New broom, new risk to authorities

5th December 1997 at 00:00
Nicolas Barnard finds fear still stalking the representatives of local government

When the Labour Government promised a "new constructive role" for local education authorities, councillors might have been expected to breathe a sigh of collective relief.

No matter that the education White Paper warned ministers would not hesitate to intervene if local education authorities failed to play their part in raising standards. Eighteen years of Conservative attack were over.

But the mood at the Local Government Association's first education conference last weekend was anything but celebratory. The sense that LEAs were still under threat - indeed, that their days could even be numbered - was pervasive.

Delegates were told by a succession of platform speakers that they faced a challenge with dire consequences if they failed to meet it.

As Tim Brighouse, chief education officer for the conference's host city, Birmingham, put it in his keynote speech, it is now a question of nerve. Are authorities up to the challenge?

Labour's Government benches are stuffed with MPs who made their mark in local government - not least Education Secretary David Blunkett and Stephen Byers, the standards minister. But while they know local government's strengths, they also know its weaknesses. And New Labour is nothing if not pragmatic.

Pragmatists, warned the Audit Commission's Greg Wilkinson, could prove an even bigger threat than the fundamentalists and free-marketeers of the last Government.

"Pragmatists have no personal opposition to authorities. But if they don't work, they will look for something else," he said.

As associate director in charge of local government studies, Mr Wilkinson is preparing a report on the role of authorities. It is not due out until January, but Mr Wilkinson had clear sympathy for "much maligned" local government which he said had delivered every change asked of it - even the poll tax. But it was not too dramatic to say local government must now "adapt or die".

Local authorities could not escape judgment - they could only make sure it was clear what they were expected to do, how they would do it and how they would be judged.

And he said: "It is not our job to advise you to spin. But if you are to be effective in a world of people with hyper-media skills you must get a bit smarter at rebutting some of the more outrageous accusations. It is not enough in this new world to do well. You must also be seen to do well."

Graham Lane, unanimously re-elected LGA education chairman, also argued that local government had a lot of persuading to do. Some civil servants were trying to convince ministers that local authorities were "itching to get our hands back on schools".

"We must convince the Government that we are not there to meddle with schools on a daily basis," he said. Local authorities had to "seize the agenda" and raise standards.

The suspicion among many delegates was they were being set up as a scapegoat, their duties increased but their resources reduced. It was scant comfort to think that role could, ironically, ensure their survival - after all, if they went, who would be left to blame?

Even the Tories had a salutary warning. Baroness Blatch, their education spokeswoman in the House of Lords, said she would be "very worried" if she were in local government. Councils would be turned into "David Blunkett's little elves", their energies dissipated, their resources wasted.

If there was optimism, it came from Mr Brighouse. He believes his initiatives in Birmingham are bearing fruit, proving that authorities can play - indeed must play - a transformative role instead of simply an administrative one.

But education authorities had to rediscover their sense of purpose, and create with Government and schools a climate for improvement instead of sapping energy. "Let us give notice to the Government that we are up for it."

Platform, page 21

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