Councils urged to spin, not whinge
Local education authorities need to "spin" their success stories if they are to make themselves heard by the Government.
Authorities have a crucial role in tackling under-achievement in schools and creating lifelong educational opportunities, the Local Government Association's annual conference was told last week.
"The worst thing you can do with this Government is create the impression you are a 'can't-do' part of the system," said Greg Wilkinson, until recently an associate director at the Audit Commission and now a management consultant and Labour councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham.
"Learn the fine art of spin - rather topical at the moment. In a world where perception is sometimes more important than reality, it is no longer enough to do well. We have got to be seen to be doing well.
"This Government does respond to spin. No institution can survive without the ability to project itself favourably to the people that matter. Local authorities have got to learn these skills."
Mr Wilkinson reminded the Bournemouth conference that Tony Blair had already said the Government would seek other partners if local authorities were "perceived not to be performing".
Mr Wilkinson argued that local government should experiment with different forms of organisation outside the traditional education committee system. They should avoid "whinging" about the arrangements being set in place by the Government. And they should deliver on policies such as the national literacy and numeracy strategies and the under-fives.
He shared the platform with Carol Adams, Shropshire's chief education officer, who has been working on the dissemination of good practice for the Department for Education and Employment. She argued that teachers should be the main focus of local authority work on raising standards.
"The key resource are the teachers and headteachers in your schools. They are the ones who will deliver this agenda. The key task is to win their hearts and minds. And give them every encouragement we can," she said.
Their arguments that local government had been given a chance to prove itself were not universally welcomed.
Ken Turner, a Devon county councillor, said: "From what we have heard we are now local agencies, with no mind of our own, having to dance to the Government's tune - otherwise we are seen as whingers."
This resentment stood William Hague in good stead, when he became the first Conservative leader to address the Labour-dominated conference.
Opening with some pointed comments about Tony Blair's decision to send a videoed speech as his contribution to the event, he argued that the Cabinet was full of control freaks.
"Conservative governments took power away from education authorities and devolved it to schools. David Blunkett has taken power away from schools and education authorities and given it to the Department for Education," he said.
"David Blunkett and Stephen Byers see themselves as chief executives, and want to run your education services with an iron grip from Whitehall. They have announced national homework hours, national class-size targets and national control over admissions procedure.
"The are centralising in the name of higher standards. But by destroying local choice, local diversity, local management and local freedom in our education system, they will in the end drive standards down," the Conservative leader said.