Local democracy is not dead...yet;Opinion

22nd January 1999 at 00:00
LOCAL democracy in the education business is a fragile commodity. If you asked everybody who still believed in it to clap their hands it might fade away faster than Tinkerbell.

The Prime Minister and his advisers are ambivalent, though by the time he came to power his predecessors had already battered local government to its knees. The question now is whether Tony Blair will finish the job, or whether education authorities can still win the argument for plurality in general, and for their own survival in particular.

The new threat to replace failing authorities with private or charitable companies, or even with more effective LEAs, drove home a message that wasn't just political window-dressing. Some LEAs have been inadequate for years and are now in that ministerial target-zone, the last-chance saloon. Many others still need to think harder about their role as well as perform it effectively.

This debate has to mesh with constitutional plans for regional government - which is not the right level to engage with schools. And it is a task made harder by the failure of governments to decide what education authorities were for, before they started rearranging them, or whether it was officers or politicians who were the enemy.

You could say some LEAs were born to fail, because they were created according to a negative political agenda, rather than any ideals of service or practical calculations on what would work.

When Lord Redcliffe-Maud's Royal Commission tackled local government reorganisation 25 years ago it did meticulous calculations relating LEA size to educational function: how many music inspectors for the recorder do you need per x000 of school population? By the time that Mrs Thatcher's Government broke up the Inner London Education Authority, however, the ad hoc agenda was simply that. Don't worry about the viability of the pieces, so long as the ILEA is dismembered. A few boroughs have since done well, some have been struggling against the social odds, and some against their own mismanagement.

At the back of the Conservative government's mind was the intention to disempower LEAs anyway, so what did it matter what happened to a few loony London boroughs? Much the same wish-list existed under John Major, when John Banham was sent to dismantle the two-tier system in favour of unitary authorities, but with no brief as to their educational function. Why bother when local power was being handed to Whitehall or school governors?

But there were still demanding jobs, like servicing the national curriculum or special needs, that depended on local authorities. Most thoughtful local officers and politicians redesigned services in line with legislation, to replace managers with monitors.

Now, despite Downing Street sceptics, education authorities are tied firmly into the New Labour project via education development plans, target-setting, early-years' coordination, the national literacy and mathematics projects, admissions, and financial control. Even Office for Standards in Education inspections confirm that LEAs have a role - provided they can deliver.

Glowing verdicts on Newham and Bury demonstrate that failure can be averted in spite of problems. There are two factors: the hand you are dealt, and what you make of it. Neither LEAs nor children are born to fail; some avoid it in spite of everything thrust upon them, but some achieve failure. It is persistence in this last category that the Prime Minister has in mind, and who can disagree? They are damaging children, not just the political project.

All the same, there is no evidence yet that private bosses could run an authority any better. It is early days for the action zones, where private firms have not so far seized power, and Hackney could be their first major test. Local democracy should still be alive for the next North of England reunion, but it may have to find a Third Way.

Patricia Rowan is a former editor of The TES

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