new Labour government to pass a law saying that schools in the state sector shall not be permitted to exercise any form of selection in determining their entry. End of problem.

Indeed, the reason why comprehensive education has never become universal is precisely because of the LEA system; throughout the 1970s and '80s, by legal time-wasting and "paralysis by analysis", Conservative councils managed to prevent the conversion of selective schools to comprehensives.

LEAs were set up at the turn of the century to provide local administration of education - this was before cars, phones, faxes and computers. Administration really did need to be local then. It doesn't now.

Local administration now means inconsistency and absurd disparity between different areas. Those who argue that LEAs take local conditions into account should take a hard, cool look at the huge disparities that exist in the locally managed system.

Differences, for instance, between the rates of statementing for children with special needs are at a factor of three. Such anomalies are the result of a system which allows hugely different policies to operate in neighbouring authorities.

Likewise, children are on the receiving end of widely differing provision - in terms of class sizes, the supply of books and support services - which depend on the generosity of the local funding arrangements. Often these differences are without any logic and seriously disadvantage certain children.

How much does Roy Hattersley actually know about all this, when he talks about comprehensive education? In an authority near my home it is the LEA schools which are selective, forcing a forward-thinking comprehensive in the authority to have to move to grant-maintained status. There are more than a handful of these schools, defending their comprehensive ethos by going grant-maintained.

LEA does not equal good; neither does it necessarily equal well-managed or comprehensive. In my view they have become, to quote Martin Jacques (former editor of Marxism Today), talking about other aspects of cherished state provision, "theme parks of restrictive practices, inertia and conservatism".

Comprehensive should mean all children. At present about 2 per cent of children are funnelled off into special schools. As the HMI and Audit Commission pointed out in 1992, most LEAs have done nothing to prevent this inexcusable exclusion from the mainstream.

If Labour wants a radical education policy it should commit itself to: * legislation forbidding selection; * the disestablishment of LEAs and the construction of a nationally-agreed formula for funding schools, distributing money fairly depending on particular circumstances (numbers of children with free school meals; numbers with special needs, etc); * the rejigging of management so that schools become governed by co-operatives of parents and teachers rather than the superannuated (and stunningly ignorant) buffoons who currently often represent local democracy on governing bodies. The new schools would genuinely encourage more parental involvement and community participation, rather than sterile, grant maintained trusts; * over a 10-year period the phased conversion of all special schools to outreach and support centres; * the devolution to schools of the bulk of money currently retained by LEAs, with a fraction channelled to a beefed-up OFSTED which would act as regulator ensuring that nationally agreed special needs and admissions policies were put into practice.

Gary Thomas is a reader in education at Oxford Brookes University. The views expressed are his own.

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Gary Thomas

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