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Green: The role for good LEAs

Speech to the LGA Conference in Manchester

Last summer when I addressed your conference in Swindon, I arrived to be greeted by the local paper, which had as its entire front page a strong attack on Estelle Morris for snubbing the LEA and letting down Swindon's schools. It is interesting to see that 12 months on, with a new Secretary of State, there has been such a huge improvement in relations between the Department for Education and Local Government—or so David Miliband tells me.

I am for obvious reasons going to talk today about the funding crisis that is hitting schools up and down the country, in areas controlled by different political parties, in urban as well as rural areas. But I want to be constructive. I want to devote most of my speech to positive proposals about the future freedoms we need to give to schools, and the future role for successful LEAs.

I will just say a few words about the current fiasco. It is not often that a Conservative politician has the pleasure of quoting the New Statesman, so I will enjoy agreeing with Francis Beckett in last week's magazine. He wrote "Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, has for three weeks focussed his formidable political intellect on the schools budget crisis. Unfortunately he has not focussed on solving it. He has focussed on shifting the blame."

Exactly right. I think the Government owes an apology to LEAs for trying to set them as the fall guys for this crisis. I have seen many of the letters your councils have written showing how much money you were passing to schools. Detailed, factual letters, which have blown out of the water the idea that there is a five hundred million pound gap where the money has simply disappeared. I think everyone here knows that the crisis has been caused by a toxic combination of a local Government settlement that treated some councils much better than others, and a raft of increased costs on our schools which all but cancelled out the extra money that was put in. Stir in a dash of fancy footwork with standards fund money and you have the current mess.

So let's spend today looking forward instead of back. What I think would be the worst outcome from this crisis would be a new funding system devised in a hurry, because the Secretary of State is having a fit of pique with Local Government. Whatever your views about how to fund our schools, policy making on the hoof, driven by a sense of crisis and the search for scapegoats, will always be bad policy-making.

It is extraordinary to realise that in one part of the Whitehall jungle the Deputy Prime Minister is running a committee designed to provide an LEA-based solution for future school funding, which is told to report by the end of this month, and next door the Prime Minister's officials are working hard on a solution which cuts out the LEAs altogether. We are told that the Education Secretary is in the second camp.

This is a lousy way to make policy. If we are to have effective and long lasting policy, rather than eye-catching press releases and poor delivery, Policy needs to be considered and evaluated. It should not be a knee-jerk reaction to a crisis, however serious, and it should certainly not be used as an excuse to shift the blame for current problems.

The first step towards devising a funding system which will stand a chance of being fair and durable is to set it in the context of a regime which gives a clear role to Local Education Authorities, and freedoms for schools so that they can be the driving force for improvements in standards.

Every policy these days needs a road map. So I think there should be a road map by which schools can become genuinely autonomous institutions. I think there should be a radical cut in the power of Government to interfere in the day-to-day running of our schools. I want this because the decisions that will improve the performance of schools year after year have to be made by heads, teachers, governors and parents.

The guiding principle, as I have said, is that schools run schools best. By far the biggest influence on the standards set by a school is the effectiveness of the Head. So I want to go much further than the rather half-hearted attempts at decentralisation that the Government has already set out. The concept of 'earned autonomy' is, by any standards, a nonsense. The phrase itself is an oxymoron. If you are autonomous you cannot have earned it from a higher authority. And in practice the policy of earned autonomy is being implemented a rather arbitrary and centralising way.

So we will replace this with a concept of assumed autonomy. If a school wants to be autonomous, and they have met some transparent criteria about standards in performance, discipline and governance, it will be their choice as a school whether they accept autonomous status. If they do, they will have control over how you spend they money, which will come to the school in a direct lump sum, and therefore mean that they will have more freedoms in other key areas.

This autonomy will give schools the choice to manage their own affairs, remain under the control of their local authority, or join a federation of other autonomous schools. They could choose to employ their own teachers, have control over their own spending, and decide from where they buy support services such as transport, payroll, or catering.

My intention is that the vast majority of schools would qualify for these freedoms. Obviously those who are seeing poor results, unacceptable disciplinary standards, or problems with general governance will need to be helped to reach the acceptable standard. But these will be the exceptions. One of the key functions of OFSTED, which will continue to undertake inspections, will be to look at these schools to put them back to full health.

Clearly if schools are to be given the choice to be autonomous there is a significant change in the role of the Local Education Authority. Good LEAs will have a role in providing services that schools do not want to manage for themselves. For example, transport in many rural areas, perhaps Special Education Needs, payroll services. I am sure that local authorities that have a good track record in providing support services will continue to find a ready market for their services. Indeed, those who do not have a good track record would find themselves considerably sharpened up if they wished to continue to be significant service providers.

The other key role for LEAs will be monitoring the progress of schools, particularly those that are struggling. There is enough data—at least enough data—demanded of schools now for this to be monitored on a continuous basis without the imposition of any new form-filling. This would allow the LEA to act as an early warning system between OFSTED inspections.

And there is a potential new role for LEAs under our scheme for State Scholarships, which will allow new schools, state-funded but not state-run, to meet the needs of parents who are dissatisfied with the current provision. We want to create a new type of school within the maintained sector, of particular benefit to those in the inner cities who so often are unable to exercise the choices about their children's education which the middle classes take for granted. I believe that an excellent education should be within the reach of everyone regardless of their personal circumstances. Now if we are to allow new bodies, whether voluntary or private, to set up new schools there needs to be a gateway body through which they pass, to check they meet the criteria. This could be an important role for local authorities. Since we would abolish the surplus places rule to enable the creation of these new schools, this role would replace the school planning function at local authority level.

So there is a role for good LEAs in my vision of the future. A role in providing services for schools that want them, helping to provide information for parents so that standards can be continuously monitored and improved, and acting as a gateway for new schools from new providers within the maintained sector.

All of this will necessarily entail a simpler funding system. Before this recent crisis I hadn't met many who thought that the current system was simple enough to understand, or fair enough to deal justly with the different needs of different areas of the country. In the aftermath of this crisis, I suspect I never will. We are close to the position in the old joke about the Schleswig- Holstein problem. Only three people understood it, and one had died, one had gone mad, and the third had forgotten the answer.

So we are working on a national funding formula for schools, and for the education functions of local authorities. This would remove the need for central Government to set minimum levels of delegation and to ring fence budgets. Which will mean that many of the problems that have arisen this year will have less chance of rearing their heads in the future.

It will also allow parents to compare funding levels in different areas, force Governments to defend the weighting applied to different factors, and allow good local authorities to use savings from administration for improved services. The funding formula per child in a given area would provide a base figure for the State Scholarships—money which would follow the child.

Now do I have a detailed plan that I can hand out afterwards? No. I try to take my own advice, and decide policies slowly and carefully, in consultation with those who will have to implement them. I have already had a number of useful discussions with practitioners pointing out the various difficulties, and I know that the Education Commission under the Chairmanship of Sir Robert Balchin is also looking closely at this issue. I look forward to hearing their findings on the issue.

What is important is not just getting this central policy right, but putting it in the right overall context. That context is the one I mentioned a few minutes ago, in which the most important decisions in the Education System are taken by heads, teachers, parents and governors, rather than politicians.

I hope it is clear that I am not, by habit or inclination, a centralist. But I am also not an anarchist. All schools, however independent we can make them, need to demonstrate to the wider community on a continuous basis that they are doing well for their pupils. That is why I see a continuing role for OFSTED both in inspection and in providing advice so that improvement programmes can be set in place in schools with severe problems. The assessment of the progress of improvements will also be a job for OFSTED.

What I want to see is a system of much more independent schools, fulfilling their obligations to their local communities in an open and transparent way, checked regularly by outside bodies, and buying services they need from their preferred supplier. The main drivers for improving standards in these schools would not be central Government targets; it would be the heads and teachers, answerable to parents who will have been given choice in a way that the current system denies them.

In this system the role of Governors will be at least as important as before. Good Governors are crucial to a well-run school. We are looking at the size of current boards of Governors, to see if they are not too large in some cases, and also at the detailed responsibilities of Governors, to see if they are not too onerous. It may well be that a more strategic role is necessary, both to make the job feasible for busy people, and to allow Governors to concentrate on what they should be doing.

There is a thread running through all the proposals I have set out this morning. It is the notion of trust. We all say we want a more responsive school system, which offers excellence in our inner cities as well as the leafy suburbs. But we will never achieve that spread of excellence by diktat from Whitehall, and we will certainly never achieve it if the Government uses the notion of reform as a chance to pass the buck.

There is a route out of the current morass. It requires a policy that puts the school at the centre of improving standards, and gives the appropriate role to politicians at both local and national level. Only if we trust professionals and parents to know what they want and how it can be delivered will we release the latent energies and talents of everyone within our school system.

It is not a risk-free option. Some schools will do better than others. Some schools will fail, as they do under any system. But what I become more convinced about with every new crisis in our school system is that we will never achieve excellence under a centrally-driven, top-down, Whitehall-dominated system which generates more initiatives than improvements, and which demoralises teachers, heads, and local authorities. We need a complete change of direction. At present a quarter of our children leave primary school unable to read, write and count properly. 30,000 leave secondary school without a single qualification. The culture of truancy is growing, with a 15 per cent growth in the number of truants since 1996/97. Nearly half of all fourteen year olds do not reach the required standards in English, Maths and Science. And finally, the DfES now sends out 20 pages of paperwork every day of the school year, a real sign of the Whitehall knows best culture.

We need a complete change of direction away from centralisation and towards local control.

The ideas I have set out are designed to achieve just that. If we bring them to fruition, we will be able to ensure that no child is left behind, and no child is held back by the failures of a distant civil servant or Minister. We must give every child a fair deal, and a real chance to fulfil his or her potential. That is what our schools can achieve, and that is what we must achieve if we are to become a successful and civilised community in this country.

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