Still waiting for the revolution

1st September 1995 at 01:00
Former grant-maintained head Paul O'Shea considers the prospect of returning to the local education authority fold

This summer has been different. Instead of racing off to the earliest ferry at the end of term, and ensuring that we had booked the latest ferry back prior to the publication of A-level results, we took a deliberate decision to stay at home. I am between the headship of two schools. This is a time for reflection and enjoying the luxury of reading books. The idyllic existence can never last. The garden deckchair is deliberately turned away from the sight of the external painting needed on the back of the house. As I am moving from leading a grant-maintained school in Kingston to a Barnet local education authority school, Christ College Finchley, my thoughts veer to working with an LEA again. What are my expectations? How will the authority impede or enhance the further development of the school?

I have worked for large authorities like the Inner London Education Authority and Hertfordshire; my own educational opportunities came from the London County Council. I fought for the survival of ILEA because I recognised that the successor small authorities could not attract the same quality of inspectors and administrators. The divisional organisations kept schools together and in the 1980s, even at the height of industrial action, there were informal support networks that helped to sustain staff in difficult times. The experience of working for smaller authorities like Kingston and Camden has confirmed to me that the informal heads' meetings are the most important professional meetings to attend. This is where our own visions for each school are sustained and enhanced. The external pressures are placed in a local context and can then be tackled in a piecemeal way. The fact that four of the Kingston schools are grant-maintained has helped to bring a new and dynamic perspective to our deliberations over the past two years.

I wonder if this network will operate in Barnet? I am already aware of the issues surrounding admissions in Barnet. If a Labour Government emerges, how will they encourage "born-again" LEAs to stop, in David Blunkett's words, "the creeping selection under the opted-out system which local authorities would be expected to end by agreement with the schools"? It appears to me that Barnet with a Labour council has been powerless as more schools put forward their changed admissions arrangements. The local Secondary Heads Association organisation has attempted to influence both the LEA and central government to do something. There is an irony here that should not be lost. Barnet in the past has sustained an effective comprehensive system with the fulsome support of a Tory local administration, even when facing the opposition of Margaret Thatcher as the MP for Finchley. Now the new administration has witnessed a return to a disorderly selection system at 11. The existing comprehensive LEA schools are faced with some stark choices. If a new Labour administration subsequently supports a drive towards tertiary education we may have some interesting and energy-sapping campaigns to save our sixth forms. This can only highlight the limitations of an LEA under existing legislation.

However, back to the central question concerning whether real partnership now exists. What should schools expect from their LEAs? The concept of post-modern and adaptive LEAs is currently being promoted in some quarters. I have attended meetings where Professors Brighouse and Barber optimistically propose this idea. The new LEAs, we are told, are committed to the school improvement movement; they will be at the forefront in promoting the new modes of teaching and learning necessary for the new century. The Society of Education Officers' summer meeting in Manchester saw chief education officers lining up behind this mission. David Blunkett wanted LEAs of the future to have an "evangelistic role "as champions of school effectiveness. He also warned that they would be judged by their results.

We have been told that the CEOs are up to this challenge as many of them are "busy evolving a new philosophy of local administration based on partnership". Veteran CEOs like Frank Pedley talked about the missed opportunities in the 1970s to forge partnerships with parents and the community. It was noticeable that no comments were made about partnerships with schools.

The thrust of local management of schools was to establish just that. It is my contention that this evolving "partnership" has failed in LEAs which did not trust their schools and spent more time trying to secure their declining empires. As the onslaught on their former positions came from the Government, parental expectations and the GM factor, a few CEOs were effectively able to be Metternich, using "divide and rule" tactics to prevent the immediate collapse of their empires .

This position could not be sustained, as heads and governors soon began to find their way through the secret garden of local government finances. Common formula funding has further revealed how local finances are interwoven with national finances. There could be no hiding places now for either local or national government. The game of blaming each other for educational cuts is no longer tenable. Effective partnerships were put to the test when it came to painful cuts. Was there genuine consultation with heads at this stage or did a form of paternalistic decision-making continue to take place? I detect from my conversations with local authority heads that further divisions have arisen in this last round of cuts due to a lack of openness and real consultation.

I would like to believe that LEAs have made rapid progress in meeting the needs of schools, as Christine Whatford, director of education for Hammersmith and Fulham, and Heather Du Quesnay, the Hertfordshire CEO, have claimed in Education magazine, but my instinct and experience says that the revolution has not happened yet. LEAs are just keeping their heads above water.

Christine Whatford defines her core LEA role as: * providing the strategic framework and planning; * resourcing; * monitoring quality, and * providing "support?"

Heather Du Quesnay states that "despite the weakening of their statutory base, most LEAs have sought to continue to give a robust lead on issues of quality and effectiveness. That they have had to do this through persuasion, influence and genuine leadership qualities rather than by command and control. . ."

It is my belief that the support role of LEAs has been undermined by the Office for Standards in Education process. Too many LEA inspectors cannot give true value for money to local schools as they have to meet their financial targets through inspecting schools in other areas. It has been the experience of most GM heads that, given the choice, you buy in inspection and curriculum support from outside your old authority. There are a few exceptions when a local unit is from the top drawer. Is this why Christine Whatford uses a question-mark next to "support"? The statutory base would have to be altered again to redefine the LEA role. This is particularly true in the contentious area of admissions where the LEA role has continued to diminish.

It is very difficult for LEAs to take a "robust lead" in the current climate. Even under a new government local education authorities will be on trial. If the drive towards school improvement continues it is important that LEAs play a positive role. The acid test for me is the way an LEA supports a school's capacity for self-renewal. Professor Barber tells us that the GM sector has put pressure on LEAs to become post-modern. Canadian research is being done into what makes an effective school district. This is currently being picked up by the Roehampton Institute. One wonders if the research will reach similar conclusions to the National Commission on Education about what makes an effective and good school. The same features may be germane to an LEA that genuinely seeks to establish partnership. The emerging political agenda now talks about LEAs providing "pressure and support" for schools. Perhaps these educational spin-doctors should revive some other words such as trust, openness, and opportunities for all to learn. Self- management has shown that when schools are "given the tools" they get on with the job. A culture of school improvement which is not driven by fear or political expediency is a better long-term goal for the nation.

Paul O'Shea is about to take up a new headship at Christ's College, Finchley. He served on the SHA national committee for GM schools, but the views expressed here are personal.

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