Are the pared-down unitary authorities a model for the future? Elaine Williams visits two authorities which are setting the pace for the rest.
I wouldn't go back now, what we have here is good in terms of support and challenge."
Mike Humphrys is the tough-talking headteacher of Our Lady and St John secondary school in Blackburn. As the former chair of the Lancashire Secondary Heads Association he had fought hard to prevent the town severing its links with the county to become the unitary authority of Blackburn with Darwen.
Three years down the line he is happily eating his words as Blackburn with Darwen this week earns a glowing Office for Standards in Education inspection report.
Humphrys and his ilk were afraid to leave a county that offered the full range of advisory support - a range clearly beyond the means of a small unitary. Indeed Blackburn with Darwen, under the inspiring leadership of Mark Pattison, its director, made no attempt to do so. If schools needed subject advisers or in-service training they would have to buy them in. The unitary's business, he decided, was to concentrate its lean team entirely on school improvement and to dispatch those duties with flair and imagination. The focus has clearly paid off.
Blackburn with Darwen is the 26th most deprived authority in Britain. The decline in traditional manufacturing has hit this Pennine town hard and a quarter of pupils are from ethnic-minority groups. When the new education authority was established it inherited, according to inspectors, "a formidable legacy of underperformance" with 10 schools in special measures and five more displaying "serious weaknesses". All have improved and been "removed from these categories".
Several have even been judged to be good schools in subsequent inspections. This, says the Office for Standards in Education, "is a remarkable, unique record that is not paralleled elsewhere in the country". Improvement rates at the end of key stage 2 tests are among the highest nationally and the authority has been awarded beacon status.
So how has this been achieved? Mark Pattison puts it down to a can-do culture along with a clear vision on the part of both officers and elected members of what is wanted for the children of Blackburn. He also believes its smaller size offers enormous benefits, conferring a clear sense of place and community and strong feelings of collegiality. Every head is given his direct line and they are not afraid to make use of it. Frank exchanges are encouraged.
When the unitary was set up he visited every school to talk to staff and continues to visit still. From the beginning there was a consensus among politicians and officers that the state of affairs inherited from Lancashire was unacceptable, that the town's pupils deserved better and that they would need to develop a sharp, high-quality instrument to deal with it. A team of eight school improvement officers, now increased to 11, and four associate directors are backed by a chair of education Bill Taylor, who makes it his business to "know the back way into every school", to be on conversational terms with staff, to have a finger on the pulse. In the early days one third t a half of the authority's heads were "moved on".
A typical success story can be found at Wensley Fold primary in Blackburn, where 70 per cent of the children have English as a second language. When the new head, Gaynor Stubbs, took over the school in 1997 it was in special measures.
Now it is deemed a good school and has been put forward for beacon status.
She said: "There are no hiding places in this authority. Meetings are very focused. There are no cosy chats."
York is another unitary authority which is now flourishing. The city came out of North Yorkshire five years ago. Despite being the poorest-funded unitary (the city has fewer than 10 advisers) it also received an outstanding report from Ofsted last year. It prides itself on using its limited resources with incredible innovation through partnerships and believes it has provided a lead on government initiatives such as the code of practice between leas and schools.
Chris Edwards, the acting director of education, talks of a "can-do" culture and says York undoubtedly benefited from its fresh start, from being able to hand-pick quality staff from across the country who were willing to "rethink what school improvement is all about".
Do unitaries such as these, which are lean, innovatory and focused on a community vision throw light on a future direction for local education authorities? Unfortunately many unitaries are doing less well.
A TES analysis (see below) which looks at authorities' performance based on end-of-key-stage-2 results and average GCSE point scores alongside numbers of pupils eligible for free school meals, shows that unitaries make up nearly half of the 20 worst-performing authorities at both KS2 and GCSE.
Some of the urban unitaries who came out of shire counties would say that they suffer from the inheritance of years of neglect and lack of support and understanding for their particular problems.
However, some do obviously have real strengths, which those questioning whether there is a viable role for authorities would do well to consider.
Professor David Hopkins, dean of the faculty of education at the University of Nottingham, is chair of the education partnership board of Leicester education authority. It was put in place to give a strategic steer after the unitary failed its inspection. Leicester inherited a high number of poor schools which blamed their weakesses on years of neglect under the county council.
OFSTED indeed acknowledged that the scale of inherited problems "would have presented a severe challenge, even to most well-established and experienced authorities".
Nevertheless Leicester was pulled up sharp for failing to tackle poor teaching and weak management through "lack of expertise" and lack of "strategic direction". Despite weaknesses such as this Professor Hopkins continues to believe that at their best unitaries offer a clear vision for education.
He said: "They are small enough to create a language around education that is accessible, motivating and inclusive. They have stripped down the services they offer, as all authorities should, to focus narrowly and relentlessly on the school improvement agenda."