Inspiration plus a little perspiration

21st November 1997 at 00:00
How does the local authority contribute to the drive for excellence in schools? Roy Jobson looks at the updated job description

In these days of quality, performance measures and target-setting it is not unreasonable to ask whether local education authorities can make a difference to levels of educational attainment. The Association of Chief Education Officers will be asking this very question at our conference this week, which will be our first formal meeting since the general election.

The way in which we respond to the Government and its ideas is clearly going to be crucial to the way education is delivered in our schools in the future.

Although the chief education officer is often identified as "the LEA", we should not forget that LEAs are actually democratically accountable. As officers, we are ultimately bound by the wishes of elected council members, although we have a duty to advise and formulate strategies and to make systems work locally. For me, however, it is essential that this democratic accountability remains and that we have democratic institutions which give rise to public scrutiny and debate. We ignore them at our peril.

Having said that, there is a real challenge for local government elected members to think through their changing role in relation to raising standards and improving schools,which should probably be the subject of a separate debate.

Leaving aside the politics of practice and the day-to-day running of an LEA, in my opinion LEAs can and do make a difference and should continue to look constantly for ever-more-effective ways of improving schools and raising levels of educational attainment. It is helpful, therefore, that the White Paper has made an attempt to redefine roles, particularly of governors and LEAs.

This redefinition is still emerging but we chief education officers believe we are best placed not only to support but to challenge - to take the overview and be able to plan as a result - and, at the same time, to act as advocate for both parents and pupils, and also to help deliver the principles of public scrutiny.

Local education authorities should and do have the capacity to act as guardians of quality, to provide opportunities for innovation, to support, help, guide and encourage while at the same time providing the checks and balances necessary in a publicly funded service.

Indeed the planning and strategic development aspects of the White and Green (special educational needs) Papers will not succeed if the LEAs are not able to deliver.

Commentators in various newspapers have been speculating recently that the Government is taking the politics out of education.

If this is so, then it is to be greatly welcomed. I believe we can have a model based on co-operation and partnership while at the same time providing challenge and leadership. In this respect CEOs have been putting forward ideas about recruiting some of the best teachers and heads to work with local education authorities.

It is vital that there is a career structure which encourages exchange of personnel between schools and local authorities. Bringing in practitioners with varied experience and understanding of how schools work is crucial to the promotion of improved standards.

The Government has set out a new "job description" for LEAs and has also set us a number of important targets. We can make the difference by: * Encouraging all citizens to have high expectations of the education service.

* Inspiring people to believe in the value of lifelong learning.

* Raising standards by using individual, national and international targets.

* Identifying areas for improvement and using both support and challenge to achieve it.

* Addressing, with governors and headteachers, questions of competency.

* Identifying and tackling areas of underachievement particularly by addressing those factors which affect achievement but lie outside the school's control.

* Providing encouragement by showing and celebrating good practice.

* Promoting high quality leadership and providing training and support to go with it.

* Promoting an exchange of ideas.

In addition to the educational aspects of raising school achievement, there are a large number of management and information issues which can contribute. Improving the quality of management in schools not only by training and support but by the supply of better information and knowledge is of great importance, as is the provision of a means of sharing experience and best practice.

The LEA is uniquely placed in involving a variety of partners in the effort to raise standards, including parents, employers, governors, pupils and students and higher education.

There are few other organisations which can bring such people together and I am sure LEAs will continue to encourage new partnerships.

There are many challenges for CEOs in the new agenda from Government and we must seek new and different ways of communicating and involving people.

We cannot afford to ignore areas of weakness either in schools or within the systems that support them, and clearly we must have the moral strength to tackle what may prove to be difficult problems.

The expectations of the country have been raised. As a profession we must rise to meet the challenges which go hand in hand with this.

As we go forward into the next millennium we must do so with a new clarity of vision and a redefined sense of purpose to ensure that each child who leaves school has received the best possible education and is better equipped to play a full and active role in society.

Roy Jobson is chief education officer for Manchester and president of the Association of Chief Education Officers whose annual conference was held in Warwick this week.

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