Speed is the key to changing gear
Local government in England now resembles a patchwork created by a seamstress who has lost her specs. In one place, schools are run by a mammoth authority such as Birmingham, population almost one million, or Leeds, at 708,000. Elsewhere, they are expected to function as well on a patch a tenth the size.
The Local Government Commission, when it was on its travels, said that it had no strong views on the optimum size of a local education authority. With Thurrock gearing up to leave Essex next year with a population of only 131,000 and four secondary schools to its name, that lack of a view on viability certainly shows.
The upheaval of re-organisation is considerable and lengthy. The Isle of Wight went unitary in 1995. The following year the counties of Avon, Cleveland and Humberside, widely seen as "artificial" creations, were split into 12 new authorities and York was released from North Yorkshire.
This April, 13 towns and cities will leave their surrounding counties, and in April 1998, 18 more unitaries will emerge, including six resulting from the dismemberment of Berkshire.
There has not been a similar increase in the number of education authorities since the Inner London Education Authority was abolished and control handed to the inner London boroughs in 1989. Whatever the long-term effects of that - and some of the London boroughs have been markedly more successful as LEAs than others - that handover did not go smoothly. Administrative arrangements faltered and in some boroughs teachers found themselves unpaid.
The problems are not any easier this time around, according to some of those who have already made the switch. But they hope that some lessons have been learned from the ILEA experience, although in some areas furious arguments are going on about who gets to keep the desks and the computers.
Wherever changes are being made, budget issues loom large. "Disaggregation" is never easy. Bristol, for instance, found itself allocated 42.9 per cent of everything the county of Avon owned, right down to the desks and chairs.
Much time was spent going round the county's offices sticking labels on everything which was not screwed down. Where authorities are being split, with no county surviving, most staff transfers cannot take place until hand-over day, which leaves a few senior people to take and implement all the early decisions without full back-up.
David Yorath, in charge of planning and resources in Bristol, thinks that big cities, used to handling large budgets, are likely to cope better than small district councils which suddenly find their budgets inflated "beyond their wildest dreams" by education and social services. "They have to build an infrastructure capable of sustaining education from scratch," he says.
Andrew Bedford, assistant director of education and personal development in North Lincolnshire, one of the first district authorities to take over from its county, Humberside, says that careful planning and preparation are the key. His authority is both rural and urban, with Scunthorpe at its centre. It has a population of 150,000 and 14 secondary schools.
"I joined the new authority from Humberside just six months before we took control and there is no doubt that there is a problem in bringing new staff and new council members up to speed." The Labour-controlled council, he says, has made education its first priority and 10 months on, he thinks North Lincolnshire is beginning to see the advantages.
It is essential, he says, to get up and running as soon as a decision on reorganisation is made. "We had just 14 months to get off the ground. When I came here six months before the authority took over, there were only half a dozen senior officers in post. If you do not move quickly, you do not get the first choice of staff."
The aim, Mr Bedford thinks, should be a seamless transfer of power which the schools do not even notice. To achieve that, a good rule of thumb is to change nothing which does not need changing. But that is not easy given the financial constraints. North Lincolnshire was entitled to roughly one-sixth of Humberside's budget, but you cannot appoint one-sixth of a chief education officer. "In fact we had to provide the same service with fewer staff - and we are still expected to add something which was not there before," he says.
"Personally I argued for the retention of Humberside, but there is no doubt that there are benefits from being in a smaller authority. This area is diverse but not as diverse as Humberside was. We are closer to the schools and it is easier for us to listen to their concerns. Communication and co-operation have improved."
Conversely, he says, it has proved difficult to set up some of the joint arrangements which the four ex-Humberside authorities seemed to need. Special needs services seem to work well as a partnership, the joint administration of student awards has just come to a planned end, but an attempt to set up a music service with another authority has foundered.
It is advice which is not lost on Mike Baldwin, chief officer for property in the even smaller authority of Thurrock, which will become independent in April 1998. He is not an educationist. His specialism is property. But he was put in charge of the change because of the feeling that the new authority did not simply want to replicate what Essex had been doing.
He has been assisted by an educational consultant who helped to draw up a needs analysis. And he has tried to ensure that enough Thurrock councillors understood education well enough to negotiate with the county council. Decisions on joint arrangements with Essex have now largely been made.
A chief education officer will be appointed in May, to be in post eight months before the handover.
Southampton is one of the former county boroughs "taking back" education in this year's reorganisation. There is much optimism that a city which has done the job before can do it again, although some councillors are not yet totally familiar with educational issues. But chief inspector Ian Sandbrook is upbeat. He thinks Southampton will be more pro-active than the county over school improvement and quality insurance.
But he does have some worries, particularly over the budget. Disaggregation to the new authorities was never going to be easy and there are hard decisions to be made about priorities, and a lot of uncertainties, for instance about nursery vouchers.
Agreements are being reached about buying in existing services such as outdoor education and music from Hampshire, and continuity is being maintained by employing a substantial number of former Hampshire staff.
Cities such as Southampton can take some encouragement from Bristol where the director of education, Richard Riddell, is still astonished at the enthusiasm generated for its restored education service. His strategy was to involve heads, governors and parents in consultation as soon as he took office. This picked up a feeling that the city's schools were not doing well enough and resulted in an ambitious document, Achievement for Bristol. That, and a sense that the new administration has clear and agreed goals, he says, saw them through the transition and is now helping through a traumatic rationalisation of schools.
Seven years ago, the ILEA was split up amid unprecedented political acrimony and some of the new education authorities did little advance preparation because they hoped the transfer might never happen. There is no doubt that parts of London suffered from that.
This time, the change has been welcomed by most of the new LEAs, and most seem to have set about preparations in good time. It remains to be seen whether in the long run 45 new LEAs in England prove cost-effective and deliver a better quality of education.
From April 1995 Isle of Wight
From April 1996. Bath NE Somerset Bristol South Gloucestershire North Somerset Hartlepool Redcar Cleveland Middlesbrough Stockton-on-Tees East Riding of Yorks Kingston upon Hull N Lincolnshire NE Lincolnshire York
From April 1997
Luton Milton Keynes Derby Poole Bournemouth Darlington Brighton and Hove Portsmouth Southampton Leicester, Rutland Stoke on Trent Thamesdown From April 1998
Peterborough Warrington Halton Plymouth Torbay Southend Thurrock Herefordshire Rochester and Gillingham Blackburn Blackpool Nottingham The Wrekin Reading Windsor Maidenhead Slough Newbury Wokingham and Bracknell