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Thinking backwards

When the Association of Metropolitan Authorities set out to produce a consultation paper on the future of local management in schools, it did not have to "think the unthinkable" like last week's Borrie Commission. Since the AMA believes "democratically elected authorities are the best judge of needs and priorities", the unthinkable had already happened in 1988.

Kenneth Baker's Education Reform Act created not just the acceptable face of LMS. It also stripped education authorities of most of their powers over individual schools and teachers on the assumption that governors knew best.

This timely discussion document is clearly aimed at influencing Labour rather than existing Government thinking (it speaks of "when grant-maintained schools are reintegrated", rather than "if"). Its central principle, that local management should be linked to the raising of achievement, is a sound one. But its thesis, that the way to improve standards is to give powers back to local authorities to determine staffing, spending and policy priorities for schools under the guise of quality and auditory control, is wholly at odds with the purpose of delegation. It would remove the incentive to manage effectively and signal a return to dependency culture. It would also give the lie to the claim that LMS provides the same auto-nomy as opting out.

The AMA paper is right about many of the things it says local authorities should be doing: they should be providing governors and parents with better information on school performance and targets; asking governing bodies to explain excessive balances, and providing governors with clear guidelines on pay, personnel, equal opportunities and legal obligations. If they are not doing all these things, the question is why not? It is certainly not for lack of statutory powers.

The AMA wants to back up such guidelines with powers for local authorities to direct schools when their guidance has been "unreasonably" ignored; to muscle in on a "joint management" basis or to issue headteachers with "temporary directions" when they believe schools are in danger of not performing as they expect. These measures would create chaos where clear accountability is needed. They are unnecessary where authorities do what they ought to be doing.

It is farcical to suggest LEAs should have powers to direct governing bodies to do what employment law already requires or to refer back dismissals so that a sacking becomes an endless roundabout. Chief education officers have entrenched rights to attend governors' meetings and advise governing bodies; they also have the right to inspect and demand information. District auditors have powers and duties to ensure the probity of governors' actions and the local authority has powers to withdraw delegation where it considers governors are failing to manage the budget satisfactorily.

If David Blunkett, Labour's new education spokesman, wants a recipe for uniformity and mediocrity; if he wants a way to remove schools' responsibility for making the best of limited resources and difficult circumstances; and if he wants a return to LEAs' vested interest in keeping parents in the dark, rather than working with them, the AMA has provided it.

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