The beauty of smallness

24th January 2003 at 00:00
Christine Whatford argues that it is better for LEAs to be little rather than large

The debate over the optimum size of local education authorities has been around for a long time. When the Inner London Education Authority was abolished in 1990, it was feared that the 13 new LEAs would be too small to be effective. And when nationwide local government reorganisation got under way in the early 1990s, many county councils were scathing about the small LEAs being carved out of the shires.

The most common argument against small LEAs is that they suffer from diseconomies of scale, which make them inefficient and poor value for money. It is also said that they cannot offer support to schools across the full range of subjects, particularly at secondary level, and that they cannot attract sufficiently high-calibre staff. In fact, not only are those arguments incorrect, but small LEAs often have the edge on larger authorities.

At the heart of the argument for small LEAs is that they provide scope for high quality and frequent human (as opposed to electronic) interaction.

When I was director of education in Hammersmith and Fulham (60 schools and a population of 170,000), I was able to gather most of the borough's heads and many of the governors in a single room. Once a year we even held a mass meeting of teachers and support staff. I was on first-name terms with all chairs of governors; they and headteachers had my home phone number and I theirs.

The LEA's staffing structure was flat and chains of command were short.

Senior managers, including me, were not remote bureaucrats in a distant office. We were accessible to schools and had the clout to make decisions and get things done quickly.

In a small department, officers often have to multi-task. This means fewer people for the schools to relate to, and less of a silo mentality in the different parts of an organisation. Lifelong learning and a cradle-to-grave approach are more than just platitudes. Youth workers work in schools; adult education managers work alongside heads. It is easier to link education into the broader council agendas, such as regeneration and economic development, and to forge relationships at director and chief executive level with other agencies such as the police and the health service.

In my experience, the smallness of the education service made it easier to achieve a common sense of purpose, identity and loyalty, with absolute clarity of role between the different players: heads, governors, officers and members. And when issues and tensions arose between schools and the LEA, which of course they did from time to time, at least we could all see the whites of each other's eyes.

I do not rely solely on my personal experience to make the case. External assessments of councils and LEAs, through Ofsted inspections, Audit Commission reports and, latterly, the Comprehensive Performance Assessment, show an over-representation of small LEAs among the best. Small LEAs also feature significantly in those giving high amounts per child to schools.

Practice in the private sector and other parts of the public service also testify to the beauty of smallness. Primary care groups in the health service and free-standing business units set up by multinationals are two examples of decision-making as close as possible to the point at which the service is delivered. A small LEA is closer to the classroom, child and parent.

THE SIZE SPECTRUM

At least six LEAs cater for populations of more than a million. Kent still claims to be the largest LEA with 1.3m inhabitants, but Hampshire and Essex come close behind with 1.2m each. Surrey, Hertfordshire and Birmingham are just over the 1m mark.

The smallest and proudest LEA is still the Isles of Scilly, with just over 2,000 inhabitants. Next comes the City of London with 5,500 residents.

Rutland is the smallest county LEA (35,600). It caters for even fewer pupils than Welsh authorities such as Merthyr Tydfil (under 60,000).

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