Thoroughly modern partnerships

5th December 1997 at 00:00
The Government intends to strengthen the monitoring role of local education authorities. Yet it also promises to give schools more autonomy. Is this a recipe for conflict, or is a new collaboration possible? David Cracknell and Bruce Douglas - each representative of one side of the debate - are optimistic

With the publication of the education Bills, the time is ripe for clear thinking about a new partnership between education authorities and locally-managed schools. Although creating local partnerships is a challenge, we believe that success is achievable.

Authorities and schools, after all, have much in common. They share a commitment to public-service values and to promoting learning for children, young people and local communities.

The Society of Education Officers and the Secondary Heads Association believe in a tier of government between schools and Westminster, in local management of schools and in professional freedom for teachers.

We would resist any further encroachment on schools or education authorities by a dangerously centralising system. We would defend the constitutional basis of an intermediate tier in local democracy - but its role should depend more on building consent than on demanding compliance.

The "self-managing" school is the modern vehicle for maintaining and improving education. Local management is a cornerstone of our system and must be defended. But "self-managing" should not mean "completely autonomous". One school cannot act unilaterally in a way which damages others. The education of the next generation is too important to be left to the unrestrained spread of competitive individualism. Those schools that wish to operate as self-contained islands, untouched by education authority powers, have a mistaken view of 21st-century school management.

Similarly, any authority that sees the new Education Bill as a chance to turn the clock back to re-establish control over schools has misread the nature of the new relationships in which it will be expected to be a partner.

We are arguing for a mature partnership in which the respective powers and contribution of schools and authorities are recognised. Mutual respect and trust are pre-requisites for success.

There are some areas of possible tension. Target-setting is one. The White Paper expects authorities to "advise and, where necessary, challenge" all schools to set their sights at the right level. Schools and authorities have a common interest in targets being agreed and not imposed. Unrealistic or invalid targets are recipes for public failure that neither partner wants, so it is not complacency to argue for professionally valid indicators.

An authority must have information to undertake its monitoring role. Schools monitor too. "Light-touch" systems should be developed within a national framework, building on self-evaluation practice in schools.

The White Paper is right to give authorities formal powers of intervention to be used as a last resort, but also to expect that for most of the time schools will relate to authorities as autonomous partners. When, as will happen, authorities are expected to intervene, the grounds and mechanism for such intervention and an approved appeal procedure should be clearly understood in advance. Formal reports by chief education officers to governors' meetings, and "first warnings" should be a last resort. Frequent use of these measures could indicate poor practice by an education authority that has not developed productive relationships with its schools.

The Secondary Heads Association and the Society of Education Officers are still seeking agreement on some things. On advice and training, the headteachers want all Standards Fund cash for secondary schools to be delegated, using similar arrangements to those currently in place for GM schools. It expects the forward-looking authority to discuss with schools how it could help provide courses or programmes which schools could buy. SHA believes that this is the route to improvement, and recognises the key responsibility of school leadership for staff development.

The SEO, for its part, accepts that authority support services should be subject to the rigours of "best value" or even the open market. But it believes that the education system cannot sustain the cumulative anorexia of authorities having to sell all their advisory services. Authorities need the staff to fulfil their new duties and should have access to a minimum level of professional advice. We believe that these differences could be partially resolved by: * the Government investing more money in continuing professional development nationally; * authorities recognising the importance of allowing schools as much choice as possible when buying training and advice; * a confidence that if schools share in the planning, delivery and evaluation of their training and advice services, they will often voluntarily opt for the services which have been organised jointly; * a fair funding system for all schools in the LEA area.

Education development plans, which all authorities will have to produce, should not turn into another bureaucratic layer of management, consuming energy and resources. Nor should they become a mechanistic imposition of central political priorities which would negate the idea of local democracy and of self-managing schools.

They should be the distillation of school development plans that have already been built upon the values and priorities agreed within the school-authority partnership. The plan will be seriously devalued if it is not the product of a thorough development process with schools and other contributory partners.

Some heads have expressed fears of authorities wishing to "control". These fears should be taken seriously, but also imaginatively challenged. In framing the new local partnerships there should be a clarification of the roles and accountabilities of local politicians and officers, governors, heads and teachers. Authorities should not "interfere" but move from lively interest in schools, through voluntary collaborative interaction and only reach the stage of informal and, eventually, formal intervention when all else has failed.

A presumption of competence and a recognition of the value of professional autonomy should inform relationships between governors, headteachers and their staff, between schools and authorities, and between authorities and the Government. This is not naive or soft-headed. Challenging schools and authorities to raise standards is not ducked. It is the only sensible basis for making progress through partnership.

This has been the starting point for both the education officer and the secondary heads. We commend it to everyone who has a role in shaping and energising our emerging education system.

David Cracknell is president of the Society of Education Officers and director of education for Cheshire. Bruce Douglas is president of the Secondary Heads Association and principal of Branston Community College, Lincolnshire.

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