Devolution has created more freedom for education authorities in Wales, says Jon Slater
After 100 years of conflict with the Westminster government, many Welsh education authorities are starting their second century with an air of jauntiness. You can almost hear them whistling on their way to work.
Their counterparts in England have been forced to come to terms with privatisation and increasing ministerial interference. Meanwhile, the advent of devolution means that local education authorities in Wales are enjoying unprecedented freedom from Westminster and renewed influence over policy-making.
To the delight of councillors across the principality, the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff has, since its first session in 1999, proved significantly more friendly towards local government than the London Parliament. It is a partnership approach within which the councillors, Assembly members - and teachers - have worked to avoid many of the disputes that have characterised education policy-making in England.
LEAs in Wales have reaped clear benefits. In addition to escaping the privatisation of key services forced upon under-performing English authorities, they retain the kind of control over their budgets that is a fading memory for councillors across the border.
"We're lucky in Wales that all partners involved in the delivery of education have a very positive relationship," says Jeff Jones, leader of Bridgend council and education spokesperson for the Welsh Local Government Association.
"Since the establishment of the Assembly, local government has been charged with greater responsibility than ever before."
According to Geraint Davies, Wales policy officer for the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, staff have also benefited. He cites the example of performance pay, where LEAs and unions in Wales worked together to secure an extra pound;18.7 million to fund teachers' progress up the upper pay spine.
Mr Davies says that this approach has only become possible since devolution. Before then, Welsh LEAs were better known for conflict rather than co-operation with central government.
From 1902 onwards, councils in Wales irritated successive education secretaries. Led by the non-conformists, a majority of the Welsh councils opposed the public funding of church schools enshrined in the 1902 Act. No sooner had that row faded than some Welsh authorities began pushing for free secondary education for all.
But even supporters of Welsh LEAs concede that the closeness of their relationship with the Assembly has its downside. Mr Davies says that a lack of transparency over funding has led to accusations that local authorities are holding on to money that should be given to schools.
Others are more forthright. Brian Rowlands of the Secondary Heads Association in Wales warns that pupils are missing out on resources. "The increased local authority voice in Wales is at the expense of funding for schools," he says. "This is the biggest dispute we have with the National Assembly. Their relationship with local authorities is too cosy."
Mr Rowlands adds: "Welsh schools don't get the same direct funding and are at a disadvantage compared to those in England. We need to ensure that the extra money that is supposed to go to schools in Wales reaches them and does not get lost in some local authority fog."
This argument is rejected by Jeff Jones, who says that LEAs have passed on all additional education funding received from Cardiff. The Assembly does not accept the criticism either. It says resources are allocated according to local needs and that Wales spends more per capita on education than England.
A spokesperson said: "It is interesting to note that a recent announcement by the Secretary of State for Education in England indicated a change in policy with the ending of ring-fenced grants for a number of programmes.
Where Wales leads, others follow!"
The next battle will be over how to allocate additional money to cut teachers' workload. While the Department for Education and Skills in England has promised to fund schools directly for any deal, the Welsh Assembly insists money should go through local authorities.
Even here, however, the schools and LEAs may continue to work in partnership. Headteachers and local authorities are unhappy with the pound;15m a year on offer to fund workload cuts. Despite their differences over how the money should be delivered, they might once again find themselves fighting on the same side for additional resources.
CURRENT POLITICAL BREAKDOWN OF LOCAL EDUCATION AUTHORITIES
Labour 68 Includes Bristol, Gateshead, Leeds, Wigan
Conservative 33 Includes Barnet, Norfolk, Peterborough, Southend
Liberal Democrat 7 Includes Islington, Kingston, Stockport, Swindon
Independent 2 City of London, Isles of Scilly
No overall control 40 Includes Bradford, Devon, Oxfordshire, Sheffield
: Labour 9 Plaid Cymru 3 Independent 2
No overall control 8 (Biggest party: Labour 3, Independent 4, Conservative 1)