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IN PRACTICE - TONY ELLISTON SEEKS EDUCATIONAL REALISM

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The latest effluent from Ofsted has added a whole new dimension to the debate about the future of local education a...
The latest effluent from Ofsted has added a whole new dimension to the debate about the future of local education authorities. We now have a new category of LEA that is deemed to be failing but whose schools are doing the business. Conversely, there are allegedly excellent LEAs presiding over schools that are on the rotten side of awful.

The much-feted Newham LBC is a case in point. I am sure Ofsted was absolutely spot on when it declared that the government's favourite London borough had an education service to die for. But I suspect that this is scant consolation for the children obliged to endure its low performing schools. The road from Richmond to Plaistow is not exactly jammed with anxious parents desperate to secure a better education for their children. There may be some substance to Newham's spin about its schools improving faster than anywhere else in the country, but the fact remains that if you want to find where Newham is in the pecking order of educational achievement, you can save yourself a lot of time by starting at the bottom of the league table and working up - you will not have too far to travel.

Now I may have missed the point here, but I was under the impression that the purpose of an LEA was to provide a quality education service. It is illogical, bordering on the perverse, to suggest that an excellent LEA can have sub-standard schools. It is a bit like Michelin awarding two stars to a restaurant that serves inedible food. The decor may be alluring, the waiters bursting with discreet bonhomie, but this counts for nothing if the only fare on offer is a bucket load of salmonella-sodden spam.

In reality, all that Ofsted's latest papal bull has done is to confirm what we already knew: that LEAs have little impact on school performance.

But this raises a more fundamental issue. What is an LEA for if there is so little correlation between its own performance and that of its schools? If an LEA is unable to deliver on its primary function, what purpose does it serve? The fact is LEAs have become irrelevant. They have been squeezed out of the equation like an engorged pimple by the counter-pressures of increased delegation to schools and increased central government direction. They may provide a veneer of local democratic accountability but this is fast being exposed for the myth it always has been. There are plenty of ways of making services accountable without directly managing them.

This simple truth appears to have been entirely lost on the local government self-preservation society, who are still defending the realm with a Canute-like resolve. At the vanguard of this municipal Dad's Army is the Local Government Association. This august body is in a difficult position as its sole purpose in life is to defend local government as we know it. But acting as a shop steward for the status quo will cut little ice with a government that interprets each whinge as further evidence that the dark forces of conservatism are thriving in the public sector.

The LGA should stop making a virtue out of occupying the moral low ground and defending an empire with as much relevance as Atlantis. The real debate is about the future of education, not the preservation of local government.

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