Education officers' morale is being eroded by the way ministers are using the media to undermine their efforts, argues Christine Whatford
THIS Government's agenda and intentions for education are exciting, positive and forward looking. Local education authorities are ready, willing, able and best placed to help deliver that agenda to communities across the country. But ministers - and those who advise them - must stop doubting our ability to do so and let us get on with the job.
I don't mind being told, as Tony Blair said in his speech after the general election, that we are on trial. A new government coming in is entitled to, and has to, make decisions about how it is going to go about its business. When it was considering whether to give a key role to LEAs in delivering its top priority of raising standards in schools, it quite rightly had to make a judgment as to whether we were capable of delivering its agenda.
And, given that under previous ministers, the policy had been for market forces to govern what went on locally, and for our role to be minimal and residual, it is not unreasonable that a new government would ask questions about how well placed and how well "tooled up" LEAs would be, for what would be a much more proactive role.
Taking all those factors into account, the Government made its decision. It wrote into the Schools Standards and Framework Act that LEAs had a duty to raise standards in their schools. That is a very clear and powerful statement. Ministers then took some prudent steps to enable them to check that LEAs were doing just that.
First, it established the regime of inspections which gives a formal judgment on performance every five years. Second, it published a statutory Code of Practice regulating in some detail how we were to work out and translate these new responsibilities into a working relationship with schools.
Third, it established across a wide area the process of giving LEAs responsibility for raising standards and then ensuring that, through producing plans, they proved to the Government how they were going to meet that responsibility, and that they had the support of local stakeholders. And finally, the Government has built into the legislation its own residual sanction to be able to take over an LEA in the case of its complete failure.
So far we have not baulked at any of this. We have not complained that the Government feels it must have a framework in place to make sure that we are meeting our responsibilities. In fact we think that to do so is fair and reasonable. What I do have a problem with is the constant sniping and "spinning" in speeches and press releases that suggests a lack of faith in our competence to deliver, and that therefore ministers need to be constantly on the alert to find a "third way" to cope with our predicted failure.
We as education officers need to make it clear to the Government that we object to the constant drip drip drip of negative assumptions that seem to come out of the Government's press briefings. We object, not because our dignity is dented, but because it puts a brake on the acceleration of progress. We object because they discourage and they harm morale and so progress is therefore threatened.
The most recent example came with stories being trailed in the press in advance of David Blunkett's recent North of England conference speech saying that his theme would be the privatisation of LEAs. This was followed by adverts in the national press inviting expressions of interest from the private sector or indeed LEAs in taking over unspecified services at some time in the future.
Let's disentangle substance from spin. The powers referred to in the speech were not new or brought about by specific failures as observers might have been led to believe. They were part of the School Standards and Framework Act and went through the parliamentary process with cross-party support. Neither the Local Government Association nor the Society of Education Officers objected to them. They are no different in principle to the power LEAs have to act in relation to failing schools. Why choose to emphasise this particular part of the legislation a year later and trail stories in the press about it?
We may know that it is a legitimate residual power, that will need to be used in only a few cases, if at all. However, that isn't the overall impression that the press releases and subsequent coverage give, and their authors knew full well that this would be so. And what about the adverts inviting third parties to express an interest in taking over LEA services? I would suggest that they were just a dramatic gesture to give an excuse for the story. They were also quite unnecessary. For one thing, LEAs already do both buy in external advice and help each other. But if a time does come when the Government wants one LEA to go in and run the services of another, it only has to ask at the time. In fact, how about asking the SEO for advice and help? I am sure we would willingly give it.
I am not saying that there aren't poorly performing LEAs. Of course there are - in the same way as there are poorly performing hospitals and poorly performing businesses. What I am saying is that I believe failing LEAs are a tiny minority of the 170 plus that are now in existence. The evidence from the first 15 Office for Standards in EducationAudit Commission inspections would support that view.
Having put us on trial and set up systems to monitor our performance, ministers should be careful not to be undermine us. We should in the end, be judged against clear criteria emerging from the local and national interpretation of our role. We should not be blamed for everything that goes wrong in education, and discounted completely when things go right.
Christine Whatford is director of education for Hammersmith and Fulham and president of the Society of Education Officers. This is an edited extract from her presidential address, due to be given at the SEO's winter conference in Harrogate this weekend Document of the week, page 27