I am delighted to be able to host this exhibition of educational supplies here in Devon. It is a happy coincidence that it coincides with the education service being, yet again, on the brink of more significant changes.
Thus we have taken the opportunity of drawing together a large number of those involved in education in the south west to talk about a wide range of issues that confront us as we go into a new academic year and with an Education Bill already going through Parliament and another promised for the autumn. It is important to recognise that changes to the legal and political backcloth are seen in context. Therefore, it is appropriate that we are considering the wise words of speakers in association with the "tools of the trade", the hardware required to get the job done.
The national curriculum has never veered into the dangerous territory of how to teach, far less the materials that we use. It is still a matter for professional judgement to assemble the equipment needed to teach and so much is dictated by that selection. Information technology is an obvious illustration of hardware (and software) dictating teaching styles.
In considering the future of the education service, I make no apology for focusing on the future role of local authorities: I have spent most of my working life with local education authorities and they have now been placed in centre stage as the means by which changes will be implemented and by which schools will be made even more effective. I would draw attention to four roles of the local education authority which, I am sure, will be echoed in the talks and seminars surrounding the BESA Exhibition.
Although you might consider it an unlikely first choice, I would focus on the unglamorous, day-to-day work undertaken by local education authorities in ensuring that there are sufficient school places through the capital programme, through financial and personal matters, through organising home-to-school transport, student awards and so on. LEAs in the south west pride themselves in making sure that this bread-and-butter work is in place and as efficient as possible.
Second, I believe that the LEA will have an increasing role as an advocate for the individual, not only in terms of special educational needs, but also in terms of ensuring proper admissions to schools and ensuring that those out of school have access to meaningful education. I have always been a strong supporter of local management of schools, but their strength must not be at the expense of individuals and I very much see our role as "honest broker''.
Third, I know that many colleagues would join with me in saying that LEAs have a crucial role in supporting the continuous improvement in effectiveness of education. If the OFSTED model of external inspection remains with us, then it is for LEAs to have a less formal review system and the ability to support schools' self-evaluation. Time and again it is demonstrated that self-awareness of schools is high and OFSTED inspections corroborate what was reasonably widely known in any case. The trick in all this is to ensure that faults are remedied, that strengths are reinforced even further and that schools have a firm lead and know where to turn for advice. You will have seen that we have recruited a remarkable array of external speakers, experts in their field and with outstanding presentational skills.
Fourth, I must mention that oft-used term "lifelong learning". I think we all have in our mind's eye a definition of what that means, but I do not yet think we have sufficiently clarified our aims, far less translated those into concerted actions. Although we are no exception in Devon, we are clear that we must provide opportunities for everyone to continue their education beyond school, and indeed prepare everyone for their statutory education. Formal or informal, for work or for pleasure, we must offer opportunities to develop their talents and to make best use of their time. I am fortunate enough to have the libraries, arts and archives services in my directorate and I am anxiously exploring how all those services can contribute to a wider understanding of local government and to more and more co-ordinated access to the very wide range of facilities that we can offer.
The BESA Exhibition at Westpoint, Exeter, provides everybody with an opportunity to come together to discuss issues of the day, to see the best educational supplies available and to listen to the views of those who will undoubtedly help to shape the education service over the next few years.
I do hope that everyone will enjoy their visit to the south west and to Devon in particular. We have a great deal to be proud of and we should in no way be seen as poor relations. That is not to say there is no room for improvement, but rather that we are quietly confident about the future, that we are well-placed to take on yet more change and that we will continue to do our very best for all our people.
I commend the exhibition and seminars to you and look forward to similar events taking place in future years.
Simon Jenkin is chief education officer of Devon