There is still a role for local authorities

Sir Malcolm Thornton

Sir Malcolm Thornton, Tory backbench education specialist, says LEAs can give vital support to schools. Many of the changes in our education system which have been introduced over the past decade have now settled down and are largely accepted as the way forward for our schools as we move towards the next century. This is good news for children, for parents, for teachers and for all involved in building an education system which will serve our nation well.

There are, of course, still differences over matters such as grant-maintained status, admission policies and their implications for a commonsense approach to strategic overall planning, as well as the method and level of funding. Taken together with a number of other issues - we will all be able to select a few - they are central to the debate on the future of local education authorities.

For a number of people the LEA has become synonymous with the perceived problems in our schools. It is worth remembering that, even before the changes, there were thousands of schools which gave a good education and opportunities to our children. Those schools were run by LEAs. It would be foolish to pretend, however, that there were not also many schools which fell short of acceptable standards and which failed their pupils. These, too, were run by LEAs. So, is there a balance to be found and, if one exists, what are the factors to be taken into account?

Local management of schools (LMS) and the minimum delegation to schools of 85per cent of their budget are here to stay. The granting of extra powers and a high degree of control over their individual affairs has empowered governing bodies and headteachers in a way which was unthinkable only a decade ago. The personal involvement and commitment now required by governors of our schools has released a surge of energy throughout the system which is transforming, largely for the better, our whole education system. I have yet to meet a headteacher or school governor who wants to return to the past - even if it was slightly more comfortable. The increased awareness of both the advantages as well as the realities of running a school which LMS has brought was long overdue.

In the wake of the 1988 Education Act, local education authorities had to face up to massive changes. Significant areas, formerly within their control, had passed to schools. Decisions once taken by officers andor councillors were made at school level. LEAs came under greater scrutiny by governing bodies and were held much more accountable than in the past. It was a major sea change and required a radical reappraisal of their role.

The forward-looking LEAs - and there are many - took a pragmatic view of the changes and started to forge a new relationship with their schools. This was particularly beneficial in the early days of delegation as many schools struggled to come to terms with their newly-acquired responsibilities. A gradual transfer of expertise from education departments, particularly in the budgetary field, enabled most schools to adapt more easily. Effective training for governors, many of whom were involved in schools for the first time provided, (and still does) a vitally important opportunity for them to be made fully aware of the considerable commitment required as well as their legal responsibilities. These were the early signs of a new partnership between schools and their LEA.

Schools, too, began to analyse their new role and assess its implications. Leaving aside the vagaries of the local funding formula, headteachers and governing bodies were able to assess critically the impact of the new arrangements on their school. They evaluated both benefits and problems. Through discussion and negotiation with the LEA, more effective and fairer landlordtenant agreements were reached. LEA inspectors - responsible for overseeing individual schools - became much more responsive to the needs and concerns of heads and governors. As schools' finance committees became more aware of their own budget and the inevitable constraints thereon, so, too, did they increasingly question the "value for money" aspect of local authority services - often hitherto unquestioned.

These are just some of the factors which caused such a radical change in the way we deliver all the management processes of education. Inevitably, for both political and practical reasons, the question must be asked. Should LEAs continue to exist? Given the high degree of delegation to schools, do they still need the LEA? If so, for what purposes?

All my experience leads me to believe that the answer to the main question is very definitely yes. Not only is there strong empirical evidence to show that schools want and need a re-vamped LEA but also, increasingly, parents, governors and teachers do not believe that severing the lines with their LEA is the best way of improving educational opportunities for their children. The debate has moved on to finding ways of combining maximum self-government for schools with effective support services from LEAs. This is particularly true for primary schools where budgets, in the main, lack both the size and flexibility of their secondary counterparts.

It is important to have a defined role for a re-vamped LEA. At present, uncertainty rules the day and is causing significant problems. For example, recent evidence in two House of Commons select committee inquiries showed a sharp decline in the availability of good quality advisory services - services which are a vital part of our strategic aim to improve standards in schools. Reforming schools, improving quality does not happen overnight. It requires time, effort and partnership. Total delegation of budgets to schools - again, especially for primary - will not give them the purchasing power necessary to "buy in" the central support services they need.

But are such support services really needed? Again, the answer is a definite yes. The four-year inspection cycle by the Office for Standards in Education needs reinforcing in the intervening periods. Close co-operation between OFSTEDHMI and LEA advisory and inspection services will enable effective monitoring of schools' progress. The "pooling" element of the total schools' budget (that is, the 15 per cent not delegated) should lead to an improved and cost-effective delivery mechanism for the reforms. In this way, LEAs can play a genuine and effective role in assisting individual schools to raise both their expectations and their quality - surely the underpinning philosophy behind our reforms.

An effective partnership between LEAs and schools will bring many other benefits. Apart from the obvious advantage of the LEA being able to use capital receipts for new building, major repairs and renovation, locally agreed initiatives for in-service training, specialist services (such as music) together with the LEA's statutory responsibilities for special educational needs will provide schools with the services they need at a price they can afford. Total autonomy is useless unless the means exist to provide these services for themselves. It is a cruel deception to pretend that individual schools' budgets will ever be able to make such provision. Quality does not come cheaply and significant improvements require the most effective use of scarce resources. Redefining the LEAs' role in order to provide schools with the services and support they want has got to be the way forward. Decisions and definition, not delay and doubt, are needed. The solution is within our grasp.

Sir Malcolm Thornton, MP, is chairman of the House of Commons select committee on education.

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