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Jolly Gilly mixes blame with praise

Shephard reaffirms collaborative role of local authorities at SEO conference. By Clare Dean. A week is a long time in politics, Harold Wilson once famously said. But in two weeks the most extraordinary things can happen to ministers.

In the 14 days between Gillian Shephard addressing the North of England conference and the Society of Education Officers, she underwent a dramatic transformation.

Out went the studied contempt; in came the giggly, flirtatious, jolly Gilly model. Delegates were amazed. "It wasn't so much the difference between chalk and cheese, but between severity and sweetness," said Chris Waterman, education officer with the Association of Local Government.

"Her presentation to the education officers was distinctly professional, her one to the North of England was distinctly political."

Gillian Mk II was local authority-friendly. Her credentials, after all, were impeccable: former education officer, schools inspector, county councillor and education chairman.

There she was at the SEO's winter conference in Harrogate sharing memories of bygone eras and of great education officers, and joking about the age of some of the profession's best-known personalities.

"I can remember when there were gigantic chief education officers whose names spanned Green and White Papers, who strode around the land being huge and famous CEOs. We still have marvellous professional colleagues, but it does seem to me that the day of the giants has gone and that of colleagues - consensual, collaborative colleagues - has come."

Not long ago, consensual and collaborative were hardly words you would expect a government minister to utter about local authorities who were largely Labour-controlled and widely believed to be the enemy.

The Grant-Maintained Schools Foundation even went so far as to call for local authorities deemed failures by the Office for Standards in Education to be closed down.

First in the firing line, it claimed in its report Unfit to Govern: No more excuses for LEAs, were Hull, Knowsley, Sandwell, Middlesbrough, Manchester, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, and in London, Islington, Tower Hamlets, Southwark, Lambeth and Hackney. While a government source said there was sympathy for the idea, ministers did not seek to amend the Education Bill to enable it to happen.

Mrs Shephard told the SEO: "LEAs have a significant role to play in supporting school improvement."

And unlike the North of England conference, where she singled out three London authorities - Islington, Tower Hamlets and Southwark - for criticism, she selected Shropshire, Suffolk, West Sussex and Birmingham for praise.

She even suggested that local authorities may be given powers to take back financial control of under-performing schools. The role she envisaged for them was of enabler, not controller. But there was no going back: the national curriculum, external inspection and school self-government were here to stay.

"That means a permanent change in LEA attitudes and behaviour. Some are adapting well to the new environment. Now the rest need to learn from the best. The role of the players may have changed, but all remain in the game."

Reports of the death of local authorities, it would seem, have been greatly exaggerated.

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