First hope flickers after the twilight Baker days

17th October 1997 at 01:00
The Government's decision to intervene in Hackney was anything but an attack on local government, argues Patricia Rowan.

Neil Fletcher (TES Platform, October 3) sees the Government's aggressive takeover of education powers in Hackney as the first prong of a far more serious attack on local government. But there is another way of looking at it.

The decision to send an improvement team into Hackney to get the local education service up and running at last is, on the contrary, virtually the first official admission we have had since Kenneth Baker's 1988 Act that you can't get all your schools up to standard - let alone rescue the disasters - without effective senior local officers at the helm.

We have heard more than we ever wanted to know about Hackney's stultifying political schisms, but it is the collapse of educational administration that has resulted which has made this borough an inevitable case for treatment. What distinguishes Hackney from other inner-city authorities in trouble is not simply the scale of its social disadvantage, nor even the inadequacy of its elected members, but the fact that it has not had a director of education for over a year and that its top tier of education management has also been allowed to crumble away.

The arrival of a workmanlike "help squad" is an acknowledgment that an education service does depend on strategic management in the town hall. The local politicians and even the chief executive may have believed that appointing a new education director after the long-drawn out departure of the unhappy Gus John was a long way down the list of restructuring priorities. Fortunately, education ministers did not agree. School standards minister Stephen Byers was clear that he was responding to an Office for Standards in Education report which damned a "leaderless local authority in crisis", rather than simply sending in the ultimate hit squad to tackle failing schools en masse.

A few of Hackney's schools have indeed been able to point to the huge strides they have made since adverse OFSTED reports. And of course there are some schools that can find the inner strength for self-improvement. But most of the evidence, from David Hargreaves's Inner London Education Authority report "Improving Secondary Schools" (which Fletcher himself quoted) to the National Commission's "Success Against the Odds", has demonstrated that you need local education officers in there as partners with teachers, parents and governors to achieve and maintain success in the long haul.

That is what the current rhetoric of pressure and support is all about, of course. Really it is the good old local education officer brief to keep an all-seeing eye open for potential successes and disasters on the patch, to nurture the one and see off the other, and to deploy a back-up team of advisers and specialists. Some did it well before the long post-Baker twilight of local government; others performed indifferently. Most came to think they had lost their role.

More recently the most far-seeing education officers have thought their way through to an evolved strategic role, which takes account of increasing school autonomy, but substitutes active monitoring for over-management. In such a way they might, as Bristol director Richard Riddell described (TES, September 26), issue their own comparative value-added data on key stage tests and set local annual targets.

That sounds to me like a pressure-support framework. You need the local authority to supply the data which points the way towards pressure-points. (One of the key recommendations from Calderdale's own inquiry team in the wake of The Ridings crisis, when OFSTED's finger was pointed at management and political failure as well as at the breakdown in school discipline, was that more record-keeping was essential.) Coming back to Hackney: Neil Fletcher concedes that rigorous standard-setting and strong support from the council are obligatory, but insists that massive investment "on a Marshall-Plan scale" would be a better way to rebuild inner-city education.

This is a bit rich, coming from the man who was leader of ILEA at a time when the Department of Education and Science found itself unable to control what it regarded as the authority's excessive spending. Others could make a strong case for ILEA's place then at the top of the spending tables, though it didn't seem to help Hackney schools already unmanageable in the grip of political and union cross-currents.

It was the idea of turning troubled areas like Hackney into free-standing education authorities that made the Conservative Government's arbitrary decision to break up ILEA in 1990 look like a particularly cynical manoeuvre and, though it wasn't the only small inner London borough to get off to a bad start, it always seemed to find it hardest to forget the ILEA culture at school level, or to take education management seriously at town hall level. All that, plus an overdose of politically correct appointments and the turbulent Hackney history, have combined to make life insupportable for education officers.

Can the takeover team get education management going in Hackney within a year? Melanie Phillips has sneered in her Observer column at the inclusion of Anne Sofer, former director of education for neighbouring Tower Hamlets - on the grounds that schools there performed "scarcely any better than Hackney's".

Such a judgment substitutes league-table snapshots for better information about an authority where schools and results are on the way up under a purposeful management team, and where Anne Sofer steered her way through even trickier political currents than those next-door, while calmly solving the biggest schools places crisis in the country for the burgeoning local Bangladeshi population. She seems like an ideal choice - as does Pat Collarbone, who did a superlative job as head of Hackney's Haggerston school before moving to run the leadership centre at the London Institute of Education.

Perhaps paradoxically, the Government is giving support through its intervention to the case that local education authorities have an essential role in managing education. What remains much less clear, in this context, is the case for the local elected member - but that's another story.

Patricia Rowan was editor of The TES for eight years until her retirement in May

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