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The Chief Education Officer: the real master of local educational provision?
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The Chief Education Officer: the real master of local educational provision?
Derek Gillard
March 1987

copyright Derek Gillard 1987
This article is my copyright. You are welcome to download it and print it for your own personal use, or for use in a school or other educational establishment, provided my name as the author is attached. But you may not publish it, upload it onto any other website, or sell it, without my permission.

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Gillard D (1987) The Chief Education Officer: the real master of local educational provision?

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ABSTRACT It used to be claimed that the real master of local educational provision was the Chief Education Officer. In this article I assess the extent to which this had been true and examine how the many changes in educational administration during the 1970s and 80s had affected the role of the CEO.

Chief Education Officers (CEOs) in one form or another go back a long way. The old school boards had clerks but the new local education authorities (LEAs) created by the 1902 Education Act soon began to appoint men who had had experience as head masters.

Men such as WA Brockington in Leicestershire and Percival Sharp in Newcastle and Sheffield had, by the 1920s, firmly established the importance and influence of the office variously designated Director of Education, Chief Education Officer or simply Education Officer (Brooksbank and Ackstine 1984:23).
The 1921 Education Act gave LEAs general powers to appoint appropriate officers but the first specific reference in law was in Section 88 of the 1944 Education Act which required each LEA to appoint 'a fit person' to be its CEO. The 1972 Local Government Act removed the power of the Secretary of State to veto local appointments.

There is wide scope for differences of style and personality within the post but generally a CEO

  • is principal adviser to the Council as LEA, usually through sub-committees, being in touch with major educational developments locally and nationally;
  • must implement, with care and accuracy, the decisions and policies of the authority as expressed in meetings of the Council and Education Committee. He will interpret individual circumstances and will need skills of management and administration. He must 'never in public be critical of, or unenthusiastic about, the decisions of the Council' (Brooksbank and Ackstine 1984:24).
The post is thus both educational and managerial.

He will typically serve - sometimes as an individual and sometimes as representative of his LEA - on various committees, training and other boards, and will be asked to speak at conferences and courses.

He is thus a manager, an educational leader and a member of a top management team who needs political and diplomatic skills. The post is mandatory and he will usually have under his control one or more deputies, various assistant education officers and professional assistants and a local advisory team or inspectorate. He will give technical and administrative support to the LEA as a whole, not just to the education department. Most CEOs have some teaching experience.

On the face of it therefore, CEOs have traditionally had considerable opportunities for exercising power, especially in education policy making. Even as late as the 1970s this was still clearly the case. Peter Ribbins, for example, writing about secondary reorganisation, says:

In most of the case studies a report presented by the CEO is identified as forming the basis for the authority's final decision as to the form of reorganisation to be adopted ... in some cases the identification of the plan with the CEO was so great that it was even named after him as with the 'Peter Plan' in Darlington, where the Conservatives grumbled that the plan was 'the view of one man and one man alone' (Ribbins 1985:164).
Even where members or others took the public initiative in drawing up a plan, 'the CEO still normally played an active part in determining the outcome' (Ribbins 1985:164).

There are occasions when CEOs lose the initiative and have to produce plans for policies they would not themselves put forward, as in Middlesex and Gateshead. But, says Ribbins, 'even in Gateshead the naming of the scheme after the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Education Committee (the "Luxton-Wheatley Plan") disguised the significance of the part played by the CEO' (Ribbins 1985:164). Other CEOs had to produce a variety of plans and some had their plans rejected altogether (Croydon and Devon, for example) but these were clearly exceptional.

The CEO has been thought of as the real policy maker because

having at his disposal substantial sources of information and administrative experience, he also mediates between his authority and the DES [Department of Education and Science] and with local interest groups ... Most requests, regulations and data are channelled through him [and] inherent in [this] position of information gatekeeper is the potential not only to control the flow of information to members but also to collect, combine and reformulate it. He has the necessary resources to formulate policies in detail and assess their feasibility (James 1980:102-3 quoted in Ribbins 1985:165).
In addition, the CEO's power sprang from his awareness of the shortcomings in the existing system, of trends in educational thinking and of the need to introduce changes to deal with deficiencies in existing policy.

Up to the 1970s, therefore, many CEOs 'seem to have exercised considerable influence over policy' (Shipman 1984:49). Men such as Sir Alec Clegg in the old West Riding of Yorkshire spring to mind here, though there was considerable variety. Ribbins, for example, describes how, during the process of reorganisation, the CEO of Birmingham was described as 'keeping a low profile' and 'faithfully reflecting changes in majority party opinion'. He was even described as 'a spectator' (Ribbins 1985:165).

Certainly it was clear during the 1960s and 70s - and is becoming more so - that members of an education committee are likely to play a more active role where 'innovations under consideration either require significant additional resources or are regarded as politically sensitive' (Ribbins 1985:165).

Various writers (James, Saran, Parkinson, Geen) have documented the processes by which administrators

have tended to lose control over policy making when faced with disciplined parties with clear ideas about what they wish to do ... the growth of disciplined party political control in local government over the past ten to fifteen years has tended to diminish the ability of officers to exercise the kind of influence over LEA policy making that they were apparently able to exert in the past (Ribbins 1985:165).
In 1977 Neve 'found little evidence ... that officers see themselves as dominant modifiers of the process of policy making in education, particularly in highly politicised urban authorities' (Ribbins 1985:166). Rather, they saw themselves as facilitating, creating coalitions, negotiating and reconciling. Ribbins suggests that this is hardly surprising: 'civil servants of all kinds have long been adept at pleading how powerless they are' (Ribbins 1985:166).

Declining influence

How and why, then, has the picture changed since the 1970s? For most writers claim that it has. Shipman, for example, says that the influence of CEOs 'was probably curtailed in the 1970s' (Shipman 1984:49).

First, local government reorganisation 'brought the CEO into a corporate management team under the Chief Executive of the authority. The power of the CEO was probably reduced' (Shipman 1984:49). The most extreme result of this process was the resignation of Williams as CEO of Avon in 1976. He claimed that 'the management of the education service is fragmented between so many committees and administrative departments of the council that there is no united or effective direction of it' (Bush and Kogan 1982:31).

The declining influence of CEOs has also been blamed on 'a renewed surge of pressure group activity arising out of the consequences of falling rolls and the implications of the Education Act 1980 on admission policies and appeals' (Bush and Kogan 1982:48), 'reaction to financial retrenchment' (Bush and Kogan 1982:49), and 'reduced certainty about the place of education as a force for good' (Bush and Kogan 1982:4).

In addition, Shipman notes that 'since reorganisation in 1974 party political control seems to have increased ... In all LEAs the final masters are the politicians and they are elected to take decisions. There should be no surprise if they act politically in order to exercise power' (Shipman 1984:49).

It is this politicisation of education which, in my view, is at the heart of the changing fortunes of the CEO. The policies of Margaret Thatcher's right-wing central government conflict with the aims and philosophies of local authorities whom some describe as the 'loony left'. The CEO is caught in the middle and often finds himself in an almost impossible situation.

In Ealing in 1986, for example, the Conservatives lost control of the local authority to Labour. Prior to the local election head teachers in the borough had been told very firmly by the CEO that they were to implement annual testing of all children in English, maths and verbal reasoning. After the election all this was swept away and the formulation and implementation of anti-racist and anti-sexist policies became the priorities. It is not difficult to feel some sympathy for a CEO who has to appear to support and promote such radically different policies at the flick of the electoral switch.

Bush and Kogan (1982:4) describe the 1970s as 'a decade of turbulence for education'. They cite:

  • rising rolls and increasing resources giving way to falling rolls and cutbacks;
  • middle class support for, and involvement in, education changing to anxious concern;
  • the expansion in Higher Education being overtaken by reductions in provision as a result of government policy (Bush and Kogan 1982:4).
Other factors include
  • the structural changes brought about by the Local Government Act of 1972 (one third of CEO posts disappeared);
  • the development of corporate management structures;
  • the review of the role of the DES by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (1975) and the House of Commons Expenditure Committee (HCEC) (Fookes Committee 1976);
  • the strengthening of the role of HMI (especially after Callaghan's Ruskin Speech);
  • changing relations between local and national government;
  • changing relations between LEAs and the institutions under their control, especially in the light of the William Tyndale affair;
  • the increasing power of governing bodies (Taylor Report 1977, 1986 Act);
  • greater activity of pressure groups;
  • greater union activity; and
  • growing unemployment and increasing concern about the relationship between education and working life leading to curricular changes like the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI) and the rise of the Manpower Services Commission (MSC).
The CEO has been at the heart of many of these developments. 'In the past it could be assumed that CEOs were among the main agents of change. In the period that we describe he emerges at least as much as the recipient as the promoter of the main changes' (Bush and Kogan 1982:6).

Before 1970 events displayed 'how officers strongly affect the determination of policy' but by the end of the 1970s 'major changes have occurred' (Bush and Kogan 1982:33).

Again, Bush and Kogan make the point that these changes are essentially political, especially the role of the party group in policy making. A southern CEO is quoted as saying:

All major educational decisions are taken by the controlling group in caucus and then ratified by the education committee in the council ... it is now necessary for the CEO to persuade the controlling group, meeting privately, before he can obtain a decision from the education committee, meeting publicly (Bush and Kogan 1982:33-34).
The greater power of party caucuses and the tendency in many areas for more decisions to be taken at the political level increases the importance of the CEO's relationship with members, especially the Chair of the Education Committee.

It is clear, then, that since the 1970s the CEO's influence has been declining for a variety of reasons - often economic, mainly political.

Where does the CEO go from here? In my view the process I have described has only just begun. The LEAs - and therefore their CEOs - are under attack from central government. Philip Merridale argues in a recent issue of The Times Educational Supplement (20 February 1987) that the government believes that 'the simplest way to still the conflict is to remove one of the combatants'. He suggests that some of the radical right's ideas (teachers paid by central government, schools self-run in an open market, the 'nationalisation' of Higher Education) will leave LEAs with a very reduced role to play. Already the 1986 Acts have reduced the powers of the LEAs in relation to, for example, governing bodies and curriculum responsibility.

However, local initiatives continue, at least for the present, and two CEOs at least (Brighouse and Hainsworth) believe that 'partnership, with LEAs leading local professionals and listening to local communities, is the only viable system' (Shipman 1984:52).

As to the future of the LEA and its CEO, only time and the forthcoming general election will tell.


Brooksbank K and Ackstine AE (1984) Educational administration Harlow: Councils and Education Press

Bush T and Kogan M (1982) Directors of education London: George Allen and Unwin

James PH (1980) The reorganisation of secondary education Windsor: NFER

Neve B (1977) 'Bureaucracy and politics in local government: the role of LEA officers' Public Administration Autumn

Ribbins P (1985) 'Comprehensive secondary reorganisation: a case of local authority policy making?' in M Hughes, P Ribbins and H Thomas (eds) (1985) Managing education: the system and the institution London: Holt, Rinehart and Winston 148-176

Shipman M (1984) Education as a public service London: Harper and Row

This article is a modified version of an essay submitted in March 1987 as part of my Diploma in Education course at the University of London Institute of Education.