An officer and a right-minded man

5th January 1996 at 00:00
Would a chief education officer of the 1920s pass muster today? As local authorities gather for the North of England conference Philip Hunter reviews the performance of Sir Graham Balfour

Educational administration exists to enable the right pupils to receive the right education from the right teachers at a cost within the means of the State, under conditions which enable the children best to profit by their training.

So wrote Sir Graham Balfour, chief education officer of Staffordshire from 1903-1926. The right pupils were to be educated, meaning that parents had to be informed about the choice of schools, and admission arrangements organised. Once in school, they had to receive the right education; schools had to know about the curriculum and a quality assurance system of some kind had to be in place. Children had to receive this education from the right teachers; training was to be available, staff were to be supervised and so on. The cost was to be within the means of the state; budgets were to be set for the service as a whole and for individual schools, payment arrangements and audits were to be sorted out.

And all of this was to be "under conditions which enable the children best to profit by their training"; the buildings had to be safe, warm and dry and the right equipment had to be there.

Of course, Sir Graham Balfour's world was not the same as ours. He had 374 schools to look after in Staffordshire (550 today) and more than 200 clerks to act as "correspondence and paymasters" (about 40 today). He worked his education committee of 52 members very hard. The committee itself met only four times a year but had a dozen or so sub-committees, some of which met once a month.

This elaborate structure helped Balfour to perform all the functions of the modern chief education officer. He was a leader, a planner, a provider of information, a quality controller, a banker and a supplier of services to schools and to individuals. How does his performance match up to ours? How would his authority fare if it were to be subject to a review?

Sir Graham would have scored highly as a leader. He knew what he wanted, wrote it down beautifully and made sure schools knew about it. He addressed modern issues - though he was a little complacent about them. Consider: "The reproach of female ignorance has been taken away from our education more quickly than other deficiencies of which we have no less reason to be ashamed, though even in this respect there are many parts of the country where much remains to be done."

As a planner Sir Graham was conservative. "There is seldom any gain possible in human affairs without a proportion of loss" or "if a sound educational system could be made by three strokes of a pen, this would be the time for unlimited congratulations and rejoicings". Yet he had structural vision. In his first 10 years he opened 48 new council schools, 16 of which were transferred from the voluntary sector (my 10-year record is 61 closures and 8 transfers to the grant-maintained sector!).

One suspects he would not have performed so well as a banker. He was not in favour of delegation to schools. The requisitions sub-committee scrutinised every staff vacancy and application for new furniture. He was somewhat dismissive of his clerks. "There must necessarily exist different degrees of business capacity, with its attendant qualities of accuracy, punctuality and promptitude." He complained about their fear of auditors which "compels them to require unreasoned adherence to formal rules, which must often appear ridiculous".

He was, I suspect, a big spender: "Public education like every other department of human policy, depends in the last resort on the money which is forthcoming to support it." He also apologised to his committee for the high costs of elementary education, relative to other shires (40 per cent of the budget was raised locally and 60 per cent from the Board of Education grants).

As a quality controller, Sir Graham would receive a mixed report. The education committee decided not to replicate the work of HM Inspectorate, which had a team of nine in the county. Nevertheless, he seemed to have more than a dozen advisers who he exhorted to visit widely. "An officer who sits all day in an office and does not come into personal contact with schools is likely to spend an undue part of his time weaving red tape." He understood what was going on. For example, "There has been a decided improvement in the teaching of reading. The method usually adopted with younger children is a combination of the phonetic and 'look and say'."

There were few LEA support services either for schools or individuals in l903. There were no meals, peripatetic music, outdoor education or library support. Schools found their own buildings and ground maintenance and cleaning. There was no careers service or school transport. Special needs was limited to funding 70 places in a school for the deaf and blind. Attention was, however, paid to attendance. "No child possessing reason shall be allowed to grow up undisciplined and incapable of conducting the ordinary affairs of life. " A total of 20,000 children a year received a medical inspection and there was a generous scheme of scholarships for further and higher education.

So far, Sir Graham has a mixed report. He will get away with it if he has a good press officer and some luck. However, in the end he redeems himself by his deep understanding of education and how to foster it. "Those who realise that the roots of education, if it is to be of any avail, must lie deeper down, in the very hearts of the people."

To get to the very hearts of the people, Sir Graham realised that he must work through the teachers. He hoped "that teachers recognised that the aim of the [education committee] and its officers was to be just, impartial and kindly, and always ready to listen to remonstrances and representations. These relations were more than common fairness and civility. They represented the permanent disposition of the heart, as well as the head; this was the temper which ensured the best work, and the real brotherhood of the educational fraternity".

Well done, Sir Graham. You have come through your review with flying colours.

Philip Hunter is chief education officer for Staffordshire and writes on behalf of the Standing Conference of Chief Education Officers

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