Comment: Peter Mortimore

Local education authorities are in crisis. It's time to change the way educational services are managed

From the Balfour Act of 1902 until the Baker Act of 1988, the main engine of the education system was the local education authority. The LEA was responsible for the planning, building, opening and closing of schools and for most other educational services.

From the Balfour Act of 1902 until the Baker Act of 1988, the main engine of the education system was the local education authority. The LEA was responsible for the planning, building, opening and closing of schools and for most other educational services.

The situation today is very different: LEAs are hanging on by their fingertips. The previous Conservative government set in motion the creation of a set of extremely small authorities, carved out of large County Councils. Making such small LEAs cost effective will test the skills and ingenuity of even the best education officers. Now the present Government is busy establishing a set of Education Action Zones with powers that, confusingly, cut across those of the LEAs and muddle the responsibilities of elected local councillors.

Ofsted inspectors - acting on behalf of central government - are inspecting LEAs and declaring a number of them unsuitable to run their own educational services. The situation whereby one tier of a democratic government uses public money to investigate the efficacy of another tier (also democratically elected) and, if it does not like what it finds, has power to recommend the privatisation of its services is worthy of Kafka. The outcome for local citizens, however, is far from fictional: local electors and council payers will no longer have a direct relationship with the schools in their area and schools may be run by profit-making companies with few or no local connections.

I am not opposed - in principle - to using commercial companies to run educational services. But I am worried that the profit motive may prove incompatible with quality and may distort the service that is offered to citizens. Educational needs will have to compete with those of the shareholders seeking a financial return on their investment. Furthermore, I am concerned that the democratic link between local representation and local services is being lost.

Ironically, I suspect that the commercial organisations - far from introducing new blood untainted by local government - will headhunt current or former LEA officers. Certainly this appears to be the case with those who have been identified as holding new "privatised" roles in Islington (two of them were outstanding education officers when I worked for the Inner London Education Authority).

I accept that the Government is committed to modernisation and I want to suggest an alternative approach before the country moves too far down what we know, from the recent history of the railways, will be a one way track. Why not think about transferring the responsibility for education from the local authorities to the new regional authorities?

Giving responsibility for education to the regions would continue the ethos of public service and would keep out the profit motive while, at the same time, encouraging an innovative approach to all aspects of educational administration. It would also enable the administration of schools to be linked with the provision of other regional services. The size of the regions would militate against the authorities interfering inappropriately in day-to-day management, but they could provide a planning platform, a funding mechanism and a safety net.

The new regional authorities would carry no baggage from the past and they would be in a position to create new ways of working including, if it is still deemed appropriate, collaboration with Education Action Zones in their region. But, most importantly, such a move would keep our schools within some form of democratic structure.

I accept that the 1902 ways of doing things need to be changed. But I also believe that LEAs deserve fairer treatment than they are getting. Their role in the creation of the public education system was historically important. Rather than destroying this legacy, my proposal offers a way of building on, within a brand new structure, the best practice of those LEAs which have adapted to change while, at the same time, encouraging new ways of working more in tune with authority being delegated to schools. The past few weeks have shown the Government's determination to preserve the character of our National Health Service - despite the expense. Let it now show that it will do the same for its top priority - education.

The writer is the Director of the Institute of Education, University of London

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