It's business as usual - LEAs are here to stay

23rd February 2001 at 00:00
t last the question mark over the future of local education authorities has been removed. We are here to stay. I refer to the Department for Education and Employment's recent paper, The Role of the Local Education Authority in School Education, which I welcome. It sets out the Government's position on the legitimate role of the LEA in relation to schools. In future, instead of being invited to speculate at conferences and seminars on such topics as, 'The LEA has had its day: discuss', I look forward to discussing what this DFEE paper might lead to in the future.

Here are four brief responses. Firstly, it was published as an adjunct to last year's Green Paper on local government finance which recommended splitting the financing of schools and LEAs. A big issue for LEAs is whether the proposed target of delegating 90 per cent of funding to schools, instead of the present 85 per cent, isn't a step too far. What matters, however, is that the schools and LEAs have enough money to do what they need to do and that schools aren't overburdened with things they would rather not do themselves.

Secondly, I would want to challenge the DFEE's proposal that every LEA should provide schools with information about other suppliers of services that they currently buy from their LEA. Would you expect Sainsbury's to advertise Tesco's goods? It is true that a minority of LEAs offer schools a poor service, but where this occurs, it is rightly dealt with by the the Office for Standards in Inspection and the DFEE. It isn't a reason to make the majority of LEAs set up a brokerage service for alternative suppliers.

Thirdly, I challenge the notion that there is something wrong and 'un-modern' with LEAs wanting to offer services which their schools can choose to buy from them. I don't think it should be the norm for education officers to be trained as experts in procurement and contract monitoring, or for services to be provided piecemeal to schools by he private sector. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe it's possible for schools to get a better deal by buying services from their LEA than they would buying them in bits and pieces from a range of different suppliers.

Finally, the paper is narrow in two ways. It deals only with schools and fails to mention LEAs' important role in life-long learning. And while it deals with LEAs' crucial remit in school improvement, it has nothing to say about how this fits in with councils' wider responsibility to promote social inclusion. Increasingly this broader agenda, which is set out clearly in the recent Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy, is being embraced by local government through joint action between education, housing and social services committees, and through partnerships with external agencies such as the NHS, the police and the voluntary and private sectors. This wider agenda is integrally linked to school improvement. Schools, after all, are not isolated entities, but are rooted in the communities they serve.

What does last week's Green Paper on secondary education add to the debate about the future role of LEAs? It confirms that they now "have a clear remit to raise standards" and "to serve as an agent for school improvement where this is not happening at school level". This is a welcome reinforcement of the previous paper. What a pity, then, that in the section on improving weak schools, LEAs don't even get a mention. This is, after all, our core business. The Green Paper proposal to allow the private or voluntary sectors to go into failing schools is welcome, provided it is used as a tool to enable the LEA to intervene where necessary, but not if it is used to sideline the LEA. The proposals for increased specialisation and diversity, meanwhile, should strengthen LEAs' role, which will be needed even more to ensure coherence at local level.

Christine Whatford is director of education for Hammersmith and Fulham

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