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Minister goes armed into peace talks

It is, on the face of it, a reassuring prospect for local education authorities. After years under the Tories when their role was belittled and their existence under threat, the new Government speaks only of partnership.

When Stephen Byers, the standards minister, addressed a seminar of the Labour-controlled Council of Local Education Authorities in London last week, he was among friends. Himself a former chair of education in North Tyneside and chairman of CLEA, he reminded his audience that both David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, and Estelle Morris, the schools minister, had also served as local councillors. "We all recognise the important role local government has played and will continue to play," he said. "We look forward to working with you . . . we share a common agenda." "Where LEAs help to raise standards, they are part of the solution," Mr Byers said. "But where they don't, they become part of the problem."

If ministers felt that authorities were not taking sufficient action to improve poor schools, they would ask them to prepare action plans to address the weaknesses. He suggested between five and 10 authorities might fall into this category. And the Government would be introducing a new power to step in and take over from failing LEAs.

This, then, is a partnership where the senior partner holds a big stick. But Mr Byers outlined - and the White Paper will spell out in detail - three tasks for LEAs that should guarantee them a significant role under Labour.

First is their part in raising standards, bringing together the targets set by individual schools into an overall set of targets for the authority which will be set out in its "education development plan". Ministers do not, however, propose to place a statutory duty on authorities to raise standards.

Second is their leadership role, winning the trust and respect of schools to encourage them to do better and to share good practice.

Third, they are to be inclusive bodies, responsible for all the schools in their area, including those currently opted out (which are likely to seek Labour's new "foundation" status) and former independents that have opted in.

"It is important that old divisions are forgotten," said Mr Byers. "From now on - and not waiting until new legislation is in place - LEAs and all schools in their areas should work together in a new partnership. "

Mr Byers emphasised that authorities were to support schools, not to control them in the way they once did, and which most LEAs would no longer wish to do anyway. "Under this Government, there will be no turning the clock back," he said. "Local management is here to stay."

But he agreed with Tom Blair, the Portsmouth education committee chairman,who said some LEAs felt like a lifeguard at a swimming-pool who was unable to jump in until the customer had nearly drowned. Some authorities had already devised a voluntary way of intervening early where schools had problems: this would be given statutory back-up in the forthcoming White Paper, Mr Byers promised.

He also listened sympathetically to a plea from David Cracknell, Cheshire CEO and president of the Society of Education Officers, who said the balance had shifted too far away from LEAs towards schools, for instance in the arrangements for appointing heads and following up inspections. The minister pointed out, however, that changing the balance was "not easy".

Before long the questioning turned to money. Mr Byers spoke of his faith in the partnership (that word again) between the public sector and private finance to make improvements in school facilities. And then a question about the resource implications of policy drew a response from the minister that made one wonder if the general election had really happened.

"What is clear from our analysis of LEAs is that some are doing very much better than others with similar socio-economic backgrounds and similar amounts of money," Mr Byers said. "There is not a correlation between performance and spending per pupil. Money is not the answer to everything."

After the current two-year spending freeze, the Government would make a lasting investment in education, he said. "But before that comes on stream we need to reassure ourselves that we're getting value for money with the current spending per pupil."

He did, however, reveal that ministers were looking at how central government's grants to councils are calculated (standard spending assessments) to see if they could more accurately reflect LEAs' needs.

Current spending levels - and the much worse position that looms next year as a result of Chancellor Gordon Brown's promise to stick to the Tories' spending plans - could pose the greatest threat to relations between the new Government and education authorities.

But the plans are unlikely to be relaxed, especially since the National Audit Office is understood to have found "a black hole" in the previous government's spending plans because of optimistic assumptions about savings, notably a #163;6.7 billion saving from a crackdown on tax fraud and evasion.

Dave Wilcox, who chairs Derbyshire's education committee, referred gloomily to next year's local government spending plans. In Derbyshire, this would mean one third of primary pupils would be in classes of 35 or more from September 1998, he said.

"There's an understandable expectation out there that primary class sizes will begin to fall next year," he told The TES. "If in September I announce that they're going to get bigger, the culture of cynicism will re-emerge in a more severe form."

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