My new school is in a different local authority to my previous school, and since taking up my post I have met with a wide range of LA representatives to introduce myself and to get an understanding of the way that we can work together in areas such as finance, personnel, premises and extended servicesBy Ruth Bradbury

As someone who prefers (and expects) a reasonable degree of autonomy, both for myself and my school, I have sometimes been frustrated by what appear to be assumptions on the part of a few LA colleagues that it is they who ‘set the rules’ and the schools that have to follow them. I have had a fair number of lively conversations with people who have told me initially that I ‘have to’ do things in a particular way – using Property Services for all building projects and adopting generic LA job descriptions for all support staff posts are just two examples. Firstly, I know that under delegated budgets I certainly do not ‘have to’ do any of those things and – when pressed – the LA representatives have conceded that this is the case. Secondly, it seems illogical to me that a school would go to the trouble of employing someone with my background and then not really give the new appointee the freedom to use their skills and experience creatively.

The good and bad side of local authorities

This issue is, of course, not unique to my new school and local authority. I experienced similar frustrations in my previous role, and I suspect that many colleagues across the country have too. On the other hand, I am sure that those same colleagues – like me – have also been hugely impressed by many LA staff, and have been offered and given significant levels of support in some areas without any suggestion that that they are being dictated to. There is no doubt at all that, at their best, local authorities and their staff can be powerful allies and enablers and a rich source of knowledge. At their worst, however, they can perform exactly the opposite role, putting up barriers and insisting on stifling and frustrating procedures and regulations. This contrast in approaches seems to me to reflect in many ways the transition in the last couple of decades from overall local authority management control of schools to delegated funding and internal management. There are long-serving LA staff who still adhere to the ‘before’ model, believing that consultation with schools is simply a matter of courtesy rather than a requirement, and that the authority is still the organisation that calls the shots. On the other hand, those who subscribe to the ‘after’ version will go out of their way to reinforce the role of the LA as provider and the school as client, and will apply principles of customer service which create a positive and effective working relationship for the benefit of all concerned.

Autonomy is not isolation

Although it may be frustrating, I do have some sympathy with the former die-hard group of officers. While I may like to think that my school has full control and autonomy, there is no getting away from the fact that the local authority is still ultimately accountable for the performance of all of its schools and departments. Especially in the case of community schools, it has a duty to ensure that premises are safe and maintained appropriately, that finances are controlled and managed and that staff are treated reasonably and equitably. The LA has many senior staff with a great deal of expertise in these areas who must tear their hair out when confronted by a headteacher, or even someone like me, who wants to create the post of director of beverage management – which, they claim, is going to be funded by income from the future sales of baby chicks bred by Year 7 in a home-made incubator under the canteen! There are senior staff in schools with unrealistic expectations and a willingness to override protocols, and the consequences of that could be damaging for both the school and the authority. Schools must realise that with self-management comes responsibility, and that the local authority has no choice but to perform a monitoring and guiding role. In addition, there needs to be a recognition in schools that autonomy is not the same thing as isolation. To do the best for the young people in our care, and for the local community, we need to have a local and national overview which involves sharing best practice and working in partnership with other schools to create coherent provision – something of which the local authority has much experience and expertise.

Schools tend to know best

At the same time, however, I firmly believe that in most instances the people within a school are those who are best placed to determine how it is managed. A manager at county hall may have a wealth of generic knowledge and skill, but they will not understand the particular circumstances and needs of your school, your staff and your students. As the people who are there all day every day, and who are paid a decent amount of money for it, the school leadership team will nearly always know best what is needed and will have a fair idea of how to achieve it.

There is no perfect solution, of course. The nature of the relationship between schools and local authorities is such that there will always be a degree of conflict and various gaps in understanding on both sides. Nevertheless, there is no doubt in my mind that the only way forward is for the staff of each organisation to acknowledge the strengths, skills and responsibilities of the other and themselves, and for them to work on a professional, consultative and equal basis to ensure that the school provides the very best for the real ‘customers’ – the students and the community that it serves.