Platform: Coming in for the cold

16th May 1997 at 01:00
Local education authorities are still on probation. This unmistakable message from the new Government may seem strange for a new team so dominated by MPs who cut their teeth as local councillors. David Blunkett learned his trade in Sheffield, Stephen Byers in Tyneside.

A staggering proportion of the 160 new MPs have their roots in local government. This brings hope that we will see less evidence of the deep-seated and ill-informed prejudice against local government that seemed to haunt some previous government ministers. Even the departmental officials have more awareness of local authority culture: Michael Bichard was chief executive of Brent and Gloucestersh ire and Michael Barber was chairman of Hackney education committee. Under Gillian Shephard, the Civil Service was able to start re-building the bridges burnt by her predecessors and the reconstruction is gathering pace.

The authorities themselves have moved on as well. The past 10 years have seen a sea-change in LEA attitudes and relationships. They have survived a war of attrition - and it has done them good. They have emerged, weakened but fundamentally intact and with a much clearer focus on their role in promoting higher quality learning. Most no longer see that role in terms of laying down the law, but rather as key players with central government, working in collaboration with schools, colleges and their local communities, to provide education that really is "fit for the millennium".

So why the reservations? There is no doubt that the new Government is committed to a pluralistic society in which power should not be concentrated in the hands of a few shadowy bureaucrats. Ministers have already demonstrated their willingness to open up the process of government to public scrutiny. They are clear about the need to devolve power to local government. The new Government recognises that one of the strengths of local government has always been the chief education officer standing in front of the education committee and being publicly accountable. All this suggests that they should have no doubts about reversing the transfer of power from democratic local authorities to distant and unresponsive central government or, worse, to unelected and unrepresentative quangos which we have seen over the past decade.

However, in local authorities we should be realistic. New government ministers find themselves with enormous power, much enhanced by the centralising tendencies of previous governments. They could indulge their whims and prejudices - a stroke of a ministerial pen can shift millions of pounds from the counties to the cities, or from the south to the north. Now, with the concentration of powers in the hands of the Secretary of State, the curriculum in 25,000 schools could be re-drawn with ease. Having struggled for power for 18 years, is it reasonable to expect these people to give it away as soon as they have it?

Another reason for being cautious is that those now in power understand local authorities. They know their strengths - but they also know their limitations. They are aware that many LEAs have been seriously weakened by 10 years of "salami-slicing". Some ill-considered extensions of the excellent principle of delegating funds to schools, coupled with the absorption of resources by central government agencies have, in some important respects, left LEAs without enough people, money or powers to exert the kind of influence on schools that the drive for quality requires.Some of the new unitary authorities are extremely small and will find it difficult to establish a broad enough base for effective working unless they co-operate with other LEAs.

Then there are all those myths (tinged, no doubt, with reality) about local government: slumbering counties whose members and officers are perceived to lead unadventurous, complacent lives; and Tammany Hall cities whose politicians and bureaucrats wield power in their own interests rather than the interests of pupils and students. To exorcise these lingering perceptions once and for all, we have to recognise that some LEAs have let the side down. Opinion polls (the latest by MORI only last month) have rated local government as more popular than central government and satisfaction with education is often high - but negative images of local government persist and there is no excuse for relaxing.

We have come a long way during the 1990s and challenging government policies has concentrated our minds. But now we must be sharper and even more effective in our dealings with the public. This is difficult when there are tough decisions to be made. For example, now that numbers of pupils are beginning to fall in many parts of the country, we will no doubt be back in the painful business of having to close schools against fierce local opposition. If LEAs are given the extended powers they need, the nettles of failing schools will have to be very firmly grasped. We must get better at doing the tough jobs. If, on occasion, we have to be unpopular, then at least we should be seen to be fair and efficient.

Finally, we must create a more productive relationship with central government. At times it has seemed that LEAs and schools shared a common enemy in the government. Now we have to strike a new partnership between schools and colleges, local government and central government. The Government never was to blame for all the nastiness in the world - sometimes the enemy has been inside local government. In a few local authorities we have seen a loss of professional or political will, an excess of corporate ambition or sheer ineptitude that has done as much damage as any national policy. In future we will have to take a full share of the responsibility ourselves and this may mean putting our own house in order.

Some of the processes for improving the quality of local education authorities are already in hand. We now have legislation for the inspection of LEAs, much to the delight of those LEA officers and members who worked so hard to persuade Government and Opposition to adopt an inspection process. LEA inspection and the associated self-reviews are, alone, no panacea. The Society of Education Officers is now working with others on a fundamental re-shaping of the framework of professional development for local education authority officers. There was talk by shadow ministers prior to the election of a requirement that chief education officers ought to have a recognised qualification to demonstrate their competence and suitability for the job - and so they should. Within the SEO our Association of Chief Education Officers will tackle this issue.In the important political context, the new Local Government Association could be well placed to offer more systematic development opportunities and advice to support councillors in doing their job better too.

Education standards can and must improve further. If this is to be more than a pipe-dream, schools, colleges and community-based services will need strong local support systems to help them regain their self-confidence and apply systematical ly the best practice that is now available. Local education authorities can and must give support and authoritative leadership. Support alone will not be enough. When all else has failed the LEA will need to have and use effective sanctions against the incompetent or the incorrigible. Gillian Shephard proposed stronger powers for LEAs to withdraw delegation from schools with a process of staged warnings to bring home the seriousness of unacceptable performance and to avert collapse before it sets in. If they are to do their job effectively, LEAs will need, in particular, a guaranteed core of non-delegated funding to provide essential quality assurance staff; they will also need new reserve powers in relation to the appointment and discipline of headteachers.

"The Scapegoat", sensitively portrayed by Holman Hunt in 1855, hangs in the Lady Lever Art Gallery at Port Sunlight in the Wirral. LEAs would be justified in feeling some empathy for this innocent creature that Jewish ceremonial banished to the desert, bearing the sins of the people. Local authorities have not been alone in shouldering the blame for the shortcomings of the education system but they have been a favourite target - and sometimes with justification. Illogically LEAs had their powers reduced and accountabilities increased. Gillian Shephard started to bring them back from the wilderness. The new Government's policies look like bringing them firmly back into the fold but with that rehabilitation there are high expectations that LEAs should now deliver improved quality in learning and higher standards in educational achievement. If they do not, we can expect a fundamental review of the constitutional position of local government in the management of education.

David Cracknell and Philip Hunter are currently president and vice-president respectively of the Society of Education Officers.

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