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A phoenix rising from political ashes

Fifty years ago, local education authorities were in a frenzy of activity as they began to build the brave new post-war world: bomb damage to repair, new schools to build, transport to organise and timetables to meet.

This is how Martin Wilson, then chief education officer in Shropshire, described the atmosphere of the times in his autobiography. "No hours enough in the seven days . . . tremendously invigorating, taut, demanding speculative, open."

LEAs were the engines of reform. They were literally building the New Jerusalem. It may seem amazing after all they have been through in the past decade, but it is possible to detect the growth of a similar sense of mission today. LEAs are no longer asking themselves the tired and hopeless question: how can we regain control of our schools? Instead, they are asking what can we do to improve schools? The new optimism is the result of a remarkable turnaround over the past 12 months.

In the early 1990s many LEA staff - those that survived the big clear-outs anyway - were clinging on in the vain hope of a Labour election victory to prevent the replacement of LEAs by a network of regional offices of the Funding Agency for Schools, which appeared to be a real possibility at the time.

Now, of course, the political scene has been turned on its head. The polls predict a Labour victory and, if it materialises, LEAs know that whatever Labour's policy on grant-maintained schools turns out to be, they will have a part to play in creating Tony Blair's post-modern Jerusalem.

But the reversal in LEAs' fortunes has much firmer foundations than that. former education secretary John Patten's approach to policy-making threw diehard opponents into each other's arms. The temporary unity of 1993 stemmed the flow of applications for GM status. Treasury pressure reduced the financial incentives to opt out. The flood became a trickle. Now it is not even that.

As the storm clouds had gathered some LEAs had of course carried on doing what they were good at. In East Sussex, for example, there were three years of steady growth in expenditure, much of it targeted at special education. Meanwhile, the foundations of the current LEA revival were laid. The 1993 Education Act gave them additional special education responsibilities. LEAs like Staffordshire discovered that you could delegate almost all your funds and still survive.

Indeed, by this means authorities were simultaneously relieved of some of the headaches of administration and strengthened because schools were choosing to be part of it. This constructive redefinition of the LEA was the most important result of the GM policy, but the Government had become so hooked on target numbers of GM schools it was unable to claim credit for it.

Once the clouds began to disperse, there was a new release of energy. In Nottinghamshire, Lewisham, Birmingham and Dudley, there were new strategies for school improvement based on the belief that the task of an LEA is to provide a framework and culture which encourages schools to improve. The NUT's bold policy shift this week is a welcome recognition that school improvement is predominantly a task for the schools.

Meanwhile, early in 1994 following an organisational review, the School Effectiveness Division of the DFE was established. From the outset it sought to work with LEAs in dealing with the sensitive issue of failing schools. It showed a willingness to learn from research evidence which was both refreshing and productive. The idea - which for a while at national level had appeared all too influential - that you change things by shouting at people was dropped. At that time I had this recurring nightmare in which the DFE was overrun by Millwall football fans in suits. Now my nightmare has stopped.

Education Secretary Gillian Shephard's recently announced Improving Schools initiative takes this new emphasis on partnership a stage further. LEAs gain new responsibilities. They are entitled to retain more money centrally for the first time for years, tangible evidence that the tide has turned, both to assist schools which, though not failing, have weaknesses and to support other school improvements. In other words, the DFE has realised that the new-model LEAs are not only necessary but desirable.

For a while it looked as though authorities had signed up to Woody Allen's motto: "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying." Now they can focus on their work again. Encouraging school improvement is about much more than dealing with struggling schools.

LEAs can promote the importance of education at local level: they can attempt to create the learning society from the bottom up. They can foster a new vision of the role of education in their localities. They can bring together employers, further education, higher education and schools in loose networks focused on school improvement. Keele University's study last year for the Office for Standards in Education found about 60 such networks already thriving in urban areas. In most of them, the LEA had taken the lead.

LEAs can also assist schools by providing high-quality performance data such as analyses of examination results, surveys of parents, and comparative financial information. As Carol Fitzgibbon from Newcastle University consistently argues, the provision of good information is a central element in helping schools to improve themselves.

Finally, LEAs can help to promote innovation. The evidence suggests that individual schools, alone in the market-place, are understandably reluctant to risk major new practices. By contrast, when a group of schools work together with the backing of an LEA - as a "safety net", as one head put it - then innovation becomes feasible.

All of this adds up to a very different role from that of the pre-1988 LEA, but it turns out to be challenging and productive.

If they are to play this part effectively, both officers and elected members will need to take up the new school improvement agenda. The same challenge faces the GM sector.

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