Inspectors talk down authorities

OFSTED praises progress made by LEAs but admits most can make little difference to standards. Joe Clancy reports

PUPILS in well-run local education authorities do no better than their less well-supported peers, the chief inspector of schools admitted this week.

A report by the Office for Standards in Education said that good performance in schools is related more closely to pupils' backgrounds than to LEA quality.

Chief inspector David Bell said: "Inspection evidence doesn't support the view that pupils' performance is better in well-run education authorities than in others. It is quite unrealistic to expect LEAs to have a major effect on pupils' standards. But it seems, in some people's minds, that there should be such a link."

He said only the best LEAs made a difference to education standards, "particularly where there is a clear focus for improvement such as supporting underperforming schools".

Mr Bell was speaking after the publication of a report by Ofsted and the Audit Commission on LEAs and school improvement between 1996 and 2001.

He said there was "encouraging evidence" of improving standards in LEAs. "Of the first 56 to be inspected, 22 were unsatisfactory overall, but only seven of the last 59 were judged to be unsatisfactory."

But the report said it was the nature of a school's intake and the quality of teaching that were the biggest influences on standards.

It said: "The fact that education authorities have steadily diminishing control over the use of educational funds makes it more unlikely that they can have a major effect on standards."

The report praised LEAs for their "very sound job" in delivering many of the Government's initiatives such as the literacy and numeracy strategies and in supporting Excellence in Cities.

But it said they have been less effective in developing strategies to help pupils with special needs into mainstream schools and in supporting vulnerable children.

The report pointed out: "The days when an LEA could create a mould for its schools, if they ever existed, are now gone.

"Education authorities are generally now very comfortable with the principle that schools are autonomous bodies. They recognise that their role is to support and challenge the school, and leave it to manage its own development if performing well."

The report covered the first round of inspections of England's 150 LEAs.

It revealed that the quality of education authorities varies widely. Of the 150 inspected, 29 gave good or very good support to schools, 80 gave satisfactory support and 41 gave support which was unsatisfactory or worse.

Most of the unsatisfactory authorities which were reinspected made progress in a relatively short time, though two, Sandwell in the West Midlands and Southwark in London, deteriorated further (see below).

KEY FINDINGS ABOUT LEAs

The OfstedAudit Commission report identifies improvements in LEAs. It says they:

* now often have senior officers with experience and vision

* are more focused in their support for schools

* have become more sophisticated in their action planning

* are backed by elected members who see education as a priority

* have a better definition of their own role The reports also outlines areas for improvement. It says LEAs:

* lack expertise in school improvement

* are reluctant to encourage schools to get best value for services

* have poor systems for statementing special needs pupils

* are ineffective in meeting the complex needs of vulnerable pupils

* are over-cautious in their approach to self-evaluation

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