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School system must lead on localism

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The development, management and funding of children’s services is deeply embedded in decisions taken locally by people on behalf of their own communities, latterly through local government and the ballot box.

Children’s social care stems from the early 17th-century poor laws through which the national government (as it then was) was seeking a local solution to a major problem in order to metaphorically wash its hands of the matter.

The school system arose in the 19th century out of a need to promote national wellbeing and economic competitiveness. However, in order to establish a school system for all children, local initiative was required, first through freestanding local bodies but subsequently through local government.

Working out what localism means today for children’s services is not easy.

Is the case for localism lost when the education secretary can condemn a decision made by a local authority as “the wrong decision made in the wrong way for the wrong reasons” before launching an investigation to find out what is going on?

A few years ago, when a school was found to be failing in a local authority which was soon to be abolished under local government reorganisation, the education secretary refused to intervene on the grounds that the local authority was responsible and had to get on with sorting the school out.

There were two interesting examples in a recent LGC news round-up.

One concerned a local authority that was determined to set its mark on its school system by deciding to expand schools rather than build new schools. This was despite the fact that it had money provided by developers.

The authority did not want to be told by central government what sort of schools should be built.

The other was a call by a thinktank for ‘local’ schools commissioners under the ‘direction of central government’.

I know which sort of localism I prefer - one where locally elected people decide rather than one where local people are directed from Whitehall.

Will the Department for Education lead a debate in 2013 about what sort of localism we should have? I hope so.

John Fowler, policy manager, Local Government Information Unit

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