Why do we need LEAs?

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The Independent Online

On the face of it, Ofsted's first ever overview of the performance of local education authorities, published this week, is hardly good news for those working in town halls. Even ignoring the fact that more LEAs (41) were classified as being unsatisfactory or poor than good or very good (29), the starkest fact to emerge from the report is that even well-run authorities are failing to deliver any tangible improvement in school standards. In other words, you have as much chance of success if you are a pupil in a badly run authority as if you are a pupil in a well-run one.

On the face of it, Ofsted's first ever overview of the performance of local education authorities, published this week, is hardly good news for those working in town halls. Even ignoring the fact that more LEAs (41) were classified as being unsatisfactory or poor than good or very good (29), the starkest fact to emerge from the report is that even well-run authorities are failing to deliver any tangible improvement in school standards. In other words, you have as much chance of success if you are a pupil in a badly run authority as if you are a pupil in a well-run one.

In one sense, of course, the report is not telling us anything we did not already know. Its message is that social disadvantage is far more relevant to how well you do at school than the shape of the administrative machinery in your local town hall. To that extent, it is a reminder to the Government that delivering its priorities of education, education, education is all about resources, resources, resources.

It does, however, pose the question – just what is the point of local education authorities? Do we need another layer of bureaucracy to be involved in things like target-setting, where those at the chalkface in schools may be just as good a judge of what their pupils are able to achieve as the town hall?

The report has some good news for LEAs. As the Chief Inspector David Bell says, it offers no comfort to anyone at either extreme of the political spectrum. The performance of most of those found wanting on initial inspection had improved within a year and LEAs perform a valuable service when it comes to overseeing schools' admission policies, pursuing inclusion policies and making sure every child – even if they have been excluded – gets a full-time education.

The answer to the question "what is the future for LEAs?" may well be that, if they weren't already there, we would have to invent them. It is far better to have a democratically accountable authority with local knowledge in charge of administrating support services than to set up yet another government-appointed quango to do the job. It is, however, entirely possible to envisage that LEAs will play a less strategic role in some areas in the future.

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