Back in the fold
When the possibility of grant maintained status was dangled before schools, the Thatcher Government hoped - assumed even - that most secondaries, at the very least, would be glad to wave goodbye to their local authorities. But in fact, it never was like that: in some authorities - Coventry, for instance, no schools at all opted out; in many, it was a handful.
Essex, though, was different. Three-quarters of the county's secondary schools and more than one in 10 primaries became grant-maintained. The authority's ability to give a proper service to its remaining schools looked like being called into question.
Now, though, things have moved on. The schools are back - at least to the extent that a foundation school can count as having returned to the fold. How did the authority handle this? Was it business as usual? Or was it like yet another wary reunion between Coronation Street's Deirdre and Ken?
David Triggs, head of Greensward College, Rayleigh, recalls the first post-GM meeting with the authority three years ago. "One of the other heads," he says, "greeted me by saying, 'Hello David. I haven't been to a totally pointless meeting for years'. There certainly was that, here-we-go-again feeling."
There isn't any doubt that those heads who were enthusiastic opters-out still have their hearts in the great outdoors. Terry Creissen, head of Colne Community School in Brightlingsea, is surely one of those. He's firmly on the record as looking forward to the abolition of local authorities, even his own.
"I'm fortunate that I work in a school in a good authority," he says. "I should be grateful. But I'm not."
It's not always easy to sort out the extent to which Mr Creissen includes Essex in his often colourful criticisms of local authorities. ("Some of them think that God is on their side.") "A great deal of our work is actually created by the LEA," he says. "We do things for th Department for Education and Employment and then we're asked to do almost the same thing again for the LEA."
His approach is founded firmly in the belief that school improvement starts in the classroom. To that extent, he says, a local authority doesn't have the right to assume a position of educational leadership.
"They're in a service industry," he says. "They're there to support. It's the teachers and school leaders, and governors, who are at the cutting-edge. The control is with us."
What emerges, though, is a clear feeling from even the most reluctant returners that if they have to be with a local authority, then the one they have is mostly doing its best. David Triggs sums it up.
"If you said to me, 'Would I prefer to be GM, and have all the delegation back?', then I'd say 'Yes'. I've never been a great believer in LEAs, and I'm still not. But, to be fair, Essex have built bridges and their levels of delegation have improved."
John Wells, head of St Luke's primary, Tiptree, recalls the grant-maintained years as being quite depressing. Schools like his that didn't opt out formed themselves into consortiums ready to work together to buy in services if the authority broke up.
"Interestingly, though," he says. "One effect of having most of the secondaries opt out was that the authority was able to give more time to the primaries which stayed in."
As a result, a good relationship developed which has continued, and which now also embraces the former GM primaries. There's an argument, in any case, that primaries with fewer subject specialist teachers, less admin support and smaller management teams, look to their authorities rather more than do some secondaries. John Wells speaks highly of the school development adviser who works closely with staff on their own professional development as well as on whole-school issues.
"Our adviser has challenged us and taken the school on in all sorts of way," he says. "She knows the school, knows the staff, and understands their development needs."