Leadership is to blame;Platform;Opinion;Opinion

17th December 1999 at 00:00
A lack of political leadership in local government is often the real cause of education authority. failure, but the Government is ignoring the problem in favour of outsourcing, says Graham Lane.

LOCAL GOVERNMENT fully supported the idea that education authorities should be inspected by the Office for Standards in Education and the Audit Commission. Most authorities have received good or even outstanding OFSTED reports. Examples include Durham, Warwickshire, Nottinghamshire, Newham, Bury, Knowlsey, Sandwell, Newcastle, Norfolk and Birmingham.

The Department for Education and Employment has become involved in only about five of those inspected so far, and not a single authority has been subject to statutory intervention by the Government. But high-profile "failures" have had most of the publicity. And the Local Government Association is concerned that, now the policy is in place, it is not working as the LGA originally envisaged.

Last year the association and the Government agreed on what should happen if an authority "failed" its inspection. But this agreement is not being honoured. Instead, the DFEE is persuading failing authorities to out-source all or part of their services straightaway, instead of giving them time to address the problems identified in the report. Large amounts of money - which could have been spent on the schools - are then paid to consultants to draw up tender documents.

But this approach is fundamentally flawed because it tried to tackle the symptoms, not the causes of the problem. Apart from the expense, the time it takes, and the fact that there is no evidence that it will work, this strategy fails to address the central issue. How does an education authority promote higher standards?

If the DFEE seriously wants effective local government, they should focus on the question "what makes a successful LEA?" The key is effective political leadership, with able and dedicated officers. This is the case in Warwickshire, for example, which recently received an outstanding report.

The question of poor political leadership at local level is currently ignored by the Government, and cannot be solved by bringing in private companies. In fact, this could actually make the situation worse, leading to the fragmentation of delivery, and lack of accountability. The real cause of failure at local authority level is when a council has no clear political strategy to raise educational standards.

Often, this failure is associated with a lack of open government, poor relations between councillors, whether they belong to the same or different parties, a tendency for elected members to get too involved in managing schools, even influencing education officer promotions, and a lack of trust between members and officers - which often makes the latter reluctant to give effective and impartial advice.

These faults would not be remedied by out-sourcing services, which could lead to councils becoming more inward-looking and defensive. The key to improvement is to have much more open government, to end the practice of having key decisions made in secret meetings, and by building partnerships with school governors, headteachers, and others - including employers and the voluntary sector.

Current developments in Liverpool illustrate this. The cause of many of its educational problems go back to when Militant ran the city, and the council lacked the political courage to remove its surplus places. This meant that the authority had insufficient money to spend on schools. Since the city's recent negative OFSTED report, the director of education from Wigan has been seconded to run the authority. He has now restructured, and the situation is already improving.

In Hackney, after a devastating report, elected members have come together (with the encouragement of the LGA), and faced up to their responsibilities. The situation changed when the chief executive agreed to leave, and the authority now has an outstanding director of education who has rebuilt relationships with the schools.

Local government, which has the advantage of being democratically accountable, can solve most of its educational problems. Councils have no wish to run their schools; we want them to be run by the headteachers and other staff. Our role is to assist the schools where they need it, but mainly to develop the culture whereby schools help all their students to achieve their full potential.

The Government is encouraging the involvement of the private sector - yet, meanwhile, companies are discovering that there is little or no money to be made out of British education (unlike in America) except at the consultancy stage, and are withdrawing from the fray. There is still no proof that private sector companies will raise pupils' achievements.

But where LEAs have the right political leadership, and appropriate ways of making effective decisions, standards will rise. We can already see this happening. Local councillors can make a real difference for the communities which elected them. I remain convinced that local democracy is an important factor in improving education.

Graham Lane is education leader for local government

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