This article was written by Andrew William Panton, M.A., M.A. (Ed.), Dip.Ed., Dip. Ed. Mgt., in 1994 in order to explain the work of an education officer in local government. At the time Mr. Panton was Deputy Director of Education (School Management, Advice and Support) at Newham London Borough Council. The article was published in Issue No. 2 of "TermTime" (September 1994), the house magazine of TimePlan Educational Services, based at 20/21 Arcadia Avenue, London N3 2JU.
THE WORLD OF THE EDUCATION OFFICER
To the classrooom teacher the role of the education officer in local government is a mysterious one. At the same time education officers have great difficulty in explaining succinctly to anyone what their job actually involves. They do not actually manage or run schools; head teacher do that. Nor do they inspect schools or provide regular advice; inspectors or advisers do that. They do not take the significant policy decisions on behalf of the Local Education Authority; local councillors do that. So what then do education officers do, and why are they always so busy?
It is probably impossible to give any short answer to this question which gives an adequate flavour of an education officer's work. Perhaps the best description is to say that, at the point when difficult judgements have to be made about resource allocations and the arrangements for pupils in our schools, education officers 'operate' at the interface between the expectations of a public and business-minded world and those of a costly and professional service to ensure that the decisions taken by each local education authority achieve the best possible fit between its financial and legal constraints and its aspirations for a high quality service to the children of its residents.
In performing this role, it is not always easy to make many friends. The feelings towards an education officer may resemble those of a soldier in the front line for someone who has been posted to an apparently secure head quarters to the rear of the battle line. To continue with the military analogy, the main question which teachers will ask about education officers is whether they have had sufficient battle experience to sort things out for they colleagues remaining at the 'chalkface'. At the same time, an education officer may be viewed with some suspicion by officers in other council departments as someone with expensive and unrealistic notions about the development of a service which already consumes over half of the resources of a local authority, when they may be looking for economies in education spending to finance improvements in other areas of the Council's services.
In practice, the work of an education officer is fraught with contradictions and tensions which can never be conveniently resolved. Education officers have to oscillate between the local government and office environment with its increasing emphasis on business management techniques and a somewhat different professional culture in schools. They have to manage the tensions between the demands of central and local government, which may well be pulling them in different directions in terms of both policy implementation and workload priorities. They have to cope with the ambiguities of a service which is encumbered by a welter of regulatory controls and yet demands an approach which puts individuals first at all times, and which requires professional expertise of the highest order but where the principle of lay control is firmly established.
To navigate oneself through such apparently conflicting expectations requires both integrity and adroitness. Yet, in any area of work, the administrative function does not bring easy opportunities for the receipt of thanks and praise. If things are running smoothly, it is unobtrusive and may therefore be taken for granted; it tends to become noticeable only when mistakes have been made, or where unpopular policies are being implemented. For these reasons the education officer in local government has to be largely self-motivated, both by a commitment to the aspirations of the Education Service and the knowledge of a job well done.
An essential aspect to the nature of the work is its local context. Despite the centralising tendencies of recent legislation in the educational field, the need for local accountability is plain if a greater degree of public support for the aims and requirements of the Education Service is to be achieved. A local education authority does provide the necessary democratic focus around which such support can be maintained and developed. This is why education officers in all areas of the country accept as vital the local context of their work. At the same time the local context provides that alluring combination of the strategic and the immediate which gives the job its particular appeal.
Some eighteen years later, it is sad to reflect that the stress on the importance of a local perspective in the management of the public education service, which I emphasised in the final paragraph of the article above, has not been understood or accepted by successive governments, whatever their party stripe, or indeed by the Civil Service. Indeed, the centralisation of the Service, initiated by the so-called Education Reform Act of 1988, has proceeded relentlessly since that date to the evident detriment both of the quality of state education and of its cost.