AFTER a decade and a half of continual assault on local authorities' role in education, the Government last week published a policy paper seeking to set out a "clear and firm base" for their future development.
However, if education officers are looking for a refuge from the storm of change sweeping their sector, they will not find it in The Role of the Local Education Authority in School Education.
The paper calls for yet more delegation of funds to schools. Councils are asked to actively encourage schools to consider using rival contractors rather than their own in-house provision. And the introduction of tough national standards for school services is strongly endorsed.
But education officers will at least take comfort from the document's clear acknowledgement that LEAs do have a permanent, if not prominent, place in the education landscape.
Schools are "the key unit of delivery" but there are, according to the paper, "a number of essential functions which cannot and should not be discharged by individual schools".
While in some cases this is a matter of cost-effectiveness - school transport, for instance - there is also a natural place for local authorities in assessments of the different needs of schools.
Such functions include planning; the supply of school places and making contentious decisions about school closures or mergers; making sure every child has access to a suitable school place; intervening in failing schools and "taking decisions, in consultation with schools, about the distribution of the schools' budget to take account of schools' differing needs".
According to the Department for Education and Employment: "Not only have such assessments to be made, by definition, on a supra-school basis, they also involve the interests of the community at large, and it is right that they should be the responsibility of a body - the local authority - which is democratically accountable."
Local authority officers in need of a rest may take less comfort from the paper's discussion of how they should carry out their "precise and limited functions".
As the Government has already made abundantly clear, they will be working with reuced budgets. The target is to delegate 85 per cent of budgets to schools next year and "the Government believes that 90 per cent is a potential average level" to be reached in 2002-2003.
In addition, local authorities will be expected to "promote a more open market in school services and take steps to ensure that all schools have the knowledge and skills they need to be better purchasers".
Current obstacles to competition include a shortage of buying expertise in schools, a lack of information on what is available and attempts by some authorities to package and price services in misleading ways.
The report says that some authorities are obscuring the true cost of traded services and cross-subsidising them from other parts of their budgets. More change is also in store for school improvement services. It says: "It is clear that the majority of expertise in school improvement is actually to be found at school level, in our best schools." It therefore recommends that LEAs should experiment with devolving much of the work to groups of schools.
What work remains with the authority seems likely to be subjected to unprecedented scrutiny. The lack of a national certification system for school improvement work, according to the paper, makes it hard for schools to know whether services are "up to scratch". Local authorities can expect men with clipboards to arrive shortly.
"The Role of the Local Education Authority in School Education" is on the web at www.dfee.gov.uklearolepolicypaper
LOCAL AUTHORITIES' FUTURE ROLE
Special educational needs
* Identify children's needs
* Run support services and work in partnership
with other agencies
Access and school transport
* Provide enough school places
* Ensure fair admissions policies
* Enforce school attendance
l Manage school transport
l Manage major capital spending
Monitor school performance
Focus support on underperforming schools
Ensure excluded pupils, children with
behavioural difficulties and children not able
to attend school get a proper education
Ensure fair distribution of school funding and audit spending
Provide information and governor training to schools