Earlier this month, local government minister Nick Raynsford announced 45 beacon awards to a total of 63 councils. Other ministers, including Chris Pond, David Milliband, Tony McNulty and Catherine Ashton were also present at the awards ceremony in London, to demonstrate commitment to working with the beacons, to develop best practice guidance and to ensure that central, as well as local government, learns from the scheme.
But what does the beacon scheme achieve? Is it worth the hype and the resources devoted to it by central government, local government and the Improvement & Development Agency? Who does the scheme help? Does it help beacons to improve further, does it help other authorities aspiring to improve, or both?
Beacon councils are rightly proud of their award, which is only given after a rigorous assessment process. IDeA believes that to be awarded beacon status can certainly be a big fillip to those staff involved in delivering services day in, day out, and to councillors who have demonstrated their commitment to making the particular service a priority within their authority. Beacon status represents national acknowledgement of their achievements, and through the IDeA Knowledge website and conferences their best practice can be shared by all councils.
IDeA aims to help all councils improve so they match the standards of the best. The beacon council scheme is an essential element of this work.
Along with the boost to morale, IDeA believes the award of beacon status brings with it many other benefits, including a series of oppo rtunities to benchmark a council's own services against those of other authorities and to gain a detailed understanding of other approaches to service delivery.
Many beacons have also used the national profile that beacon status brings as a means of influencing policy development within their beacon theme. Nicola Graham, Tynedale DC's beacon co-ordinator says that as a result of being awarded beacon status in the theme of 'supporting the rural economy', 'confidence across the authority has been bolstered, we are learning things ourselves from people with whom we are now coming in to contact, and we are being invited into more strategic discussions, such as the Local Government Association Haskins focus group'.
So beacon status can help the beacons to improve, but does it perform its primary role of helping the local government community as a whole to improve? There are numbers to show that councils are keen to learn from the beacons - some 2,000 delegates attended IDeA and beacon-run open days last autumn; 82% of councils participated in these events; and by Christmas 2003, more than 80 councils were engaging in specific one-to-one learning activities with beacons.
Warwick Business School's Local Government Centre has been commissioned by the ODPM and IDeA to undertake a detailed study of the impact of the beacon scheme. In previous research, Warwick and IDeA identified a number of councils that have used beacon good practice to inform their service improvements. Calderdale MBC is one of those councils.
Calderdale has beacon status for 'local health strategies' (2001-02) and 'transforming secondary education' (2003-04). Chief executive Paul Sheehan is a strong supporter of the beacon programme: 'We have been both enthusiastic consumers and providers of best practice under the beacon programme. We actively promote beacon learning as a performance improvement tool for our middle and senior managers. In 2004 we have developed a peer learning accelerated improvement programme which is supported by beacon capacity building grant.'
Calderdale transformed its education service between 1997 and 2002, and considers peer learning to have been an important tool in its approach. Calderdale visited a range of education departments, and developed a particularly fruitful collaboration with Blackburn
with Darwen Council in a beacon for 'tackling school failure'.
In 1999, Calderdale had 12 schools causing concern. Senior managers visited Blackburn with Darwen and were impressed by what they heard and saw, and further meetings were held between staff from the two councils. Calderdale designed a series of in-service training days examining the types of interventions made with Blackburn with Darwen's schools. Data was compared and Calderdale's head teachers were put in touch with their counterparts from Blackburn with Darwen and other councils.
This collaborative work informed the development of new school performance databases, and the review of criteria for identification of schools causing concern.
Two years on, the Ofsted inspection of Calderdale commended the very significant improvements made, and in 2003, Calderdale was awarded beacon status for transforming secondary education.
What of the future of the scheme? With the second round of local public service agreements coming on stream, with the comprehensive performance assessment and its associated freedoms and flexibilities for 'excellent' councils, what future does the beacon scheme really have?
IDeA believes the beacon scheme will continue to have a bright future. No other local government scheme in operation at the moment provides access to such a wide range of externally verified excellent and innovative practice. And no other scheme provides access to the practitioners and politicians responsible for initiating this practice.
Believing that local government improvement is best promoted from within, IDeA is encouraging beacons to work as peers within other councils, and is in discussions with the ODPM and LGA about how beacons can be encourag ed to release both their officers and councillors to offer their experience and expertise to other councils.
IDeA continues to be excited by the policy development role of the beacons too.
Government ministers select beacon themes, and
the agency works with the relevant government department, with specialist members of the Advisory Panel for Beacon Councils and other partners such as
the LGA, to ensure that appropriate beacon councils are fully involved in any changes to policy, guidance and legislation.
As enthusiasts for the scheme, we believe that so long as those responsible for the scheme continue to review its operation and to adapt it accordingly, there will always be a role for the beacon scheme in improving council services.
IDeA sees the beacon scheme as a key strand of its work to support service improvement within local government.
Dame Sally Powell (Lab)
Vice-chair, Improvement & Development Agency