Whatever happened to ILEA's last leader?

2nd October 1998 at 01:00
He's back in the frame as the Local Government Association's education officer. Geraldine Hackett met him

Until recently, when he got his new job with the Local Government Association, it had seemed the glory days for Neil Fletcher had come to an end almost a decade ago when Conservative MPs conspired to kill off the Inner London Education Authority.

The London boroughs were forced to take on education and Mr Fletcher, ILEA's last leader, disappeared back into relative obscurity at the public service union, Unison, after turning out lights at County Hall for the last time.

However, even given the amount of time he has spent out of the limelight, the appointment of a former Labour local government politician as the LGA's education officer raised a few eyebrows.

The education officer is required to be non-partisan in his dealings with the three parties in local government and would usually be expected to have had administrative experience in a local education service.

Indeed, Graham Lane, chairman of the LGA and, in an earlier life, political assistant to leaders of the ILEA, including Mr Fletcher, apparently confided to friends his anxiety about whether the appointment might be perceived as jobs for the boys. The selection was made by a Labour-dominated panel of councillors, chaired by Mr Lane.

But there have been no gripes from the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives on the LGA, so evidently they do not have any quarrel with the appointment - there was both a former director of education and a senior civil servant from the Department for Education and Employment on the short-list.

Three months into the job and Mr Fletcher's enthusiasm is undimmed. "It's great to be back. A lot of people are still around and things haven't changed that much," he says.

It was assumed in the late 1980s that Mr Fletcher was headed for a political career. Not only was he chair of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, one of the local government associations that merged with the others to create the LGA, but he had ousted the flamboyant Frances Morrell for the leadership of ILEA.

In those days, his vice-chair at AMA was Stephen Byers, the recently-appointed chief secretary to the Treasury.

It is part of local goverment legend that Mr Byers was king-maker to Mr Fletcher - ensuring enough northern councillors switched their vote behind some-one from London to ensure that Mr Fletcher became chair of AMA.

With the demise of ILEA, Mr Byers moved up to chair AMA, where he played a prominent role in attempting to irritate the then Conservative government. He only resigned after being elected to Parliament . . . and the rest is history.

If Mr Fletcher, 53, has regrets about not having pursued a similar path, he does not express them. "I thoroughly enjoy being an official. I feel my political slate has been wiped clear," he says. Unison had kept him on the payroll while he was at ILEA and he returned there as head of the union's education department. As union membership dropped, the size of the department had to be reduced.

About four years ago, Mr Fletcher left Unison to move into education consultancy. Part of his work was channelled through a company called Fletcher-Pellow Associates which he formed with Evelyn Pellow, Mr Byers's former personal assistant. The company organised high-profile conferences for the LGA - one was attended by Mr Byers, when he was standards minister. Mr Fletcher also wrote policy papers for the LGA and worked for the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education and the Association of Colleges.

These days he sees his task as education officer of the LGA to be part of the modernisation of local government. As part of the selection process, he made his big sell to Owen Briscoe, the LGA's chief executive, the need for local government to be perceived as providing reliable services.

There can be no overstating the task he faces. Within weeks of taking the job, he was faced with setting up a kind of interim rescue team to advise Calderdale. Ministers were threatening to send in a hit squad and could still do so.

Next month, David Blunkett will produce his Green Paper on modernising teaching and Mr Fletcher would like the LGA to have some involvement before it appears in fine print.

The Office for Standards in Education has barely begun its trawl around local education authorities to assess their ability to raise standards in schools. Slabs of the School Standards and Framework Bill will introduce new regulations covering the governance of schools.

The job might be less daunting if the LGA was not over-stretched - it has a tiny education team.

There may be advantages to Mr Fletcher's past, in that he shares with Mr Blunkett the defining experience of having been a local government leader.

In reality, Labour governments are a mixed blessing for Labour-dominated local government. There is a fine line between constructive criticism and disloyalty.

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