One empire looks set to benefit

11th April 1997 at 01:00
Graham Lane, who became chair of the newly-amalgamated Local Government Association earlier this month, is not fearful for his empire in the wake of the main parties' election manifestos.

Both Labour and the Conservatives have put local education authorities at the heart of their drive for higher standards in schools. The Liberal Democrats say they will make "new light-touch LEAs responsible for those functions that cannot be undertaken by individual schools on their own, such as co-ordination, planning and monitoring standards".

"The Tories have been very upbeat about LEAs and their role in improving standards," says Mr Lane, also chair of education for the London borough of Newham.

He is unconvinced that schools will want the extra powers over employment of staff and, if they wish, the ownership of their assets promised by the Tories. "Schools have enough to do without having to deal with their staff's national insurance," he said. His good humour, however, may be because he believes Labour will win.

This gung-ho attitude concerns John Sutton, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association. Under the Conservatives he has seen his members gain more control over how their schools are run and how budgets are spent. He is worried because he is having to take on trust what Labour says about the future balance of power between schools and councils.

He said: "We have had assurances that under Labour, LEAs will be the servants of schools, and words such as partnership and support are being used. But there is always a lurking fear that schools will be pulled back under an LEA regime. I'm sure that would suit the unions who feel they can exercise more influence over LEAs under friendly control than individual schools."

Mr Sutton believes most heads are satisfied with the present level of delegation and are not clamouring for more powers or responsibility for such matters as transport.

The lack of new incentives or measures to force schools to become grant-maintained - and thus reduce the role of the LEA - has greatly disappointed those in the forefront of the GM movement.

It is Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, who has been credited with protecting LEAs from virtual abolition.

A close source said not all schools are ready for GM status and that LEAs can offer schools valuable support which would be destroyed if all Tory schools were forced to opt out.

The manifesto recognises the need for the LEAs in co-ordinating school admissions. While schools will be responsible for admissions, the LEA will act as a clearing house where problems occur.

The Labour party says LEAs will have to delegate power and more of their budgets to heads and governors. LEAs will be inspected by OFSTED and the Audit Commission. If they are failing, the Education Secretary will order a hit squad.

They will be expected to promote schemes to improve standards. Tony Blair has already praised the efforts made by such LEAs as Birmingham. LEAs will be part of a partnership with local business and schools in "education action zones" in areas of deprivation.

Under Labour, former GM schools will have to take LEA representatives on their governing bodies and will have to have the same level of delegation as other schools.

Labour plans to create three types of school: foundation, community and aided. Schools will be able to choose but it seems unlikely the shake-up will occur in the early days of a Labour government. David Blunkett, and the Labour education team, have given representatives of the GM movement assurances that former opted-out schools will not be discriminated against: but many still fear reprisals from hostile LEAs if the Tories lose.

Mr Blunkett wants LEAs to delegate 90 per cent of budgets to schools. Governing bodies will decide discipline policies and will draw up home-school contracts .

The Liberal Democrats would return GM schools and city technology colleges to the aegis of an LEA.

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