'Reinvent to survive' call

16th January 1998 at 00:00
Just before Christmas, Prime Minister Tony Blair arranged a briefing on a number of educational issues including the future of local education authorities.

Present were David Blunkett, Education Secretary, Stephen Byers, school standards minister, David Milliband, from Mr Blair's office, Michael Barber, head of the Government's standards and effectiveness unit, and Chris Woodhead, chief inspector.

It was not a heartwarming guest list for a committed municipalist. Mr Blunkett and Mr Byers are placed by their colleagues in the centralist camp, despite their local government backgrounds. Professor Barber's strategy for teaching the basics requires heavy guidance from the centre and Mr Woodhead has made known his distrust of LEAs in a pamphlet commissioned by the think-tank Politeia.

Put together with hints that the Treasury, as ever, is voicing its frustration with local government and that Geoffrey Robinson, the Paymaster General, is no great fan, who is putting the case for local authorities? Margaret Hodge, chair of the backbench education committee, believes local authorities will have to reinvent themselves to survive.

She said: "LEAs have got to recognise their role has changed. They will have a strong role to play in raising standards. But those which are still desperate to get back to running schools will have to think again, or the Government will look at alternatives.

"It has to be a partnership with central government, but if they let us down, for example by not ensuring the money allocated by the Chancellor for education reaches schools, then central government will look to find control mechanisms to ensure its will."

Peter Robinson, senior economist at the left-leaning Institute of Public Policy Research, said Labour's approach to centralisation is very similar to the last administration's. "It should be quite proper that a directly-elected local authority makes its own decisions on whether education or social services is a special case for extra money.

"Does it seem likely in a complex democracy that Whitehall has all the wisdom and knows what is best for every classroom in the land?" Don Foster, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, estimates the Government's proposed legislation gives another 70 to 100 powers to the Secretary of State on top of the 500 amassed in the Education Reform Act.

If the present scare about action zones being a Trojan horse is unfounded, LEAs can still expect their role to change. One concern over the zones is there is no clear picture of what happens after the five years. It seems unlikely that everything will revert back, especially if the scheme is working with school managers enjoying the flexibility they have over curriculum and teachers' pay and conditions.

Kevin McNeany, chairman of Nord Anglia, one of the private companies expressing interest in being involved in the zones, believes once the five years is up there will be no return to local authority control.

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