21 MARCH 1969, Page 9

Beware Gargantua


Victor Clark is Chief Education Officer for the East Riding of Yorkshire.

Recently the distinguished clerk of the council for one of England's biggest counties advocated that his and all the neighbouring counties and county boroughs should be amalgamated into one local government unit with a population between four and five millions. if that pros- pect materialised 1 think I could find an appro- priate name for it—Gargantua.

I am primarily concerned with the educa- tional implications of this kind of proposal, having administered education for thirty-three years, twenty-eight of them as a chief educa- tion officer. Pending the report of the Royal Commission on Local Government, such views as I may express about education in the con- text of gargantuan units of local government, be they Greater Yorkshire, shotgun weddings of, say, Kent, Surrey and Sussex, or, worse still, contrived city regions in which the rural interest would be sacrificed to urban chicanery, may be off-beam. But I think they are worth airing at this stage because, when that promised (ffireatdned?) report does appear, it will pro- voke arguments and rows of high impor- tance.

It is, of course, tempting to be enticed by the idea of one big, efficient, all-embracing, tidy local education authority in place of several. Far the administration of education is a mixed- up, untidy business and some of the present arrangements need to be reappraised and rationalised. But those who prefer streamlining under the guise of efficiency need to remember that uniformity can sometimes be inimical 'to freedom.

I have little doubt that huge units of edu- cational administration, headed by fuhrers called chief education officers, housed in mag- nificent headquarters, assisted by corippters and with closed-circuit television to keep an eye oq distant schools, might in terms of managerial competence be regarded as highly efficient. True, the super chief education officer might, like the late Lord Lugard, be a remark- able administrator fostering freedom through indirect_ rule. Conversely, the damage that can be done by one crank with crackpot ideas is less extensive when he works in a somewhat smaller area.

It is argued also that, as compared with the existing units (although here I must say that, in my opinion, some of these are too small and too close to the parish pump), larger areas such as a One Yorkshire Education Authority could be less expensive in administration than the present set-up. Let these two _aspects of efficiency and expense be examined.

Fortunately, perhaps, for some of us who work in education offices or in schools, the criteria of efficiency are not easily ascertain- able and are certainly debatable. For example, what yardstick can be used to measure the qualities of courtesy, compassion, concern for others, loving care in the execution of a task and those other less tangible virtues without which society is more sour than sweet?

Yet there are certain more objective criteria, subject to the sort of statistical analysis wnch might appeal to the pundits of local govern- ment reform,, and some people use two such. One is the proportion of the population which proceeds from schools to universities and other colleges of higher education. The other is the percentage of children who voluntarily stay on at school well beyond the legal minimum leav- ing age. The first is said to be a yardstick for judging the academic side of education; the second an indication of consumer satis- faction. Let me declare that I myself would never regard these as the only objective tests of efficiency in education, and even if they were it would be wrong to ignore social and other factors which help to account for varia- tion in performance and response in one local education authority area as compared with another. But, with this proviso, they are worth looking at.

The Government's own statistics show that, in the area of one of the regional economic councils, the performance of a medium-sized LEA, in both these respects, has been markedly better than that of the region as a whole. Does this statistical evidence suggest that a massive LEA would do its educational job better than a medium-sized one? What advantage would accrue to the children of the medium-sized area if the LEA concerned were swallowed up by one much larger? Would the children get a fairer deal if the schools were administered by an authority twenty times the present size? Unless convincing evidence were produced. to show that they would be better provided for, their transfer from Blankshire to Grosshire would, indeed, be a leap in the dark.

To provide irrefutable answers to questions such as these would need long research. It might not be a bad thing if some such exercise were undertaken by some of the educational researchers who at present occupy themselves with puerile trivia which is of little help to anyone.

However, that observation apart, it would be useful also to have an answer to another question. If the gargantuan unit of local government—at any rate in the context of edu- cation—were, as it is alleged to be, more efficient, how would it stand up to the question of cost? Here, I suggest that economic and sociological researchers, too, might use some of their talents to the public advantage by examining, authority by authority, the com- parative costs of their educational administra- tion in relation to the quality of the service they provide. We might then have some more reliable evidence than at present exists as to the financial realism or otherwise of the hunches of those who advocate massive local govern- ment reform. Even then, such evidence would need to be assessed by educators, because cost and quality do not necessarily match.

Now that the report of the Royal Com- mission is about to descend upon us it is im- perative that we should sharpen our wits and weapons in readiness to engage in the ensuing dialogue. Living as we do in times when over- busy central government tends to make de- cisions at great speed, we must be wary lest the structure of local government be changed by hasty bludgeoning rather than by full con- sultation between those who govern centrally and those who govern locally. An aunt of mine used to say, 'Don't holler before you're hurt.' Sometimes to heed that advice is wise; at other times it is not. Time and the operation of the local government superannuation scheme will enable me one day to speak with perhaps more disinterested prejudice. But, by then, the dam- age may be done.