Triple vision

24th January 2003 at 00:00
What does the 21st century hold for LEAs? Four experts offer their predictions

Old science fiction B movies make fascinating social history because of what they reveal of their own time rather than the future. So I approach predicting what lies in store for local education authorities with trepidation and, hedging my bets, offer three possibilities.

1 The fragmentation of LEA services will continue.

The adoption of new models for carrying out the LEA role is gathering pace, whether through privatisation or collaboration. Under the Education Act 2002 further diversification of school types is taking place. Schools are also forming groups, either in loose associations or as constitutional federations under a "super-head". School-based companies are now specifically provided for and encouraged.

These changes, together with the scrapping of education action zones, could lead to some LEA functions being discharged by groups of schools or semi-commercial companies associated with them. "Extended schools" will deliver a wide range of community services - adult education, community health clinics or rural post offices. LEAs will find themselves having to broker a variety of partnerships between diverse groups, rather than having a direct and similar relationship with all schools.

2 LEA services will be drawn into the centre of local councils' business.

Ofsted and Audit Commission inspectors hold chief executives and council leaders every bit as accountable for the quality of the LEA as the chief education officer and cabinet member for education.

Education was famously dubbed the "cuckoo in the local government nest". It was large, greedy and alien; but apart from periodic attempts to limit its access to food it was generally left to its own devices.

Such attitudes are becoming untenable. The role of CEO could be filled at a more junior level or be subsumed within a corporate "deputy chief executive" role. The chief officer for education may cease to be a statutory post or to require a professional education background. While the "LEA" might retain its legal existence, it will lose the separate identity it enjoyed.

3 Regionalism and other changes in the public sector will make an impact on LEAs. The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly are promoting a conspicuous divergence in education policy. What if regional government also takes off in England?

Getting democracy closer to the people could encourage smaller unitary councils to focus on environmental, economic, partnership and community services.

This could lead to the creation of new, larger education authorities. They could be regional or use existing local Learning and Skills Council boundaries and take over LEA and LSC functions. Planning for sufficient school places and managing capital investment would arguably be better exercised at this level.

Whether freestanding or part of a larger body, such institutions could hope to attract individuals with a strong interest in education, whereas most political parties are struggling to find capable candidates to stand for election to existing LEAs.

While I believe that the pressures and developments I have outlined will influence the future, I expect them to combine in unexpected ways. Only one thing is certain - things will not stay the same.

Alan Parker is a former director of education for Ealing.

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