For all the progress that the Government makes in changing the very foundations of governmental structure (both for better and worse, depending upon the party questioned), one fundamental debate has yet to be resolved.
As fans of Yes, Prime Minister will recall, local government has often been regarded with a mixture of scorn and loathing by the central governing authorities. Perhaps, however, times they are a ““ changing. In a speech to the Local Government Association (LGA), Secretary of State for Education and Skills Ruth Kelly MP spoke of a new partnership; and here FE News takes a brief look at what she sees this partnership delivering for Education.
The Unambiguous Champion of the Citizen
So, what exactly is the role of the modern council? The Secretary of State sees it as to: “Continually assess local need, map provision, identify gaps and work with local partners to meet them; commission services so as to ensure real diversity of provision; and to relentlessly pursue quality, intervene decisively where standards are inadequate, push for improvement when services are only satisfactory and work with providers to spread success.”
This would seem to indicate that the emphasis is placed upon flexibility and local accountability. And this localised approach would seem to make sense, enabling local councils to cater to the demographically individual needs of their communities. It could be said to be confusing, however, in the light of the Government’s commitment to further centralise a number of departments (such as the proposed merger of Ofsted and the Adult Learning Inspectorate [ALI]) which seems to remove local authority, drowning it beneath the bulk of a huge organisation.
It appears that the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) recognises this shortcoming as well. Ruth Kelly stated that: “Post-war provision of schools and social services, characterised by municipal monopoly, achieved a great deal in improving the education, housing and public health of the country. But”¦there was too much variation in quality, too little innovation, choice or responsiveness to users.” It seems there is a genuine push towards more local involvement. But how?
A National Framework with Local Roles
Perhaps the term “the unambiguous champion of”¦the citizen” needs a little attention. Where does the power actually lie, once one bypasses the comment about the debate being concerned with empowering citizens rather than deciding who gets to control them. “Local authorities must do more to give strong leadership raise standards and empower citizens,” is one of the statements from the Secretary of State. So is central government calling for local councils to take over the leading role in policy change and implementation?
Ruth Kelly went on: “There has to be responsiveness and real choice. Not as optional extras but at the heart of service delivery. There has to be a willingness ““ in fact a desire ““ to respond to the views of citizens, to address problems, to pre-empt difficulties and to give the user a real choice over the services they rely on.” Does this place the emphasis on curriculum, or the methods of service provision? And what does this do for funding?
There are already instances where local councils and their local Learning and Skills Councils (LSCs) have sided with each other to fight a DfES initiative (for instance, the proposed FE revolution in Hastings where the DfES has gone against the recommendation of the LSC and local council). Does this focus on local cooperation spell a decisive shift in the decision making apparatus?
Central Trumps Local?
The truth is, of course, that no matter how great a level of cooperation there may be, the central administration will always retain the final power of decision. And this seems to be the real theme; one where cooperation is encouraged and sought, but very much on Whitehall’s terms. Ruth Kelly cited a number of examples of this local implementation of “joined up” national strategy as good practice.
She said to the LGA: “I hear echoes of all these themes in “Champions of Local Learning” the LGA consultation paper on this subject that you”ve published recently. Good local authorities are already playing this role – Sheffield and Kent spring easily to mind – representing, as nobody else can, the interests of their citizens and users. Doing things in their own distinctive way, appropriate to local conditions, but at the same time meeting national standards.”
This is true of a number of different initiatives, including the famous 14 ““ 19 skills paper, which Ruth Kelly says “will mean local authorities, in partnership with local LSCs, commissioning the necessary provision to ensure that pupils can benefit from the national entitlement we set out in our recent White Paper.” It also covers the Youth Green Paper, and indeed the Academies scheme. In this last, whilst Ruth Kelly recognises the existence of some “doubts” from the LGA on these, she was “pleased that most local authorities including Manchester, Sandwell and Hackney are now working closely with us to make Academies a key part of your local system.”
It is important to note that Ruth Kelly expresses herself to be the friend of local ““ central government cooperation, disagreeing with those who believe that “education is such a national priority that we should erode the local authority role.” Whether this represents a real sea ““ change, or a simple sop to local authorities, remains to be seen.
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