Over the past year and a bit, the Office for Standards in Education has conducted pilot reviews of five local education authorities - with their agreement- in preparation for the new statutory power to inspect LEAs. This was granted by the Education Act 1997, and the full programme of inspections is due to begin in January 1998.
The framework for inspection of LEAs is currently being revised - after consultation - and inspectors will be carrying out two further pilots in the autumn term. In each case - as with the five authorities already reviewed - HM Inspectorate will focus on the LEA's success in achieving its own priorities for school improvement.
What, you may ask, would persuade otherwise apparently sane organisations to submit themselves to the rigours of inspection by HMI - usually working side by side with assessors from District Audit or the Audit Commission? Certainly not, for the most part, any great love of OFSTED. But what these authorities do share with the inspectors is a commitment to accountability, and a feeling that it is not tolerable for schools to be inspected where the LEAs are immune from scrutiny.
Above all, they agree with OFSTED that the central question (though not the only one) to be asked of local education authorities is: how much difference do they make? How much does their activity contribute to raising standards and quality in their schools? Until this question can be answered with some conviction and cogency, the existence of LEAs is likely to be called into question.
A recent article on this page, written by James Learmonth ("No point in muddying the waters further", TES, May 30), argued that OFSTED needed to clarify some aspects of its methodology, and improve others. It would be surprising if that were not true. In essence, this is what a pilot is for. In particular, we need to set out in more detail what we mean by the improvement of schools and how we trace the contribution of the LEA.
We shall be doing just this in the revised framework for inspection, due to be issued later this term. This is not the place to set out the process in full; it is sufficient here to say that it depends on establishing a baseline of the standards achieved in schools, which is becoming increasingly possible as the current school inspection cycle proceeds.
The next step is to trace change from that baseline, using a methodology at the heart of which is the judgment of inspectors, made at the chalkface, and bringing to bear a wealth of experience in schools and local authorities. This process will be reinforced by the financial and organisational expertise of the Audit Commission.
This has been called an "input-output" model, a description that is as misleading as it is inelegant. OFSTED is not merely interested in correlations but in the causal processes involved; in asking why, for example, the schools in one LEA perform significantly better (or worse) than those in other, apparently similar, authorities.
It is hard to see how such investigations can be other than beneficial. A spokesman for the LEA associations has been quoted as saying that authorities "have nothing to fear from inspection by OFSTED or the Audit Commission".
It would be more to the point to say that they have a great deal to fear from the absence of inspection. An organisation is inevitably vulnerable when the cost of its activity is demonstrable - but its effectiveness is not.
OFSTED has no prejudice against LEAs, as the reports issued so far amply demonstrate. Nor is it seeking to undermine local democracy. Just the reverse. The reports are made to the education committee. Accountability is reinforced, not undermined, where the appropriate political authority has the benefit of a detailed, rigorous, objective evaluation.
The reviews which have been conducted so far have depended on the full co-operation of the LEAs involved. All inspection does. Local education authorities, in particular, are such complex organisations that to inspect them without their co-operation would require not just statutory powers but cosmic powers (which the chief inspector has not yet acquired).
HMI will continue to need to negotiate with the LEAs over the focus of the inspection and identification of schools which can be visited to discuss the service they receive from the LEA. It will remain essential to have a senior officer of the LEA in close touch with the inspection team.
I hesitate to call this a "partnership" (pace James Learmonth), unless that notion can be understood not to exclude hard words (on both sides) where necessary - as well as generous recognition of strengths.
OFSTED does not pretend to know the best way to run an LEA; they approach their task in a variety of ways. So they should, because they work in a large variety of contexts, and pursue varying aspirations. However, the reviews undertaken so far do indicate some general features which lead to effectiveness.
First, LEAs need clearly to define and communicate their approach to school improvement, to set out the action and resources needed, and to evaluate their success. Self-evidently, they need to know the schools, and provide detailed information to them - not least on their performance.
They need to support school management - not to engender a futile dependency, but to promote the capability of schools to improve themselves.
They need to ensure that schools have access to expert, cost-effective services, and that pupils and parents, too, have proper support where needed. They need to lead collective action to resolve common problems.
Finally, they need to give special attention to schools whose performance is unacceptable.
There remains much to do. In the next few months, OFSTED expects to announce the list of LEAs to be inspected during the two years from January 1988, to issue the revised framework and to consult over regulations.
That all this is worth doing, there is no doubt. Few would now question that standards in British schools need to be raised. To recognise that is not to bash teachers, but to register a profound cultural change - one of the consequences of which is that we need to expect more of our schools and of those institutions which support them.
I return to my original question: how much difference do LEAs make? We - and they - need to know the answer.
David Singleton, HMI, is head of local authority reviews at the Office for Standards in Education