Would Labour trust the Tories' problem child?

Earlier this month I spoke at the grant-maintained schools' annual conference about the future role of local education authorities, particularly if there is a Labour government after the general election.

It was hardly surprising that my speech wasn't greeted with total acclamation or unalloyed pleasure, even though my own ideas about such matters are moderate. What was striking in the discussion after was the distinction drawn between local authority officers and elected members.

There was a degree of acceptance, somewhere between grudging and almost warm, of the value of an expert cadre of officers and advisers, especially in relation to school review and improvement strategies. However, the role of councillors and, therefore, the value of the local democratic process were treated with suspicion and profound scepticism.

While there is an emerging consensus about the tasks that can be usefully undertaken locally in relation to school improvement, few of these tasks appear to require the intervention or judgment of elected members. More and more local authority functions represent, instead, the bureaucratic arm of central government. The policies that underlie the local administration of student grants, statements of special education need, school transport, school attendance compliance procedures or grants for education support and training allocations are primarily those of central government.

This is a far cry from this government's 1979 circular, which stated, "Democratically elected local authorities are wholly responsible bodies and must be free to get on with the task entrusted to them by Parliament without constant interference in matters of detail by the government of the day. "

In his account of recent local government reforms in six countries, Donald Hirsch reminds us that while "local governments in other countries are not universally given greater powers than in Britain, they tend to be treated as responsible, and viewed in positive terms. In Britain, local government has often been treated by central government like a problem child." He adds that "perhaps the greatest desire of its practitioners is to be treated like adults".

It doesn't look as though the bestowing of such adult status is a key electoral issue, including, as it must, some degree of local policy formulation.

We need to decide whether the rationale for local government, spelt out in the Widdicombe report over 15 years ago, is still relevant, with its three major tenets of pluralism, responsiveness and participation.

Pluralism is about the distribution of powers needed to ensure that any undue concentration of power is counterbalanced elsewhere in the system of government. Participation is concerned with the opportunity for people to play a part in government themselves, with the provision of points of entry to political office, and with the acquisition of habits of government.

Responsiveness recognises that, whether a local service is provided within a national policy framework or is determined autonomously, it is more likely to articulate local aspirations and needs through an elected and accountable body.

The extent to which local education authorities have burnished and re-interpreted these precepts over recent years varies enormously. Many have broadened the base upon which local stakeholders express needs and concerns.

Partnerships with training and enterprise councils, health trusts, further education colleges and universities are frequently initiated by LEAs, alongside newer kinds of relationships with teachers' and governors' associations and sometimes with grant-maintained and independent schools.

Similarly, representing "end users" in the education service, locally, is an increasingly important function, especially for parents and students whose access to a fragmented and competitive system is uncertain at best, and denied at worst. Such a role, however, requires new forms of working.

Some LEAs still operate through a time-consuming committee system, where there can be up to 17 education sub-committees grinding their way through lengthy reports. In one such recent case, a report to a single sub-committee was more than a 100 pages long, and it was difficult to see how the lofty precepts of pluralism, participation and responsiveness featured at all in the presentation of such life-denying minutiae. However, even the smallest officer-level decision was scrutinised.

In contrast, a nearby county authority has just a single performance review sub-committee and, otherwise, a small, but still publicly accountable, strategy review panel. The sub-committee meets three times a year and evaluates the progress of schools, as well as council services.

Those who are responsible for the schools or services concerned are invited to discuss their reports with elected members on a basis of agreed success criteria and performance indicators.

Local views at ward level are culled about schools or other services and presented by councillors. Their strategy review panel advises the larger education committee on longer-term issues, including the authority's capital programme and provision of school places. Supporting evidence from other council departments, such as planning, demographic or economic services is also commissioned.

Planning a capital programme involves complex and fraught consultations, and then decisions, about the sale of land and property deemed to be "surplus to requirements". This certainly requires the imprimatur of a democratic system. I shall never forget the huge emotional and moral demands made of elected members in Warwickshire's school re-organisation strategy. Irrespective of political party, they acted in the best traditions of local governance as they struggled to represent and resolve, in the public spotlight, a host of conflicting priorities and values.

This and similar experiences make me acclaim Neil Acherson for what he wrote in The Observer in 1988: "We need to halt and reverse the loss of faith in the political process. An ice-age of authoritarian government, a one-party glacier, is slithering northwards from London."

This loss of faith was expressed by those grant-maintained school headteachers in their recent conference. Would a change of government change such feelings?

Professor Margaret Maden is director of the Keele University Centre for Successful Schools.

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