The idea that small is beautiful is an illusion when it comes to local education authorities. That is the view of Dick Bunker, who retired this year after nearly 20 years as director of education and the arts in West Sussex. "I worked in a London borough - Hillingdon - before I came to West Sussex and I can assure you that big is not only beautiful, but more dependable too."
The Redcliffe-Maud commission, which carried out an in-depth study of LEAs 30 years ago, decided that a population of 500,000 was essential to support polytechnics and a full team of subject advisers. Sir John Banham took the same view when he headed the last review of local government in the mid-1990s.
Dick Bunker believes the argument about advisory teams is still valid. He says: "If you are going to raise standards - for example, in foreign language teaching - then you have to be able to deploy specialist advisers, who know the schools in their patch."
He points out that although some small boroughs were in the top grade of the recent Audit Commission-Ofsted report, many were in the bottom, too.
"Not a single county has failed its Ofsted inspection and quite a few are in the top grade of the recent Comprehensive Performance Assessment survey," he adds.
The argument about closeness and remoteness cuts both ways, Bunker says.
"If standing back and taking a strategic view is what LEAs are now about, then a large authority is better placed to do this. In small authorities both elected members and officers are too inclined to get involved in everyday operations, and councillors are prone to breathing down officers'
necks all the time."