THE love-hate relationship between schools and local education authorities has been thrown into sharp relief by an Audit Commission report.
In the first national survey of its type, 7,340 schools gave their opinion of authority services via a secure website. The survey was done last summer but the results were only published earlier this month.
Questioned about local authority functions, ranging from payroll to behaviour support, the schools rated their authority as satisfactory or better in 70 per cent of responses.
The highest ratings go to authority support for government initiatives such as the numeracy and literacy strategies. Poor marks are given for behaviour support, arrangements for children with special educational needs and help with truancy.
Secondary schools were less satisfied than primaries with LEA services. The grant-maintained schools of the Nineties, now largely re-designated as foundation schools, were most likely to be unhappy, prompting the report's authors to comment that: "The legacy of opting out of their authority is apparently still influential."
That is certainly the case at the King Edward Handsworth school for girls in Birmingham, where headteacher Elspeth Insch is positively wistful about the halcyon days of GM. "When we were grant-maintained I didn't miss having an LEA one little bit," she says. "Were the LEA to disappear, on the whole I would not miss it."
Ms Insch has been head of the successful girls' grammar school for 14 years, and witnessed the exodus to grant-maintained status, as Birmingham's secondaries reacted against an administration that was largely regarded as indifferent to the fate of the city's schools.
In the mid-Nineties, Tim Brighouse was brought in to head the authority, with a mission to refocus the city's education service - a task most observers think he achieved with huge success. Ms Insch acknowledges the legacy, but would like to have both hands on the reins.
"I have extremely positive relationships with individual people," she says.
"But I would rather have a sum of money to buy into these services."
Manchester's chief education officer, Mick Waters, aims to follow the Brighouse lead. Waters was Birmingham's senior adviser and moved north in November, just as the Office for Standards in Education was acknowledging that Manchester had become an effective authority. One of his first initiatives was a letter to every Year 11 student on the critical C-D boundary at GCSE. Individually signed, with a personal note, the letters exhort the students to work that little bit harder to achieve success in this summer's exams.
"The most important point about local authorities and schools is that we need to see ourselves working for the same things," he says.
"Schools and authorities are not separate organisations. Our challenge is to persuade schools to see themselves working alongside hospitals, childcare and family services - part of the network serving the local community."
It is a goal that many local authorities would sign up to. The problem is the gap between aspiration and delivery.
One headteacher in a struggling comprehensive on the south coast saw her school come out of special measures this term. But she had little praise for the authority.
"They have supported our deficit budget," she said. "But the extreme social problems that underpin the difficulties this school has faced over the past five years have hardly been addressed by the authority."
The Audit Commission survey revealed wide differences in local authority performance as perceived by heads. Teacher recruitment and retention, payroll, the use of ICT for communication and management, behaviour support - on all of these indicators the survey revealed some authorities to be playing in the premiership, while others were struggling in the amateur league.
Previous Ofsted studies have found the same thing. In September, Ofsted published a summary of findings gleaned from local authority inspections between 1996 and 2001. Of the 150 authorities inspected, 29 gave good or very good support to schools, 80 gave satisfactory support, and 41 gave unsatisfactory or worse support. Of the 18 authorities reinspected after an inadequate performance, 11 had improved, five remained unsatisfactory and two were found to have deteriorated further.
On that evidence and on the trends identified in the Audit Commission survey, local authority improvement is going to be a long-term project.
SEE IT FOR YOURSELF
THE Audit Commission report can be seen in two formats (the full report and a shorter briefing paper) on the commission's website:www.audit-commission.gov.ukschoolsurvey Schools can download the analysis of responses for their particular local education authority. For password details, schools should contact their own LEAs; email: email@example.com