Leading Article: A farewell to arm-wrestling

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The Independent Online
Yesterday parent governors from around England and Wales came to London and talked about their frustrations. Once again they have been caught up in the annual arm-wrestling contest that goes on between Westminster and the town halls, where ministerial claim is countered by civic rebuttal. The Government says that authorities have enough money to fund education properly - the LEAs deny it.

It is impossible for a school governor or a parent to be sure who is right. Although 75 per cent of council budgets go on education, the local authorities also run planning, social services, roads and much more besides. There is no absolute relation between the money allocated for education and what schools receive. That is why the governors' representatives yesterday called for the system to be changed.

Coincidentally David Blunkett, shadow Education Secretary, is now looking at how the relationship between schools, local authorities and central government might be reformed. Over 16 years local government has been subject to constant change. Reorganisation, capping, the poll tax, compulsory tendering - the list is long and depressing. In that time local government has been progressively weakened. Surprisingly, however, as Mr Blunkett knows, it has not been fundamentally reformed. Its structures are pretty much the same as they have been for more than a century.

The perennial row about education and its funding suggests that a more radical approach is required. While empowerment of school governors may prove to have been one of the more important reforms of the post-1979 era, these governors now need a system that offers greater transparency and more accountability.

So here is a thought - break up the functions of local councils, and create new, elected bodies charged with supervising particular services. Education, for example, would be run by a locally-elected school board, receiving some money for that purpose from central government and raising the rest from its own local tax revenues. The board could decide which services to provide itself and which to put out to tender, and money would be disbursed to locally managed schools. The board would, of course, be subject to nationally prescribed standards and to the reports of the inspectorate. The same model would apply to areas such as social services and transport.

Such an approach would inevitably mean more elections. But these elections might be more meaningful and direct than at present. Instead of ploughing through the airy generalities of portmanteau local manifestoes, parents, say, would be able to examine in more detail candidates' proposals for educating their children. Party label might give way to expertise - arm- wrestling to thought and action.

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