A toast to public spirit

11th February 2000 at 00:00
Despite the vogue for privatisation, local authorities must remain the backbone of our school service, argues Jeremy Beecham

IS the march of the private sector into our education services unstoppable? Are the days of council-run services numbered? Readers of The TES's privatisation special (January 28) might have been forgiven for thinking so - but they would have been wrong.

As the editorial in the same issue noted, both Tony Blair and David Blunkett confirmed in January that the Government had no intention of privatising all local authority school services, as some clearly want. The vision of authorities simply meeting once a year to review and renew contracts for private firms is pure fantasy.

While not wishing to dispute the facts of the TES survey, different interpretations can be put on the results.

For example, two in ten secondaries were previously in the grant-maintained sector but the survey found that only one in ten of them wanted to see LEAs abolished. This must show that authorities' good work is being recognised by at least half of the former GM sector.

The survey also showed that - unless there was evidence of poor performance - three-quarters of all heads believed most authorities should not be managed by the private sector.

So, although these figures show there is room for improvement, there is no widespread support for privatising education services.

And why should there be when authorities are doing well?The TES has rightly reported the weaknesses of a small minority, but this should not detract from the excellent work of others.

Office for Standards in Schools' inspectors in Lewisham, for instance, received "unsolicited testimonials from headteachers who had been extremely well supported through difficult situations" and "senior LEA managers gave effective professional and personal support well beyond the call of duty".

And, in Warwickshire, inspectors found that 95 per cent of their schools considered the authority's advisory services to be important or essential to school improvement. The question is whether the commitment shown by these authorities to their schools could have been replicated by a privatised service.

As this newspaper pointed out, all authorities and schools use some services from the for-profit sector. Butdrawing a line between, say, payroll services and curriculum advisory services (so that the former can be contracted out) is not easy: try making the distinction to a teacher who has not been paid properly because of the intricacies of the Teachers' Pay and Conditions Document.

The public sector can be just as innovative as the private sector: inspectors found that Solihull, for example, developed "its own successful literacy initiative" ahead of the National Literacy Strategy.

The local authority gains its strength from its community. It has the democratic legitimacy to manage competing demands from all elements of the local education partnership and set the direction of the service to raise standards.

Calls by Chris Woodhead in his annual chief inspector's report for a national funding formula cannot be supported as money for schools will be lost. Local authorities fund the education service to the tune of pound;500 million more than the Government assesses that they should. They thus modify standard funding to reflect particular, local needs. They also distribute money to schools using a funding formula agreed by councils. These functions could not be privatised.

Local government is looking forward and does not want to get stuck in a sterile debate about privatisation. The Local Government Association, with our sister body, the Improvement and Development Agency, is aiming to help authorities meet the twin challenges of Best Value and school improvement.

All education authorities will now have to scrutinise publicly-funded services.

The Best Value framework will enable local authorities to work with their communitiesto decide whether to provide those services directly. Whoever provides them, it is our job to secure services that are not only efficient and effective but match the needs and aspirations of users.

Local government is committed to raising education standards. We are responding to the call made to us by David Blunkett at last month's North of England Conference to challenge all schools to do better, to assist struggling schools, and to intervene to tackle failure. These are the core tasks for the local education authorities of the future and we are up to the challenge.

Sir Jeremy Beecham is chairman of the Local Government Association.

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