Let's clear up this mess

8th September 2000 at 01:00
There is a crisis among local education authorities, according to Philip Hunter, Margaret Maden and David Mallen, who here present their five-point plan for truly local governance in education.

"STANDARDS not structures" has been a successful strategy for New Labour's first term of office. But the party is finding that it cannot implement policies without paying some attention to structures, notably local government in its education authority role.

Here there is a crisis. There is no clear agreement about local government's role or importance; neither is there any evidence of its being trusted by central government, or valued by its public.

We are concerned about education as a major public service. We want a properly-constituted level of educational governance between Whitehall and individual schools or colleges. By "governance", we mean more than an agency-administrative function, which we know is important, but which does not require elected representatives (councillors) or others who represent particular constituencies.

Education authorities now face problems, mostly not of their creation. We have seen the establishment of the new learning and skills councils, responsible for all post-16 education. There seems little logic in having two local agencies, one for pre and another for post-16 work.

Inspections are beginning to identify a worrying variation of expertise and experience among councillors and officers. The propensity of government to implement policies through plans approved or amended by the Department for Education and Employment is blurring responsibility.

Government also requires councils to work through semi-independent partnerships, again blurring accountability. When the DFEE itself decides to manage a programme, it reveals its own inexperience. The new regional structures have tended to be ignored or bypassed by the education system.

Finally, education authorities are located in different kinds of local authority, counties, districts or unitaries, with varying relationships with other services. All of this has been described as a "mess".

Centralisation is both the cause and effect of this, with more and more powers and management being drawn into Whitehall. There is now an unacceptable gap between two equally important values of advanced societies: efficiency and democracy.

We should learn from continental Europe and elsewhere, where widespread decentralisation is bringing benefits. The UK's devolutionary response is restricted to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with the education service in England drifting ever closer to the hands of central overnment.

We believe that education governance should be reformed according to five key principles. New structures should:

be conducive to educational improvement;

support public accountability;

facilitate collaboration and co-ordination through all ages and across all sectors;

encourage innovation and enterprise;

give a light steer, be based on 'fitness for purpose' in governance.

We have also analysed the functions that have to be performed by government at national and regional, sub-regional and institutional levels. The overall strategic direction of education, cradle to grave, is for national government to determine. We also think a basic funding formula for schools and colleges should be decided nationally. Quality assurance criteria should, likewise, be set out nationally.

At regional level, no direct services should be provided but arrangements would be needed to link educational plans, including aspects of university strategic plans, with social and economic regional objectives. College and school inspection teams should be organised at this level.

We propose a strong sub-regional body as the chief engine for school and college improvement, including expert support for teachers and lecturers. It should have the planning duty to secure sufficient and appropriate provision, including for special education. It should be responsible for ensuring there is an appropriate range of services for schools, although not necessarily as sole or main provider. We do not believe the existing education authorities and LSCs can perform these functions separately. Therefore, they should be reconstituted to form new sub-regional learning and skills authorities (LSAs). Forty seven of these would replace more than 150 education authorities.

We believe all these structures must be rooted in an elected system. Governing bodies for the new LSAs should have directly-elected chairs and members, together with representatives of partner organisations such as councils, teachers and governors.

We want a proper, adult debate about these issues. The threefold values of local and regional government are those of responsiveness, pluralism and participation. These are not in opposition to the efficiency agenda of New Labour but rather, they are essential to an advanced and educated society.

This article is based on a seminar paper to be presented at the Institute for Public Policy Research next week.. For the full paper go to www.tes.co.uk. The IPPR invites comments from readers. Email: j.hallgarten@IPPR.org.uk.

Next week: Christine Whatford puts the case for LEAs

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