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The much-publicised white paper 'Higher Standards, Better Schools for All: More Choice for Parents and Pupils' has generated far more media interest than proposals for education legislation usually do. After all, since this government came to power, we have had an Education Act roughly once a year, and yet media interest is generally slight. So why are these proposals different?
There are two reasons, only the first of which is to do with the content of the paper itself. The second is that the proposals have been purposefully given a higher place on the political and publicity agenda of the Government than even the much-quoted 'education, education, education' priorities list occasioned. This must be due in large measure to the Prime Minister's personal desire to leave a legacy of educational change when he quits Number 10. The crucial thing that educationalists and parents want to know is whether this legacy will be one of which he can justifiably be proud.
The content of the white paper is far-reaching, but, as with many legislative proposals, more conceptual than practical and lacking in detail. This makes it difficult to get a true picture of the effect of the proposals at the coal face of education - in the schools and in the council departments across the country tasked with managing the changes.
A key feature of the proposals is a changing role for the traditionally understood concept of the local education authority (LEA). Some of the headlines declaring the abolition of the LEA are more sensationalist than accurate. The LEA has never been a separate entity from the rest of the local authority in which it sits, although this is a common misconception of parents (and sometimes of staff), and the abolition of the title will surely help to erode any remnants of 'silo' mentality that do remain. In fact, the process of change for LEAs has already begun - the Children Act 2004 has led to an amalgamation of education and children's social services departments to form Children's Services Departments, ready to meet the challenges of the 'Every Child Matters' agenda in a more coordinated way.
So, in some respects the white paper is just a another step in this direction. The more important proposal is a shift in the emphasis of the role of the new departments: they are now 'commissioners' in the education field rather than providers and, aspirationally, will be seen as 'champions' for parents.
Reactions to the white paper have varied, but it is interesting that Education Secretary Ruth Kelly has this month written to local authority leaders and chief executives clarifying the Government's intentions towards the local authority role mooted in the proposals. She is at pains to emphasise that "this is not a role we have invented in Whitehall".
What, then, is the future role for local authorities in education? We all know that ultimately an act often looks different from the white paper from which it derives (consider the watering down of the Freedom of Information Act 2000), and that regulations are often needed to put the detail on sections of enabling legislation. Until we at least have a bill (expected sometime in February) there will be some uncertainty; a state of affairs not helped by the backbench rebellion earlier this year. However, the Government is strongly backing these proposals.
At present, the white paper envisages a role for the local authority which is one of strategic leadership linked to the developing 'Children's Trusts', focusing on improving standards, engaging parents and inviting proposals for establishing schools (which the Government hopes will be Trust schools).
What does this mean for school organisation? At present, most schools are community schools and the vast majority of new school proposals are brought by the council. In the future, the Government envisages the council's role as being one of enabling school competitions - the white paper proposals open up the number of people able to propose schools and give parents the right to propose a new school with an earmarked fund to help them do so. The decision-making element is removed from the school organisation committee and given to the local authority in recognition of its commissioner rather than provider status. Key to the new landscape is the Trust school model - creating 'independent state schools'. This is an interesting idea and one of many strategies designed to push the schools away from the local authority and towards complete self-government.
To assist with its new commissioning role, the LEA will still be able to propose school closures and alterations across a number of school areas, as well as becoming responsible for promoting choice, diversity, fair access to school places and transport.
One of the key elements of the sales pitch for the white paper is that it will increase parental choice. This educational Holy Grail has never really been a reality. The Education Act 1980 created the concept of parental preference, which was widely sold - and therefore misunderstood - as parental choice. In reality, many parents, even those articulate and skilled at navigating the admissions system, do not get their choice of school.
It is difficult to see how increasing the fragmentation of the school portfolio and the admissions system (Trust schools, like academies, voluntary aided and foundation schools, handle their own admissions) will contribute to parents securing a place for their child at their school of choice. Choice in the sense of more options of school type - possibly; but in the sense that most parents understand it - ie "I can have the school I choose" - that remains to be seen.
The local authority does retain its role as the funder for schools. With the exception of the independent school sector, schools are maintained by the local authority, subject to the funding formula. This is intended to be the case for the new Trust schools. Even academies are maintained schools, but they are state-maintained via direct grant funding from the Department for Education and Skills.
The main challenge to local authorities from the raft of education reform proposed in the last year is that there is simply so much of it to manage. With the additional challenge of establishing Children's Trusts, and with the Child Care Bill and the 'Youth Matters' green paper reforms looming large, newly formed children's services departments have huge amounts of change management to negotiate, both internally and with ever-increasing numbers of partners.