Brighouse: education authorities' saviour

12th April 2002 at 01:00
Birmingham's chief education officer is to retire. And Tim Brighouse could have no better leaving present than this week's Office for Standards in Education report praising his leadership. But his success is also a telling riposte to his old adversary Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector whose own thoughts recently graced the bestseller lists.

Brighouse turned a no-hope education authority into one of the country's fastest improvers. The proportion of 11-year-olds gaining level 4 in national tests has almost doubled in five years. A quarter more pupils now get five good GCSEs.

Yet he is not easily pigeon-holed. Despite Brighouse's reputation as the "teacher's friend" for eschewing the language of failure, Labour's enthusiasm for exam targets owes as much to him as anyone else. His city-wide goals pre-dated Labour's national ones.

His own inspirational enthusiasm helped drive up standards in Birmingham and underpinned his work on the quietly successful Excellence in Cities programme. But there was an obsessive streak too. Parochial disputes became national rows, as with Woodhead (over niggling criticisms in a positive 1998 OFSTED report on Birmingham) and former Tory education secretary John Patten (whom Brighouse successfully sued for calling him "a nutter").

David Blunkett, the then education secretary, tried to forge Woodhead's traditionalism with Brighouse's revisionist progressive views by making them vice-chairs of his Standards Task Force in 1997. It was not a marriage made in heaven.

Yet while the task force's speedy demise was predicted from day one, it had one early small success. In his book, Class War, Woodhead recalls that as Blunkett's special adviser, I occasionally tried to get him to tone down speeches. Far more remarkable was persuading the two vice-chairs to appear on the BBC's World at One where they told an astonished interviewer what they liked about each other.

Such harmony was short-lived, even if the two had more in common than they might admit. Both recognised the need to improve literacy. Both knew that success had to be measured. And neither accepted poverty as an excuse to write off children.

But, Brighouse remained friendly with progressive academics (having been professor of education at Keele for four years). This was an unforgivable sin to Woodhead, he holds them responsible for many of British education's woes.

Furthermore, Brighouse, who spent much of his working life as an education officer, believed that local education authorities could help improve schools. Woodhead generally thought them an unnecessary evil.

Birmingham has demonstrated that a well-led, clearly focused education authority can make a difference. And it eloquently explains why any government should keep LEAs.

Abolitionists argue that LEAs interfere unnecessarily. That was true in the Eighties, when too much teachers' time was wasted with politically correct edicts. It is far less common today, not least with heads controlling nearly 90 per cent of funding.

Moreover, authorities have begun to prove themselves. Most heads welcomed the vital help of their consultants training teachers for the literacy and numeracy strategies. And LEAs have helped more than 750 schools come off special measures.

That was why Labour argued forcefully for LEAs at the last election with a strong critique of the Tories' "free schools" proposals. Authorities are also less wont to hinder innovation: even the new technically independent city academies often enjoy enthusiastic local authority support in contrast with the hostility surrounding the earlier introduction of city technology colleges.

There are still too many poor LEAs which need to learn from those that work. But that points to continuing reform rather than abolition. The last local government reorganisation left too many small authorities. Larger strategic authorities can offer greater economies of scale, though they need strong leadership to succeed. Some propose super-LEAs linked to learning and skills councils. Others would prefer to see clusters of schools sharing services.

Yet, whatever their size, LEAs still have a role. Indeed their future is probably more secure now than for much of the Nineties. And that owes much to Tim Brighouse.

Conor Ryan was special adviser to David Blunkett at the Department for Education and Employment 1997-2001

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