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As the Local Government Association holds it annual conference, Conor Ryan ...
As the Local Government Association holds it annual conference, Conor Ryan

assesses the political career of education chair Graham Lane

David Blunkett moved on after seven years in education. Nigel de Gruchy has stepped down from leading the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers, and other union leaders are already contemplating life after the conference circuit.

Yet one person remains firmly in place - Graham Lane (Lab), who was re-elected in May as the chair of the Local Government Association's education and lifelong learning executive.

The Birmingham-born councillor is a bluff, amiable figure who has served on Newham LBC for 16 years. He was education committee chairman at Newham when it started to show real improvement.

The former English teacher was a political adviser to Neil Fletcher, the last leader of the Inner London Education Authority. Mr Fletcher is now his senior education official at the LGA.

Yet Mr Lane's national achievements after nine years as the voice of local education departments - he chaired the Association of Metropolitan Authorities education committee before the LGA was born - are limited.

There have been occasional flashes of inspiration. Mr Lane claims credit for persuading ministers that councils should have a legal duty to promote higher school standards. He also contributed to the debate on maintenance support for pupils over 16 and championed the case for the six-term school year.

Elsewhere, change happened despite Mr Lane. Head teachers get control of nearly 90% of school budgets now, but services have not collapsed as he predicted. The public knows where councils spend their money through government tables published with the co-operation of councils - Mr Lane had urged for them to be binned.

Education departments were keen to see local City Academies emerge, despite Mr Lane denouncing them as 'a half-baked idea' which signalled the 'beginning of removing education from local government'. Indeed, far from spelling the end of council control, Labour fought the 2001 election defending them against the Conservative Party's half-baked plans for free schools.

Then there is the constant rejoinder that education ministers are always the 'victims of a plot' by 'shadowy creatures around Tony Blair'. While the furore about spin might suggest he had inside knowledge, the truth was the Downing Street policy unit to which he referred reflected Mr Blair's own thinking. And when David Miliband, former policy chief and now school standards minister, addressed head teachers recently, they cheered him.

But these advisers also work pretty closely with education ministers, selling radical ministerial ideas to the prime minister almost as much as they hustle the other way around. Mr Blunkett and Estelle Morris did not introduce radical change under sufferance.

But this approach can be counterproductive. When education departments were slated by Ofsted, their councillors usually sought to work constructively with the government to find the best way to improve services. Sometimes, as in Islington LBC, this involved privatisation. More often it meant outsourcing services and using private consultants to spur improvement.

The policy was introduced because the government wanted councils to play a clearly defined, but effective, role - a stance confirmed since their re-election.

Yet several leading councillors in authorities struggling to turn themselves around after damning Ofsted reports complain the LGA urged them to fight the government rather than provide support and a positive solution.

Then, when supply teachers were in short supply, Mr Lane too quickly acceded to Nigel de Gruchy's demands for extra money to pay teachers covering for absent colleagues. By doing so, he made it much harder for councils and ministers to face down the unions' campaign. Instead he could have persuaded councils to stop organising the term-time training sessions that created the shortfall in the first place.

Mr Lane often seems to be elsewhere. A regular fixture at Labour Party conferences in the days of meaningless composite motions, the grammar school boy was never happier than when negotiating lengthy anti-grammar school resolutions.

And when Jack Straw, the then shadow education secretary, tentatively tried to make peace with grant-maintained schools after the 1992 election, Mr Lane - wearing his other hat as general secretary of the Socialist Education Association -denounced him as a 'sell out'.

Fighting a fifth of all secondary schools and their parents might turn off the voters and distract Labour from real policy, but it didn't stop Mr Lane from backing Ann Taylor as shadow education secretary when she launched all-out war on grant-maintained schools.

It took David Blunkett's 1994 appointment to restore the party to its senses by developing a compromise with heads of grant-maintained schools and senior council education officers. In the end, Mr Lane made a virtue of his accepting foundation schools.

Now he has a new cause - denouncing any school which does not conform to the Campaign for State Education's pure ideology. Not only shall there be no selection, but no specialist or faith schools either.

Such pronouncements may keep his name in the papers, but they limit the LGA's influence on government thinking. The association may get its statutory place on finance working groups, but it has little impact on national school policies. This is despite the splendid work many individual education departments have done on the literacy strategy, turning around failing schools and introducing the Excellence in Cities programme.

Perhaps it is time for LGA members to find a new national education voice? They need some fresh ideas and renewed influence. In any case, nobody can doubt Mr Lane will find a platform from which to express his views.

Conor Ryan

Special adviser (1997-2001) to former education secretary David Blunkett

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