Officers set new focus on continuing own studies
Philip Hunter, the society's incoming president, said professional development would be one of his major tasks in a year which will see two education Bills become law and a whole raft of new duties placed on local authorities.
The society is setting up a virtual staff college (no relation to the virtual teacher centre that will form part of the National Grid for Learning). The college is intended to enable officers from the most junior to senior to upgrade their skills and study for qualifications including Masters' degrees.
The college is being set up with a network of universities. Crucially, students will be able to switch courses between universities as they move job, taking credits for the modular courses with them.
Dr Hunter said officers had perhaps not been concentrating on professional development as they struggled to deal with the massive changes wrought by the past - and present - government. But that could not continue.
"We're going around banging on about the learning society and learning institutions and we've got to demonstrate that we are that ourselves," he said. "We have to get every official and inspector on a programme of training so they are doing something themselves every year."
Training was not only a way of raising the game, but was a vote of confidence in the future of local government. "We've got that confidence that we're going to continue to exist and we know broadly the direction we're going in and we are prepared to invest in it," he said.
The self-criticism and self-development that Dr Hunter hopes professionals will adopt was echoed by Department for Education and Employment permanent secretary Michael Bichard in his speech to the conference. Although broadly supportive of the work of local authorities, he said every member of staff had to ask themselves whether they "added value".
In the DFEE's own version of John Kennedy's famous "Ask not what your country can do for you" address, he said: "Every education authority postholder should be asking themselves what contribution they are making to the levering up of standards for children and young people. If the answer is 'I'm not sure' or 'none', we have to ask ourselves why we are allowing them to consume resources that could be used in the classroom."
Dr Hunter will also spend his presidential year fighting to protect the wider role of education authorities, reflecting the concern of some SEO members that the Government's targets are too narrow and could risk some of the other functions of education authorities - from student awards to educational psychology.
Officers are acutely aware that their strength in aiding schools lies partly in being part of a bigger organisation, with its links to social services, housing and other services.
Dr Hunter said he believed local authorities would increasingly become enablers, enthusers and co-ordinators. But they had to continue to work in the whole range of educational services, including further and adult education.
"That is vital for us because you can only go so far in jacking up standards of performance through schools," he said. "If you're truly going to break the mould, you've got to get to fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts and raise the expectations of the whole community."