The recent local elections raised new questions about the relevance of education authorities and the danger of creating one-party "mini states". David Budge reports.
A fortnight ago Simon Jenkins wrote a typically combative article for The Times which claimed that this month's town hall elections were a "democratic obscenity" that would serve no purpose because local authorities had been emasculated by Conservative governments over the past 17 years.
But how much scrutiny can his thesis actually bear?
Jenkins contends that local authorities' powers have been curtailed by no fewer than 200 Acts of Parliament since 1979 and that funding for services such as education is now so closely controlled by central government that local politicians can no longer be held accountable for any shortcomings.
Some would argue that the growth of centralism predated Thatcher, but there is a thick pile of research evidence lending credibility to Jenkins's arguments.
Professor Stephen Ball of King's College, London, and his colleagues Hilary Radnor and Carol Vincent, who have been studying the effects of recent education legislation have, for example, concluded that "little remains of the considerable planning, policy-making and accountability roles which were vested in LEAs prior to 1988". The researchers, who were sponsored by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, confirmed that local management of schools, opting out, rate-capping and compulsory competitive tendering have drastically curtailed the size and scope of LEA activities.
This appears, at first sight, to be another case of researchers stating the obvious, but Alan Parker, education officer of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, believes that, like Jenkins, they have seriously underestimated the remaining powers and responsibilities of LEAs.
"It is true that the role of local authorities in funding and managing higher education has been entirely removed and its role in further education substantially reduced. However, most of the rest is very much in place and in some areas it has even been enhanced and extended," he said. "The chair of education of the smallest authority still has more direct influence on the service in their immediate area than anyone short of [Education Secretary] Gillian Shephard."
Parker, who has written a detailed critique of the research by Ball, Radnor and Vincent for the next issue of the journal Education Today and Tomorrow, says that far from emasculating LEAs, local management has actually liberated them. "It has been a wholly beneficial development not only because it has empowered schools but because it has allowed LEAs to step back from the day-to-day business of running schools and to focus on the larger questions of quality."
The introduction of grant-maintained status had not proved to be the death by 24,000 cuts that had been predicted either. Although a trickle of schools were still seeking to opt out, the majority of GM schools wanted to achieve "a quiet accommodation with their LEA against the anticipated reintegration of funding and admission policies after the next general election".
Having Pounds 70 million deducted from their funding to set up the Office for Standards in Education had been a serious blow to LEAs but again they had come to terms with that loss and their advisory and inspection staff were pursuing fewer OFSTED contracts. "LEAs are preferring to work with their schools in developing plans and meeting improvement targets rather than on the mechanistic process of inspection and reporting," Parker said.
It is a paradox, he added, that the supposedly all-powerful LEAs of the 1950s and 1960s concentrated almost exclusively on issues relating to the capacity of the system, such as school building and teacher supply. The curriculum, on the other hand, was left almost entirely to the discretion of individual teachers.
Parker accepts that the new financial realities pose serious problems for LEAs but insists that "close observers of local government recognise that, from a low point of self-doubt in 1992-93, there is now an upward curve of self-confidence within LEAs borne of a recognition that there is a real job to be done and that LEAs are still best placed to do it."
Local government analyst Tony Travers is not completely convinced by this argument. He accepts that English LEAs have a more powerful role in education than their nearest equivalents in France or the United States but he believes that their activities are now seriously constrained.
"It's partly capping and partly that the proportion of income that comes from local tax has been reduced from about 60 per cent to 20 per cent," said Travers, who is based at the London School of Economics. "Local government expenditure is built into the public-planning process which is now probably as formalised as anything that exists in the world - it's almost like an old Eastern bloc country.
"A local authority still has the freedom to shift money from education to social services and vice versa and can determine its local management formula, but if you were to ask me how about the status of LEAs, I would have to say I am closer to Simon Jenkins's end of the spectrum than Alan Parker's."
David Whitbread, deputy education officer of the Association of County Councils, agrees with Alan Parker, however.
"Even in an era of capping, a council's spending priorities are obviously affected by the party that has control. Discretionary awards for post-16 students is one area where the political complexion of a council can determine who gets what. Non-Conservative councils have also been more inclined to provide heavier subsidies for school meals and develop nursery classes, the youth service and adult education. Furthermore, now that the Conservatives only control one county (Buckinghamshire), virtually all LEAs are now spending up to their capping limit."
Political control can also affect the structure and culture of an LEA service, Whitbread says. "Where do you place a new school? Which school do you extend? To what extent do you concentrate resources in an inner-city area? It is the multiplicity of these relatively small decisions that shape an education service."
Many local authorities would like to exert a more direct influence on policy and classroom practice, of course. The metropolitan authorities' leaders believe LEAs should have the responsibility for monitoring schools, should be able to set standards and have the right to intervene when they are not met.
But in the short term, it seems highly improbable that their wish will be granted because neither the Government nor the schools want to see LEAs' role expanded again. As John Sutton, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said recently in The TES: "What schools want from local authorities is services, not partnership, and certainly not control."
The new political balance of England's LEAs
Labour 7, Liberal Democrat 4, Conservative 1, No overall control 24 Unitaries Labour 10, Liberal Democrat 1 Independent 1, No overall control 1 Metropolitan Labour 55, Liberal Democrat 4, Conservative 3, Independent 1 No overall control 5 Metropolitan LEAs No Conservative members Gateshead, Knowsley, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne, Oldham, Salford, South Tyneside, Tameside and Wigan One Conservative member Liverpool, Rotherham, St Helens and Sheffield * In the metropolitan districts there are now 1,880 Labour councillors, 335 Liberal Democrats and 195 Conservatives.