Collapsing democracy

Under the Education Act of 1944 English state education was based on a partnership between central government who defined the structure, and provided most of the funds through national taxation, and the 140 or so Local Education Authorities (LEA) whose responsibility it was to administer this in the most appropriate way on the ground.  Each school was constituted with a governing body made up of representatives of the Authority, local people, parents, and sometimes pupils.  If you didn’t like your school you complained to County Hall, and you voted to remove the councillor whose views you did not approve.

However wisely parliament legislated ‘the devil, was always in the detail’, which meant that the task of LEAs in balancing the overall needs of their community, with the specific needs of particular schools, was often extremely difficult, if not impossible.

The financial crisis of the late ‘70s resulted in Conservatives becoming determined to restrict public expenditure.  To Margaret Thatcher the most difficult element of public expenditure to control was that of the LEAs with their endless expensive ‘adaptations to local conditions’.  When parliament cut its annual grant to LEAs many responded by raising extra local taxes, whereupon government began to ‘rate cap’ – for every pound raised through extra local taxes, government cut its grant by the same amount.  Determined to further weaken the LEAs, and so extend the control of Whitehall, schools were invited “to opt out” of LEA control (on a vote of the parent body) and receive their funds directly from central government, together with a share of those other monies that would have earlier gone to the LEA to meet specific local needs.  This was an offer too good for well-heeled schools in the suburbs to ignore.  The more schools that opted out the less money was available to help the schools with special problems.

All that started in the early 1980s.  Then Kenneth Baker went further in setting up City Technology Colleges.  With a token donation of two million pounds an industrial sponsor could release ten to fifteen million pounds of government money to build a technology college as a ‘state-funded independent school’, acting totally beyond the control of the LEA within whose community it physically sat as a most obvious enticement to other schools to become wards of Westminster rather than County Hall.  But by 1991 most business leaders realised that, nice as the new buildings looked, the way in which this was extending the control of central government and damaging local democracy, undermined the scheme.  The last to be approved was Kingswood in Bristol on which government spent eight million pounds on a single building, when the entire City was only allowed four and a half million pounds of capital to meet the needs of the other hundred and fifty thousand children.

Time has passed, and memories have faded.  Ten years later a Labour government invented what it called City Academies, meaning an all-ability secondary school funded with a nominal payment from a sponsor, which then attracted a massive additional grant of as much as twenty million pounds from central government.  As with CTCs such Academies were to be totally independent of the LEAs.  In July 2005 Tony Blair announced that his “legacy” would be to establish two hundred City Academies by 2010.

Academies are but part of the story.  So reduced had the powers of the LEA become by 2006 that they were effectively abolished and their responsibilities for administering schools according to the dictates of central government (rather than set by local councillors) were transferred to a Director of Children’s Services which combines education and social services within a single unit.

It’s hard any longer to find the right person at County Hall to whom to complain, while local councillors shrug their shoulders and wait for the next instruction from central government.

See Part Nine and Ten and Action 7 of the Briefing Paper