The publication of OFSTED's framework for inspection of local education authorities prepares the way for the new powers proposed for it in the Education Bill, now at committee stage, writes Josephine Gardiner.
Councils have until January 15 to comment on the plans. The Bill also gives the Chief Inspector the power to ask the Audit Commission to help with an LEA inspection.
OFSTED proposes to inspect 12 authorities each year starting in January 1998, and the LEAs will be chosen so as to provide a statistically representative spread of types of council, from deprived inner-city to affluent home county.
"There is no intention of prescribing the way in which LEAs should go about their work," says the document, "different patterns of LEA organisation and activity have evolved in recent years ... therefore the programme will take account not only of the LEA's own particular circumstances but also of its vision, priorities and relationships with its schools."
Concern about the role of local authorities in supporting, or failing to support, schools in trouble was heightened recently by the case of the Ridings school in Halifax. Mrs Shephard attributed a large share of the blame for the collapse of confidence at The Ridings to Calderdale LEA and, pre-empting her own Bill, invited the council to submit to a voluntary inspection. Calderdale agreed the same day, but OFSTED says that it still needs a formal letter from Calderdale before the inspection can go ahead.
All LEAs will be asked to submit an annual verdict on their own performance every March giving a summary of priorities, and OFSTED will then follow up "areas of common interest" with 12 different councils each year. Inspectors will look at the socio-economic context in which the authority operates, educational standards, the LEA's priorities and whether it meets them, how well it discharges statutory responsibilities, and the quality of the support services.
The framework explicitly asks inspectors to judge how well LEAs help schools to deal with bad behaviour, truancy, harassment and bullying.
Failing LEAs, like failing schools, will have to produce an action plan which OFSTED will monitor annually. But unlike failing schools, there is no ultimate sanction, apart from emergency inspections which the Secretary of State will be able to order.
A spokesman for the local authority associations said that councils were happier with the most recent version of the framework now that inspectors would be judging them on how well they fulfil their own objectives while keeping an eye on social context. But, he said, doubts remain about how well OFSTED is equipped to inspect education in the wider context of the LEAs' other services.