No hiding place;Opinion

13th March 1998 at 00:00
A national service, locally administered," was how the British education system used to be described. Kenneth Baker, when he was education secretary, pictured his 1988 reforms - which pulled power into the centre and pushed it out to the schools at the same time - as making education look rather like a wheel. Both the "hub" and the "rim," he said, had gained in importance.

Did he mean that the local education authorities were the spokes? Much education policy over the past 10 years has been predicated on the withering away of the local education authorities, but without spokes. . . No, maybe this metaphor can't be pushed too far.

Now, at a time when local authorities are trying to find a new role in a system which has changed perhaps more than anybody realised, this week's report from the Audit Commission raises important questions concerning the local administration of this national system.

The fact that children in deprived authorities perform less well than those in prosperous areas may have been well-documented, but remains a potent reminder of social inequalities. More interesting are disadvantaged LEAs which are performing relatively well when compared to others with a similar population - at least as measured by free school meals.

And, like last month's annual report from the chief inspector of schools, the Audit Commission spotlights relatively prosperous but complacent areas which are "coasting", and could be getting higher levels of achievement from their pupils.

It is going to be difficult, however, for local authorities to do much about such schools. Unless they are giving serious cause for concern, officers will not even be able to enter them without permission. Councils, it seems, will have the responsibility for school performance, without having the power to do anything about it. High levels of responsibility with low levels of power, as any occupational psychologist will tell you, is a recipe for stress.

Underperforming local authorities - whether they take too long to process statements of special needs, or offer inadequate levels of nursery education, or provide particularly nasty school dinners - will find their lives increasingly difficult. Audit and inspection are likely to become a way of life. This Government has embraced the new philosophies of public management even more enthusiastically than the Conservatives did. Targets, accountability and monitoring are the watchwords. Public money is at stake, and public money has to be well-spent.

Of course, it is important for policy-makers and parents to know what is going on in education. Teachers, schools and, increasingly, local education authorities squirm in the glare of the floodlight. The days have gone when they could simply get on with the job as they thought best. The transition is painful.

Meanwhile, we inspect and evaluate and test and measure and audit as hard as we can. According to Michael Power of the London School of Economics, Britain is fast becoming an "audit society", in which evaluation functions almost as a ritual, reassuring us that everything is, if not under control, at least visible.

Transparency has become all-important; nothing must be happening behind closed doors or "in a secret world", Stephen Byers, the minister for school standards reiterated this week. One key reason for auditing institutions, says Michael Power, is to mould them into a shape where they can be audited or evaluated. "Shaping up" becomes a literal requirement.

It's a hard time to live through. Politicians, accustomed to living in the white light of a thousand flash-bulbs, underestimate the effect of such brutal exposure on ordinary people. We are living on the fault line as the old ways of thinking and the new grind against each other. Different interest groups - the Department for Education and Employment, the Treasury, the local education authorities, headteachers, the unions, the Office for Standards in Education, the teacher training institutions - are manoeuvring in a complicated power game. Waiting in the wings are the private companies who hope to get a slice of the action if the role of the LEA is restructured.

The Audit Commission's findings that local authority performance across the country is still so variable can't be good news for LEAs "on probation". They now need to make clear what they're going to do about it.

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