Unloved but unbowed
LLocal education authorities have really grown up in the last few years. We have made them change to do the job the public wants. They are not in the mood of resisting change, they are now into seizing opportunity."
Thus spake Estelle Morris, the former education secretary, at the inaugural conference of the Confederation of Education Service Managers last July.
She added: "We do not need to ask if LEAs should continue to exist. We have put a new accountability framework in place and shown them what works. Now we can tell them to get on with it."
The new structure she had just put in place was the Education Act 2002. It emphasised driving up secondary school standards, autonomy for successful schools, a coherent pre-school and 14-19 curriculum, and diversity of secondary schools.
Ms Morris told the education officers and advisers they were going to be "very, very important" in implementing her Act. But when she was asked what LEAs would actually do in this new climate of creativity and innovation, she seemed unsure.
LEAs are certainly part of the accountability framework. They have more powers of early intervention in failing schools. They are also more free to experiment with the curriculum and community use of school premises. Their role in early-years education is clarified. But it will be for Estelle Morris's successor, Charles Clarke, to fill out the rest of the sketch she left behind.
LEAs have been coming to terms with a new style of cabinet government, set up by the Local Government Act 2000. In has come a combined system of audit and inspection (with LEAs graded 1 to 4 on performance) and a new "scrutiny committee" to check on the quality of all services. Out have gone the statutory education committees set up by the Education Act of 1902.
John Fowler, a former education officer at the Local Government Association, thinks it ironic that the distinct and sometimes raucous "voice" of local education has disappeared, just when it needed to be heard most. He says: "The new legislation actually takes away from LEAs the last vestiges of autonomy in budget-setting and all this innovation will have to be licensed by a unit in the Department for Education and Skills. Whether LEAs can take genuine advantage of this freedom to innovate remains to be seen."
David Cornwell, former chair of the scrutiny committee at Richmond upon Thames Council, is training councillors in their new roles. He believes a powerful scrutiny committee could help local education services. But he says that the abolition of education committees has left many councillors feeling disconnected from schools.
In order for the new committees to work, Mr Cornwell thinks officers will need to devote more time to them and members will have to give greater support. "They feel that all the decisions are taken by the party politicians in cabinet and the ordinary member is powerless," he says.
Mike Burton, editor of Municipal Journal, concedes that the new structures leave some older councillors feeling "frozen out", with nothing to do. But he says the change was needed: "They were spending too much time on micro-management and not enough on the big issues. Now they can talk about linking up the whole LEA to broadband technology, putting libraries in schools or introducing foreign languages. The ordinary members can spend more time in their wards and represent the interests of consumers to the cabinet members."
Ministers' claims that Labour's second-term legislation was designed to be "deregulatory and devolutionary" have convinced nobody in local government.
In fact, John Fowler has counted more than 100 new powers given to the Secretary of State and more and more detail taken out of primary legislation and left to secondary regulations or "departmental guidance".
As the recent history of pupil exclusions has shown, this guidance is a saga of muddle and litigation.
So LEAs live on into another century - largely unloved, but still a necessary instrument of national education policy. As John Fowler says:
"Government ministers come and go, but LEAs have had over a century to learn how to make their own creative use of the anomalies and inconsistencies they leave behind."
The Education Network (TEN) and the Advisory Centre for Education have published a user-friendly guide to the Education Act 2002, written by John Fowler. It is available, priced pound;12.50, from TEN at 22 Upper Woburn Place, London WC1H 0TB, tel: 020 7554 2810, e-mail email@example.com.