21st August 1998 at 01:00
WHEN the vast majority of schools chose to stay under local authority control rather than opt out and become grant-maintained, they were not necessarily expressing their complicity in a craven "culture of dependency".

Neither were they declaring their total customer satisfaction with the quality and excellence of local authority services. Rather, the evidence suggests they elected to be members of a club which represented some kind of civic polity combined with the spirit and material benefits of mutual assurance societies.

Of course, this may be so much sentimental tosh, especially as one of the several continuities between education secretaries Gillian Shephard and David Blunkett is a concentration on local authority efficiency, as a provider of services to schools and as an agent of central government policies.

While a drive towards greater efficiency is commendable, it shouldn't be counterpoised to democratic values and participation. It is clear that New Labour has a radical policy programme, but it should be wary of what the French government now acknowledges as "technical delusion" - trying to control from the centre both the "what" and the "how" of a complex education system.

Lively and interactive public debate at local level, leading to policy-making and action, lie at the heart of local government. Unless, of course, it is believed that dynamics and priorities of educational progress should be - or are - identical in Newham and Northumberland, Sandwell and Shropshire.

Parents, employers, community and voluntary groups, as well as students and teachers, need to have some democratic purchase on their local education service. Within a broad statutory framework and national strategy, issues of access and of quality across and between education providers should be mediated and promoted through a democratically accountable body - one which also provides and nourishes strong professional networks.

We should also remind ourselves that the education committee is a sub-committee of the full council. School improvement is increasingly a central concern of the whole council, with social services, libraries, museums, leisure services and - where applicable - housing, transportation and environmental planning all contributing to this priority.

In turn, education can help to achieve other priorities and goals, supporting other council services and exchanging data.

Many local authorities already think and act holistically in terms of child, young person and family development and support. A "Learning Society" is more than what goes on in schools, important though this is. Only on the basis of strong local knowledge, drawn from statistical data, professional networks, focus groups, citizens' juries, and from elected members' constituency feedback, can this kind of strategy be delivered.

However, we know that the heart of school improvement is the school itself and, most especially, in the daily exhanges between teachers and pupils. The LEA's role, in supporting and challenging the school and in adding value to the work of teachers, has to be more than a retailer of bread-and-butter support services.

Rather, LEAs should strive to ensure that schools have access to cost-effective and credible expertise in subject specialisms, in early years, special needs, performance data analyses, research and development appraisals and so on. There is now a substantial body of evidence that suggests that if schools are to maintain an upward trajectory of improvement, then their own self-review systems need to include a sustained developmental dialogue with a "critical friend".

The effective LEA is ideally placed to carry out such a role through skilled, "wired-up" advisers and consultants. Shifting around budget holders and LMS formulae won't do the trick and will simply divert time and effort from essentials to inessentials. It is odd that such resource-hungry transactions are being abandoned in the NHS but not in education.

The real point is that the potential for educational creativity and innovation already exists in countless schools, colleges, youth and adult education centres up and down the land. The challenge and opportunity for local authorities is to tap this potential through their local networking capacity and expertise.

Such networks and expertise bring together professional and lay voices, the interests of today's providers and users and those looking ahead to the needs of the next generation.

Local authorities will also work constructively with central government which, in turn, will respect the legitimate democratic diversity which their local partners represent.

Professor Margaret Maden is director of the Centre for Successful Schools at Keele University

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