Chris Price: Blair's death sentence won't destroy our LEAs

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The Independent Online

The mess that Blair has got into over the education White Paper has a tangled pedigree - a pre-election Treasury demand for staff cuts, criticism of social workers and schools for exposing children to abuse, ideological paranoia about overly independent local government and a misguided belief that legislation exists for the purposes of public relations.

The idea that councils' education and social work responsibilities could be combined in renamed "children's departments" was a clever wheeze to deliver spending cuts and respond to scandals such as that of Victoria Climbié. The specious justification was that councils would be better off spending less time on schools and more on vulnerable children; the real reason was a distaste by a centralist government for local education authorities (LEAs).

LEAs and their chief education officers have served the state school system well for more than 100 years. The White Paper proposes to abolish the LEA title, downgrade chief education officers and leave no middle ground between the teachers in the trenches and the generals in the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) and its quangos.

LEAs were never perfect. They were excessively parsimonious in the 1920s and 1930s and woefully weak in the face of inter-union squabbling in the Seventies and Eighties.

But throughout the 20th century they maintained a cadre of chief officers who handled skilfully the transition from an elite secondary system to a comprehensive and democratic one - whether this involved making the 11-plus fairer, developing sixth forms in secondary moderns or transforming lacklustre grammars into successful comprehensives.

Senior education officers successfully tutored their juniors; and a few inspired ones - Bessey in Cumberland, Clegg in the West Riding of Yorkshire, Savage in London, Owen in Devon - staying in the same area for long stretches of their careers - exerted a more decisive influence on the shape of secondary education than any minister.

This era is now over. Social work qualifications are becoming a requisite for the administration of local education; as a result, DfES staff in London and Sheffield will be struggling to learn the ropes of a proto-Napoleonic educational administrative structure.

Mao Tse Tung would have sent these HQ administrators back into the classroom - as Sir Peter Gershon, the businessman chosen by Gordon Brown to save cash by shrinking bureaucracy, once suggested might be one way of achieving his cuts in education.

The best education legislation has been consultative and permissive - legitimising bottom-up action at local level. The 11-plus and the evolution of comprehensive schools emerged from local initiatives.

When the 1944 Education Act was being put together, Rab Butler was advised by two LEA bosses, Henry Morris from Cambridgeshire, who had already built comprehensive schools (in the shape of "village colleges"to serve adults as well as children), and William Alexander from Sheffield, who helped invent the 11-plus exam.

They each wanted different systems. Butler took their advice and ensured that the 1944 Act allowed LEAs to choose which they wanted. Even in the Sixties and early Seventies Crosland and Thatcher allowed this situation to develop: Thatcher proved the more prolific patron of comprehensive schools.

Blair's mistake has been to see the White Paper as a PR tool to maintain his "choice" agenda. He has left the small print to starkly enthusiastic underlings. The doyen of these, Andrew Adonis, wrote in 1997 that the grammar-to-comprehensive transition was a disaster. Independent "academies" and "trusts" are his solution.

But this is not what has happened when schools have been given independence. C of E, Roman Catholic, grant-maintained and foundation schools have always had wide freedom - especially to own property and employ teachers. Yet almost all have cooperated closely with LEAs and LEA schools; they have never wanted the isolated power and private-sector connections the White Paper promotes.

Time and again, they have turned for help to the local council - as many new academies are doing. The "academy" title is public-relations quick fix - calculated to entice rich benefactors and attract upwardly mobile parents.

Good education legislation is like cooking. The ingredients need to be prepared with care. If the Bill, after time in the parliamentary oven, becomes an Act, it will taste dreadful; LEAs will be reinvented before its ink is dry.

The writer is a former MP and former chairman of the Education select committee