'The devil will be in the detail'
After decades in the wilderness, council leaders are anxious to get back into the action. But they will not suffer excessive Whitehall diktats gladly.
Excellence in Schools, Labour's education White Paper, envisages a re-invig-orated role for local authorities, challenging schools to raise standards and applying pressure where they do not.
Councils were quick to respond to the challenge, offering David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, immediate access to the expertise in value-added analysis and target-setting that some of them have acquired.
But the Council for Local Education Authorities, meeting in Bristol last week for its annual conference, was anxious to stress, too, that the best route to success was through consensus at all levels.
It called on the Government to establish clear lines of accountability between governing bodies and the local authority and between headteachers and chief education officers. In particular it urged that powers should be given to local authorities to intervene in failing schools earlier, replacing heads and governing bodies where necessary. There was little point in allocating responsibility without power, delegates said.
The present system, relying on authorities' powers of persuasion only, with the suspension of financial delegation as a last resort, was, they argue, too little, too late.
"Why did we become councillors if we didn't wish to be accountable for the education of our children?" asked Pat Atherton, a Liberal Democrat councillor from the London borough of Waltham Forest. "A generation of people have become councillors, building schools, nurturing them though change and development over the decades. We must be able to intervene at the earliest possible stage."
David Blunkett's new White Paper, Excellence in Schools, was widely welcomed by local authority members and their officials although Val Cox, a Liberal Democrat councillor from Cornwall, warned against too much central control.
"Give us the broad canvas and we will paint the picture that applies to our area," she urged. "We might all be able to achieve your objectives in our own unique ways in our own unique areas."
Dave Wilcox, a Derby-shire Labour councillor and education vice-chair of the Local Government Association, cautioned: "We can't presume that all LEAs are good."
Delegates agreed the time was now right to reach national and local agreement on desirable levels of pupil attainment - and pledged to play their part fully.
But while the sentiments of the White Paper might win favour, its actual words do little to spell out how the Government's new vision will work. That will be the subject of a series of technical papers.
And as Simon Jenkin, Devon's chief education officer, said: "The devil will be in the detail." Perhaps then there won't be so much agreement.