Editorial: Whose hit squad?

This week's inspection report on Calderdale has serious criticisms to make about the local education authority's lack of a convincing strategy on school improvement, as was to be expected given the nature of the crisis at The Ridings school last November which led to its institution. What is far less explicable is the Secretary of State's assumption that the report is so damning in its conclusions that she has to announce a hit squad to sort out the LEA, in advance of legislation - or even plans for any - empowering her to do so. It is also unclear why it should be the schools inspectorate rather then the Department for Education which appoints a team requiring knowledge of how LEAs work, or what its powers might be regarding democratically elected councillors.

What the Bill currently going through Parliament allows for is inspection of LEAs by the Office for Standards in Education, and, until it becomes law, OFSTED teams can only feel their way through pilot exercises by agreement with the relevant authority. Post-Ridings, Calderdale had an invitation it couldn't refuse, and agreed a consultative framework which seems to have been trampled on. As so often of late, OFSTED reports which might otherwise command broad support are given an extra spin of blame at the launch.

Calderdale did not appear to be performing well when it was thrust into the national limelight, and it does not come well out of the report. It does no service to local government, or its role in education, to pretend otherwise. But the questions which then arise are just how bad the situation is, how far it is redeemable, and what external support or pressure is required.

The report nowhere suggests that Calderdale is not fulfilling its statutory functions, so what criteria were used to justify such extreme measures? In its recommendations, the report simply urges the authority to set itself clear objectives to be achieved within the next 12 months, and these mostly relate to the central strictures on the lack of a school improvement strategy: it needs to establish a comprehensive database on pupil performance, for example, and to analyse and distribute relevant comparative information such as OFSTED reports.

One positive message to come out of the report and its official reception is that there is a strategic role for LEAs on school improvement, albeit one to which Calderdale has not yet woken up. There are things they were not doing in support of schools, but which could be done, and were being done elsewhere. The obvious remedy was to call in educational consultants to advise on a strategic action plan in the wake of the OFSTED exercise, and this Calderdale had already done in the shape of former senior HMI, James Learmonth.

Beyond that, the picture which emerges is of a slightly dozy, disorganised authority, rather than a hopeless case. It is one of the smaller metropolitan boroughs, covering a diverse area, and it has alternated between Labour and no overall control for over 20 years, which doesn't help strategic policy making. The inspectors found too many committees, too much unaccountable adhocery, and poor communication between schools and the council, none of which makes it unique.

The LEA also wins praise for its effective support for primary schools and for its introduction of General National Vocational Qualifications. It is noted that it gives a high priority to education and to protecting school budgets, sometimes at the expense of central budgets, which are low by national standards. An interesting observation, given the political rhetoric on delegation and the fact that Calderdale's identified failures rest squarely in central services territory. A strong sense of priorities is called for, and provided by OFSTED's recommendations.

The report is also explicit about a vital structural factor over which the authority has little control, stemming from Government policies on choice and diversity, and that is the hierarchy of grant-maintained, grammar and church schools which, combined with the "flight from Halifax" phenomena, leaves schools like The Ridings as thrice-cream ed secondary moderns at the bottom of the heap. It may need more than determined improvement drives or even a hit squad to tackle that.

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