Say no to quango power

15th September 2000 at 01:00
It's easy to say that local education authorities should be scrapped but no one has shown the alternatives would be any better, argues Christine Whatford.

LAST week, The TES published proposals put forward by one serving and two former chief education officers to remove education from the control of local government. This would be a big mistake.

In essence, the paper argues that local education authorities are in a mess; that the calibre of officers and members is not what it was; that unitary authorities are too small to be effective; that the failures of LEAs have been exposed through inspections; and that the divide in the education system at 16-plus is artificial and arbitrary.

Their solution is that LEAs should be scrapped and replaced by 47 "learning and skills authorities", with a directly elected chair and a majority of elected members.

The authorities would swallow up the new learning and skills councils (which will oversee post-16 education and training from April), thus ending the divide between pre- and post-16 learning.

While I agree with some of the authors' analysis of some of the problems facing local government, they have come up with the wrong conclusions.

LEAs have five functions:

Resourcing: deciding the size of the education budget and the split between schools and other parts of the education service

Planning: of a cradle-to-grave education service and ensuring a sufficient number of school places

Monitoring: playing the quality-assurance role in schools, in partnership with governing bodies

Support: for heads, teachers, governors, parents and pupils

Leadership: both professional and political

If the LEA did not exist, its functions would still have to be carried out by someone. So could they really be better carried out by another body?

What are the alternatives?

1. Schools, or groups of schools, take over LEA functions. There are many examples of schools working successfully together. But you cannot expect them to plan for an area and decide on their own closure; coasting schools don't recognise that they need challenges; weak and failing schools need a great deal more external support than other schools have the time to provide; and someone needs to be able to act as advocate in cases where the rights of children or parents conflict with the interests of schools.

2. The Department for Education and Employment takes over. New technology enables Whitehallto communicate electronically with 24,000 schools. However, all the Government's flagship initiatives in education have relied on LEA partnership. They would not have succeeded without the local dimension.

3. A local layer without elected members. Other models include education boards, pre-16 learning and skills councils, regional or sub-regional offices of the DFEE (with local government officers turned into civil servants). But none of these includes real local democratic accountability through the ballot box.

4. The private sector. The Government has encouraged the private sector to take over failing LEAs. We do not yet know whether this will succeed. In any case, we need to be clear that this does not mean privatisation should be forced on all LEAs. Leaving aside the fundamental issue of whether a public education service should be run for profit, the private sector is not always more effective or efficient.

If you do take education out of local government through any of these alternatives, how long before every council service goes? What would be the effect of this on the checks and balances of power in the system? The onus should be on those who want alternatives to show how they would be more successful than LEAs.

A fifth alternative has, of course, now been put forward for directly elected education authorities, cut adrift from the rest of local government.

The only previous example of this was the Inner London Education Authority, where the three architects of the plan all once worked together. Are they trying to recreate this model?

Such a step backwards would not serve the needs of schools, local communities or the Government. At their best, LEAs already challenge and support all the schools in their area. They intervene where there is failure, or signs of failure. They cement links between learning and areas such as employment, health, law and order, and leisure. They tackle social exclusion ensuring that all children have access to learning.

We need to make sure all LEAs are effective. But we should beware of the alternatives. We should not be seduced by proposals which, at best, remove the link between education and the rest of local government and, at worst, could lead to the entire education sector being run by quangos - with no democratic accountability at all.

Christine Whatford is past president of the Society of Education Officers and director of education at Hammersmith and Fulham

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