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The inspectors who promise to help

The Government is underlining the key part councils are expected to play in raising standards. Karen Thornton reports

The Audit Commission is beefing up its local authority inspection team, with the creation of a new associate director post. And it is continuing to press its case for a bigger role in the inspection process, promising education authorities guidance on how they can improve.

Advertisements went out last week for an associate director (with a salary of about pound;50,000) to head a new specialist team at the commission, which will work alongside the Office for Standards in Education.

The postholder will have to be diplomatic, sensitive and win the support of politicians and senior managers, as well as ensure "the quality, integrity and validity of inspection research", the advert says.

Greg Wilkinson, the commission's associate director in charge of education studies, said the inspection process will fail unless it helps authorities improve. The commission's approach - offering guidance, based around authority self-assessment and published performance indicators - differs from OFSTED's more hands-on, judgment-based style of inspection.

"It's not just a question of reaching a judgment on an authority, it is a question of setting up that authority to improve after the inspection is completed," said Mr Wilkinson.

Speaking at a commission conference on the role of authorities, he said the methodology of authority inspections is still evolving, and will change again next year with the introduction of education development plans.

"We are still in the process of working out how our staff and OFSTED staff can work together most effectively," said Mr Wilkinson."We want to combine the best of the Audit Commission's analytical, quantitative, financial and systems-based work with OFSTED's acknowledged expertise in matters of professional judgment on educational issues."

A typical inspection might see both organisations assessing an authority's overall education strategy, but with OFSTED concentrating on curriculum advice and pedagogic matters while the commission tackles finances and budgets.

The pressure to increase authority inspections from 12 to 30 a year could lead to a targeted focus on particular areas of their activity. But the aim would be to ensure all reports were comparable with each other as well as against national data and the performance of similar authorities.

Other speakers included Professor Michael Barber, head of the Department for Education and Employment's standards and effectiveness unit, and David Bell, director of education at Newcastle City Council. Representatives of the Funding Agency for Schools and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority were among the delegates - but not OFSTED.

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