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21st August 1998 at 01:00
IF LOCAL education authorities had not been invented, would we seek to invent them?

Suppose parents were asked, democratically, to decide that some proportion - say 15 per cent - of their school's budget was to be given to an organisation with authority over schooling. Would they agree, knowing that less funds per student in the school would result? They might, for three reasons.

They might think, first, a "head office" could better ensure quality education, through inspection and advisory services. Second, it could ensure economies of scale, and provide some services that individual schools would not choose to, or could not afford to, fund. (Research and development into better ways of teaching and learning and special needs provision would likely fit into this category). Third, such an authority could plan schooling supply, encourage universal attendance, and ensure disadvantaged children enjoyed the same high standards as others.

I can't quibble with these reasons. But would they lead these reflective parents to invent local education authorities? I don't think so. First, such parents would note the dire performance of many local authorities with regard to these ideals. Disadvantaged children seem to have been let down most severely by poor quality schooling, local authorities have generally not found economies of scale, or funded research and development into improved pedagogy.

Parents would begin to wonder, I suggest, whether any body which was only politically accountable could possibly do any better. For local councillors don't really have anything at stake if schooling continues to be dismal: at most they are threatened with non-election sometime in the next four years. But more likely they can blame the government, or social deprivation, or avoid sanctions because of voter apathy or party loyalty, and escape scot-free. Real accountability, on the other hand, comes when those responsible for presiding over a dismal service get sacked, and to this end are constantly vigilant to ensure that service never falls beneath standard.

Instead of this pseudo-accountability, parents could look to the non-political mechanisms with which they are familiar in all other areas which ensure quality and equality of opportunity: competition and choice. The key problem, they would note, is that the local authority has a local monopoly. If it is not performing well, then only the wealthier or politically adroit can circumvent its services - by sending their children to private schools, or to schools in a different local authority. The Blairs don't need to worry about poor local authorities in the way that ordinary people do. Competing authorities - let's call them education companies - would better satisfy our parents' desire for accountability. Each company would know that, if it failed to deliver, it would be taken over, or parents would leave for a competitor company's schools. The threat of these happening would be enough to keep it on its toes, and to ensure that quality was high for all. Indeed, such companies would note that parents could be enticed with promises of low central overheads. From 15 per cent per school, the figure would be dramatically reduced, without any undermining of service, as companies competed for parents.

Finally, parents would wonder why a company would need to be "local"? Sure, there are things about their area which may be idiosyncratic, but this doesn't seem to inhibit national (competing) chains of supermarkets and fast-food stores from catering to their needs perfectly satisfactorily. Planning of school places would not be any different from predicting demand for supermarket or fast-food customers.

There is only at one point on which our thoughtful parents might decide that the competing companies cannot satisfy all their ideals; that of ensuring universal attendance. Perhaps this alone would require some statutory local authority. But it is probably better considered as part of policing or social work duties rather than anything specifically educational.

I suggest that, given real choice, parents would not choose politically motivated, monopolistic, and expensive LEAs to satisfy their personal and communitarian aspirations.

They would opt for competitive, lean organisations which would be responsive to their needs. As a true conservative, I don't argue for a radical abolition of local authorities, however. What is needed is the gradual withering away of the (local) state in education.

Through New Labour's initiatives such as education action zones and improving schools in special measures, let's see if we can't evolve a better way of delivering something as important as our children's education away from the vagaries of the political posturing of local authorities.

James Tooley is professor of education policy at the University of Newcastle

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