What would I say to Blair? 'Trust us'

20th April 2001 at 01:00
Foot and mouth permitting, it seems certain the election will be in June. In January an opinion poll commissioned by The TES found that support for Labour in staff rooms was higher than in the population as a whole. Despite major worries and criticism of the Government's record on education, teachers look like backing Tony Blair for a second term.

I suspect if you did a similar survey of chief education officers, you would get much the same result. Like teachers, we had previously experienced years of being blamed for things whose causes were deep-rooted and beyond our control. We also suffered after Margaret Thatcher introduced the culture of the non-expert, under which our specialist expertise was constantly held against us.

So what message would I give to an incoming government on behalf of CEOs? At the risk of sounding like a second-hand car salesperson, my message would be "trust us". Many new initiatives inspired by Labour ministers have been accompanied by the message that education authorities are responsible for past failures. On occasions, there has also been a deliberate attempt to minimise the role of LEAs.

This apparent distrust has been evident to varying degrees in many schemes - education action zones, Connexions partnerships, early-years partnerships, city academies, the Children's Fund, Schools in Challenging Circumstances and performance management of headteachers. Yet LEAs have played, or will end up playing, an important role in all these initiatives. Some would not have succeeded without LEAs' strenuous efforts to overcome the government's lack of trust.

Last week, we had a further example when the Department for Education and Employment announced new money to recruit and keep teachers, a move welcomed by CEOs. Some of this money is aimed at London and the South-east. London's CEOs had been making the case fr a strategic approach to the problems of recruitment and retention across the capital. Some of us have become experts on housing schemes (and jargon) and at negotiating reduced-cost travel for teachers with the Mayor and the Greater London Authority. But when we received the guidance that goes with the money, it became clear that LEAs are not to be trusted in this way. The money is to be devolved to schools. If they want it spent strategically, schools will have to agree to give their money back to us - or indeed to any other agency they choose to call in.

If ever there was a case for LEAs taking a strategic view, the urgent teacher shortage problem is it. Apart from the inefficiencies of time involved in each school trying to broker its own housing and child care deals, recently The TES has been full of examples of individual schools competing and just bidding up the price of teachers between them. LEAs could prevent this with local co-operative arrangements.

Yes, we could work up schemes and try to persuade heads to take part. But firstly we are not businesses with research and development sections that can work up proposals, market them, and then bear the cost if there are no takers. Secondly, with the money in their pockets, schools are likely to act only in their own interests rather than for the common good.

We have worked hard over the past four years to get civil servants and ministers at the DFEE to the point of expecting us to be constructive, well-informed, helpful and professional The $64,000 question is how do we convince those outside the DFEE, particularly in No. 10, to accept that LEAs could be more than a centrally controlled delivery agent, and that on occasion we may be better placed than headteachers to make strategic decisions.

Christine Whatford is director of education for Hammersmith and Fulham


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